Jarawa Excursions: An Excerpt from Pankaj Sekhsaria’s “Islands in Flux”

26 March 2017

Pankaj Sekhsaria is one of the few journalists to have consistently reported on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, or ANI. For over two decades, he has been writing and reporting on the indigenous tribal communities of the islands, as well as the environmental and conservation concerns in the region. He is also the author of several books on the subject, including Troubled Islands, a collection of essays on the ANI, as well as The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier, a 2010 report by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation on the Jarawas—an ancient tribal community that has resided on the islands for thousands of years.

Islands of Flux is a collection of Sekhsaria’s reports from the ANI. The articles included in the book chronicle the ecological and environmental threats faced by the islands and its original inhabitants, especially due to development- or tourism-oriented interference from the Indian government, which is a relatively new presence in the islands. “If the real and complete history of the islands is ever written, the British would not be more than a page and India could only be a paragraph,” Sekhsaria writes in one of the pieces included in the anthology. In the following excerpt from the book, a report titled “Jarawa Excursions” that was originally published in the magazine Frontline in July 1998, Sekhsaria discusses an unusual occurrence: an excursion by members of the Jarawa community, seemingly to establish contact with the mainland.

In October 1997, settlers in the Middle Andaman Island were witness to an unfamiliar sight: a group of unarmed Jarawas had ventured out of the forest and into modern settlements on the fringes of the forests. This was among the first recorded instances of Jarawas voluntarily seeking to establish contact with the settlers from mainland India. It was particularly puzzling given the fact that Jarawas have for long been hostile towards the settlers. To them they have lost large swathes of their forests, and the tribal people have fiercely defended what is left of their traditional lands.

Over the next few months, there were several more reports of Jarawas coming out of their forests. Some of them, it was reported, were seen to point to their bellies: this was interpreted as an expression of hunger and in the belief that they had run out of their traditional food resources in the forests and were facing starvation, the local administration, led by Lieutenant Governor IP Gupta, arranged for food relief.

Packets containing dry fish, puffed rice and bananas were air-dropped from helicopters into Jarawa territory. The natural resources that the Jarawas have had access to have vastly diminished over time for a number of reasons, including widespread deforestation to accommodate settlers and to feed the flourishing timber industry. Even so, the theory that starvation is driving the Jarawas out of the forests appears to be flawed. They have sustained themselves on forest produce for centuries, and there is no reason to believe that they have suddenly been pushed into starvation. In any case, eyewitnesses say that the Jarawas who were sighted recently appear to be healthy, robust and agile. Moreover, in February and March 1998, no person from the tribal community approached the settlements for extended periods, that is, for more than two weeks. And when they did show up, it was often in small groups of five to ten people.

Pankaj Sekhsaria is a researcher, writer, photographer, campaigner and academic. He has worked extensively in the field of environment and wildlife conservation with a particular focus on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Keywords: preservation conservation environment Andaman and Nicobar Islands indigenous tribe Tribal communities Jarawa tribe