In the name of the Jarawa

By Pankaj Sekhsaria

While seminars, expert committees and recommendations deliberate the fate of the Jarawas, the 260 original inhabitants of the Andaman rainforests live vulnerable and threatened lives.

 In July 2001, the Port Blair Circuit Bench of the Kolkata High Court ordered the appointment of an expert committee to investigate the plight of the Jarawa community on the Andaman Islands, and prepare a policy for their future. The court also ordered that the report be widely publicised and made available to whoever was interested in the issue. It went on to say: “The central government shall arrange seminars and open discussions of the different experts…., anthropologists, sociologists and others, as also individuals and non-governmental organisations having knowledge and experience in the matter, inviting them by issuing public notification in widely circulated newspapers and sending them letters of invitation.” These inputs were to be used to formulate the policy.

The significance of the matter lies in the unique situation the Jarawa community finds itself in. This is a very small community of about 260-odd individuals who, today, lead extremely vulnerable and threatened lives. The Jarawa have lived and flourished in the rainforests of the Andamans for thousands of years. But a rapid and complex set of developments over the past few years have put them at great risk. Some even believe it might have opened the door to extinction.

The seminar in question came out of a very important writ petition filed in court in 1999 by Shyamali Ganguly, a Port Blair-based lawyer. Intervention by the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology added a new dimension to the case which eventually led to the formation of the expert committee. Interestingly, there is a legal process regarding the islands going on in parallel in the Supreme Court -- the Godavarman (Forest) case. While the matter in the apex court is more general in nature, significant parts of its May 2002 order are in fact related to the Jarawa and their forests.

The final report of the high court committee was submitted to the court in July 2003 (see While there were problems with the committee’s workings, and disagreements on various aspects among its members, the report did bring to light some fascinating and new information about the Jarawa, their lives and their forest home.

It was based on this report that the first of the high court-ordered seminars was held in Kolkata on April 7 and 8, 2004. What transpired at the seminar was, however, rather unfortunate and nowhere near the detailed, serious, open and fair discussions and debate that the court wanted. The Union Ministry for Home Affairs (MHA), responsible for the seminar, sat on the entire thing till the very end. At the last minute, they dumped it in the lap of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MTA).

One would have expected that, in Kolkata, there would be no better institution than the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) to organise the seminar. Particularly so as the ASI has its headquarters in this city and, importantly, a number of its own anthropologists have worked in the Andamans. Strangely though, the responsibility for organising the seminar was given to a little-known arm of the West Bengal government -- the Cultural Research Institute. The court had stipulated that the seminars be attended by national and international experts, anthropologists, sociologists and representatives from NGOs. Little of this was visible in the final list of invitees prepared by the MTA. After having waited for almost nine months to organise the seminar, the powers-that-be finally gave the invitees 10 days’ notice to attend. And that was not all.

The court had asked that the seminar be advertised through public notices in widely-read newspapers. Instead, the organisers issued a small advertisement about the seminar in the Kolkata edition of The Statesman on March 31. Opinions and responses to the expert committee report, and other issues related to the Jarawa, were to reach within 48 hours; no later than April 2.

Even those willing to participate in the seminar at their own cost were denied permission. A representative from the London-based tribal rights group, Survival International, who happened to be in India around the time, was categorically told that foreigners would not be allowed to attend. Significantly, in 1999, Survival had put together a list of testimonies from anthropologists and experts from around the world in the matter of the Jarawa; this
was even submitted to the court. The court not only accepted the testimonies, it even quoted from them in the order subsequently passed. If the court had no problem accepting these inputs, and also desired that there be national and international participation in the seminar, what problem could the organiser have had?

The advertisement had no contact phone numbers, in case people were interested in getting more information. Nor did it mention the venue. Large participation was clearly not on the agenda! Or maybe it had to do with the venue -- the five-star Hotel Taj Bengal.

The seminar itself witnessed its own problems. For one, it seemed to have been badly planned – rather, not planned at all. Compounding the issue was the fact that most of the experts invited had not seen the expert committee report they were expected to discuss at the seminar. They had not been sent the report but were asked to access it from the ministry’s website, which was not (and still is not) very easily accessible.

It must be borne in mind that the report, which runs into nearly 500 pages, deals with a complex and delicate matter. Giving such short notice to the seminar’s participants itself precluded the possibility of meaningful discussion or debate. Many participants complained that their requests for a full copy of the report, subsequent to the invitation, were not attended too. As a result, the presentations and discussions meandered without much focus or direction.

The final outcome of the seminar was the formulation of a set of draft policy statements. Parts of it signify a significant step forward. Particularly as, for the first time, the administration was willing to admit that: a) the Jarawa should not be mainstreamed; b)

the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), the official tribal welfare agency of the Andaman and Nicobar administration, was deeply flawed in its structure and functioning and was not the appropriate agency to ensure the welfare of the Jarawa and other indigenous communities on the islands; and c) there was a need to drastically reduce the number of government officials interfacing with the Jarawa.

It was also felt, particularly by a group of NGOs and independent researchers participating in the seminar, that the policy recommendations did not go far enough. This was articulated in a press statement issued at the end of the seminar by a group that included SANE, Kalpavriksh (the NGOs), Madhusree Mukherjee, author of the recent book The Land of the Naked People and Sita Venkateshwar, an anthropologist with the University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Important areas of concern include the refusal to close the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) in those parts that run along or through the forests of the Jarawa Reserve. This, in spite of a Supreme Court order in May 2002 and the widely accepted argument that the ATR has been a critically destructive and undesirable element in the lives and forests of the Jarawa. Concern was also expressed over the refusal to accept the principle of ‘minimum intervention’, as recommended by most anthropologists present at the seminar; rather, to go in for an articulation that asked for ‘measured intervention’.

The ball, in a sense, now moves to the second half of the drama. A second seminar is being held in Port Blair on May 27 and 28. The outcome and final policy recommendations of this seminar could have significant implications for the long-term survival of the Jarawa, one of the most threatened human communities in the world today.

Hopefully, all that is happening in the name of the Jarawa will also result is something meaningfully significant for the Jarawa. Whether that will indeed happen is something only time will tell.

(Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of the environmental action group Kalpavriksh. He is also author of Troubled Islands -- Writings on the indigenous peoples and environment of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. He may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

InfoChange News & Features, May 2004