In parts of the beautiful Andaman Islands live some endangered species of humankind. It does sound unbelievable, but, the islands are home to about four tribes that depict a picture of the ancestors of the modern mankind that exists today. These four tribes are the Jarawas, the Sentinalese, the Onge and the Great Andanamese. What’s striking here is that the people who belong to these groups are far from civilization, and according to some scientists, they could be a vital link to identifying the evolution of the modern world. These people resemble the African Pygmies and some theories suggest that they might be one of the first migrant groups of humans from Africa. In the article that I write today, I intend to talk about the Jarawas because this tribe is greatly under the danger of extinction in the present day and we need to protect them, to save humans who have meat and bones like us and yet are very different from anyone we’ve ever seen.
The Jarawas have been entirely isolated for more than 40,000 years. They live on the western side of the mainland and until recent times, were very infrequently visited by anyone, that explains for their lack of the external cultural influences. They are hunter gatherers, do not practice agriculture, wear no clothes and have curly hair. Today, about 400 Jarawas remain, and keeping in mind the current situation, they might be smeared off from the surface of the earth before long. They are sometimes called the darkest of the dark people and the specifics of their society, culture and tradition are scantily grasped by the outside world because of their largely shunned interactions with anybody exterior to their own clan.
In 1997, some Jarawas started coming out of their native lands to visit the nearby settlements. A large number of them contracted measles in 1999 and then again in 2006 following contact with the outsiders. Fortunately, none of them died of the epidemic but in the 19th century, this disease is said to have killed more than half of the Great Andamanese eventually reducing their number to 41. Aren’t you wondering what really instigated these outside influences? It’s the construction of the Great Andaman Trunk Road (GATR) through their newer western forest homeland that took place in the 1970s. The building of this highway had made the Jarawas quite annoyed resulting in prompting them to obstruct the roadwork in a number of ways. However, the road was eventually built and that turns out to be one of the major reasons behind the endangerment of this indigenous tribe. Now, their contact with the outside world is more recurrent and most of the times they are the ones who desire to get in touch with the local public.
As a result of the construction of this road, people got an easy access to the Jarawas’ homeland. There has been poaching, intrusion and commercial abuse of the Jarawas and their land. This incursion into their territory exposed them to the destructive aspects of the modern civilization including tobacco, alcohol, foreign food products and diseases against which they are not immune. Many reports claim that poachers have been continually exploiting the Jarawa women sexually along with hunting the animals which they principally depend on for their food. A great number of tour operators have taken to an additional method of making money by organizing human safaris wherein people are loaded into buses and taken through the Jarawa homelands so that they can observe them and their way of life. Many videos and reports assert that the tourists toss food at these people, ask them to dance and impede in their customary lifestyle.
Due to the detrimental effects of the GATR, a lawsuit was filed with the Calcutta High Court and was further directed to the Supreme Court of India which resulted in a landmark High Court judgement formulating the Jarawa policy with an objective to shield the tribe and curtail their contact with the external world. Besides, the sight-seeing tours mentioned above are unlawful and in March 2008, the local bodies issued statements warning the tour operators of the same. Nevertheless, these rules are being openly defied for many years now under the influence of corruption and gluttony. On 21st January, 2013, a bench of Justices passed an order that banned tourists from taking the GATR which was reversed as a result of a petition filed by the local inhabitants of the islands arguing that this road held vital importance. As an outcome, the court reversed its order on 5th March, 2013 and permitted to reopen the GATR making it fully functional.
Many NGOs like Survival International, Kalpavriksha etc. along with a number of environmentalists have been taking steps to arouse international interest in the condition of the Jarawas. The local authorities of the Andaman Islands have been highly criticized for not doing as much as necessary to save these people. Perhaps, they are considering the pleas of the inhabitants who clearly outnumber the ancient tribes by thousands and millions but what is significant to recognize right now is that the local populace and the tourists do have an option. They can take the sea route or find out other ways of getting to the other side of the road. The Jarawas do not have an alternative because they are far from the mechanisms of the contemporary world and its tactics. They are secluded; they have a prehistoric world where ideas, knowledge, engineering and choices do not exist. However, we are responsible to fight for their continuation and to rescue those who preserve our past, in some way or the other. The Grand Trunk Road is said to be a boon for the settlers but it is a bane to the Jarawas. Have you been to an animal safari where you gaze at animals, throw them food, laugh at them and take pictures? Just swap these animals with an ethnic group that may soon deplete; people all meat and bones with a heart like you and I: Human Beings!
If you want to help the Jarawas, please sign one of the ongoing petitions which aim at their welfare or click here to write a letter to the Indian Government via Survival International.
References: BBC News, BBC History Essentials, The Observer, Survival International, The Hindu, The Times of India, Wikipedia, Kalpavriksha, etc.