Rail Connectivity to Open up Tourism Avenues in Andaman’s Jarawa Reserve areas

Srijata Saha Sahoo

As the overland connectivity in Andaman and Nicobar islands is poised to get a boost, with the Ministry of Railways green-signalling plans for construction of a railway line linking Port Blair, the capital of the island chain, with Diglipur, the largest town of North Andaman Island, the tourism avenues especially along the Jarawa reserve areas is going to open up anew and in the context of the jubilating fact that the number of Jarawas presently are on the rise.
Currently, travel within the archipelago is possible only by road and sea. The journey between Port Blair and Diglipur via the 350 km Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) takes nearly 14 hours, while the ferry takes a whole day. By comparison, travel via the proposed 240km broad-gauge railway line will take just three hours. A 240-KM broad-gauge railway line connecting two major islands, with bridges and stations along the coast, will be part of an ambitious rail link connecting Port Blair with Diglipur on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — a first in the country that will bring the archipelago on the rail map. This is in addition to alternate sea route to Baratang Island inaugurated by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Union Minister of Shipping, Road Transport, Highways and Water Resources, River Development & Ganga rejuvenation Shri Nitin Gadkari recently.
The sea route to Baratang will provide an alternative to the National Highways-4 route that linked Baratang to Port Blair, passing through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. This sea route will thus help promote tourism, especially that of Jarwa sighting tourism without disturbing this negrito aborigine, whose life is basically a nomadic one.
And here the statistics provided by Chief Secretary, Andaman and Nicobar Administration, Shri Anindo Majumdar requires to be mentioned. It says, the total number of Jarawas at present is 500. However, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs puts the figure as 380. The A&N Administration has opened various channels of communication with the Jarawas so as to find out their present concerns as well as their future needs within the framework of Government policy, particularly the Jarawa Policy as enumerated in 2004. This has yielded promising results in terms of the communities’ greater confidence in sharing information relating to poaching, encroachment and other forms of abuse they have had to face.   Besides, in order to ensure a rich resource of forest based traditional food like wild pig, turtle, honey and fish etc, the Jarawa reserve area has been increased from 847 to 1028 Sq. kms. Exclusive marine resource base has also been increased by declaring coastal water up to 5 km from High Tide Line as tribal reserve.
As per Government policy the entry into the Jarawa area is forbidden, as seclusion helps to retain their ancient culture, the "isolation" though is under constant threat due to the presence of 'outsiders' in their area. The Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) passing through South Andaman, Baratang and Middle Andaman runs deep within the Jarawa protected area. Daily hundreds of vehicles pass through the road thereby providing opportunities for both Jarawas and outsiders to interact with each other. Initially the travellers gave biscuits, fruits and other eatables to the Jarawas and in return Jarawas allowed them to be photographed (now photography is strictly prohibited). Since 2002 when the Baratang Island limestone caves and the mud volcano were opened for tourists, many tour operators started a practice of selling 'Jarawa Sighting' tour packages too. Andaman and Nicobar police has now set up strict rules and monitoring process while travelling through the Jarawa reserve forest so as to save them from the tourists who offer them food, only to help them lose their immunity.
In this context, the proposed 240 km railway line from Port Blair to Diglipur may in the long run bring these aborigines in the vicinity of the civilized circle, as the railway track will go through the Jarawa reserves, thus wooing them come out from isolation and in the long run invite diseases to head towards extinction . The Union Government and Andaman & Nicobar administration is looking into the matter before the proposed railway route is being fructified.
And here the most cult about topic about once feared tribals among all the aborigines of these Island group gets a new dimension when their population is concerned. The Jarawa population was 468 in 1901, according to estimates quoted by noted anthropologist Sita Venkateswar in her 2004 book, ‘Development And Ethnocide: Colonial Practices In The Andaman Islands’. By 1931, it had plummeted to 70. The numbers have risen in recent decades: owing to strictly-enforced regulations, affirmative government action, and support from local, national and international civil society and tribal rights non-governmental organizations. In this connection the name of the Government physician Dr Ratan Ch Kar must be mentioned. He has penned a book on the health of these aborigines and how they may get abolished due to epidemics ‘The Jarawas of the Andamans’ he has penned down practise many ethno-medical treatments. He has recorded not only the common ailments but also about the outbreak of epidemic like measles and malaria among the Jarawas in the past, which diminished their numbers. The increase of the Jarawa population to 500 (as the Chief Secretary, A & N administration has enumerated), despite ailments and their willingness to be treated in Government hospitals has not encouraged the hospital authorities to start special Jarawa wards but the latter even  have felt enthused to live and increase in number.

The Jarawas have seen regular incursions and invasions into their territory since late 18th century. These interactions with modern civilization peaked after the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), built in the 1970s, cut through the heart of their reserve forests and brought in busloads of refugee settlers. This led to the spread of life-threatening diseases among the small, aboriginal population; a slow, systemic change in their lifestyles; and conflicts with settlers-turned-poachers. Moreover, many Jarawas were killed fighting their aboriginal rivals, the Great Andamanese, as well as the British, who would often use sniffer dogs to hunt them down. One such punitive expedition in 1925 reportedly killed at least 37 Jarawas. The Jarawa-Great Andamanese rivalry, which the British exploited, is centuries old—in the late 1960s, the Great Andamanese were shifted to the tiny Strait Island, where only about 70 of them continue to live (latest figure) and the Jarawa took over many of the sites they vacated.
There was a time when Jarawas were very hostile and were known to attack with poisonous arrows. Every year during 1980s there were numerous reports of villagers and workers been killed by Jarawa arrows. Various expeditions by contact teams consisting of officials of Tribal Welfare and anthropological society were undertaken in past near the interview island, where the team left eatables, red cloth, coconuts and plastic goods as gifts for the Jarawas.
The Jawara is no longer hostile since 1996 after an injured Jawara boy named Enmei was treated at G B Pant Hospital at Port Blair. After the incident they have developed the understanding that the other fair skinned humans are not their enemies. With friendly contacts it was learnt that lots of negative details painted about them in past were untrue - few of them being: they eat human flesh, their sweat and saliva is poisonous etc. The Tribal Welfare Officers of Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS) and Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research Institute (ANTRI) now have introduced informal education system amongst the Jarawa children through bilingual bicultural curriculum.  The AAJVS, looks after all the basic needs like food, health and housing of the Jarawas and thus help them continue their posterity as well as grow in number.
Dr Madhumala Chattopadhyay, Jt Director of National Commission of Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) and the first lady to encounter with the Jarawas and Sentenelese during her tenure as a research scholar (initially a fellow and subsequently research associate) with the Anthropological Survey of Indiareminisced with a positive note as she established a friendly relationship with the Jarawas, especially with the women folk. Professor Vishvajit Pandya, renowned Anthropologist too in his book ‘In the Forest: Visual and Material Worlds of Andamanese History (1858–2006)’ focussed on the roadside “encounters,” with this primitive group of people where trinkets were exchanged and photographs taken, pointed out that such a gesture unexpectedly transformed the Jarawa—from a group previously defined by their historic acts of “violence” against outsiders into a group in need of “compassion” from them. This has even encouraged Jarwa sighting tourism in return.
And now, the time is ripe enough to think positive about not only the tourism aspects about the proposed railway route to Diglipur through the Jarawa sighting areas as well as the measures taken by AAJVS to preserve Jarawa heritage and entity and enhance their population in years to come.

* Media & Communication Officer, Press Information Bureau

Monday, 19 February, 2018