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The Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal are home to six tribal groups: the Nicobarese, the Shompens, the Great Andamanese, Onges, Sentinalese and the Jarawas. These tribals -- with the exception of the Nicobarese -- are on the brink of extinction today. The Jarawa population has dwindled to a measly 250. The 129 kilometre Andaman Trunk Road (atr) tears through the forests, which the islanders inhabit, bringing with it 'mainstream civilisation', tobacco, diseases, death and extinction.
The dwindling number of Andaman islanders do not attract any attention other than an occasional statement of concern from our leaders. In 1980, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi questioned the legality of a road passing through the Jarawa reserve. Later, an Environmental Impact Assessment by the Centre for Taxonomic Studies clearly declared that the atr would spell doom for the forest and its dwellers. The Centre suggested that waterways could be a more viable alternative to the road. However, the assessment was not taken seriously by the islands' administration and the atr became fully operational in the year 1989.
What then is the rationale behind this expensive road? The government justifies it to promote inter-island communication. Samir Acharya, secretary, sane, dismisses this reasoning. "No archipelago, anywhere in the world, uses roads for inter-island communication." The truth is that a contractor-politician nexus has developed vested interests in the atr. About 12,500 cubic meters of firewood go into heating up the bitumen used in repairing the road. Where does this come from? Neither check-posts throughout the islands nor the Andaman Public Works Department have any records of firewood being brought into the reserve. Clearly the Jarawas' habitats are being illegally scythed down. "Constructing the atr was a cardinal folly," laments D S Negi, former secretary, tribal welfare, Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
In May 2002, the Supreme Court -- in response to a public interest litigation filed by sane, the Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai and Kalpvriksh, Pune -- directed the shutting down of the atr in Jarawa areas within ninety days. The verdict generated some hopes for the future of the islanders. But today the order gathers dust, while the local member of Parliament, B P Ray, vociferously demands that national highway status be granted for the atr.
Shutting down the atr is critical to the survival of the remaining Jarawas. Unfortunately, these islanders know nothing of their constitutional rights, and moreover, they are not even vote banks for politicians.
Sharbendu De is a travel and environment writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com