Andaman & Nicobar grapples with tourist influx, deforestation and scars of 2004 Tsunami

Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story is a collection of writings by Pankaj Sekhsaria on problems the archipelago has been facing in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami

By Ishan Kukreti
Last Updated: Tuesday 30 January 2018 | 06:13:27 AM

Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Islands In Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story is Pankaj Sekhsaria’s second dispatch after The Last Wave that focusses on the islands, and is a collection of the researcher’s writings in various publications on problems the archipelago has been facing in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

The book also presents a view of the islands that many “mainland Indians” are not exposed to. It takes the narrative away from the sparkling beaches or their historical kala pani identity, and places it in the present, with all its problems and possible solutions.

Hyderabad-based Sekhsaria, who was born in Pune, spells out how the demands from the country are putting unprecedented stress on this fragile biodiversity hotspot in the Indian Ocean. The book deals with the prominent question of the islands’ indigenous population. It also goes deeper into how the natives have been pushed to the brink with every intentional or unintentional government intervention. Sekhsaria, like a diligent researcher, backs his claims with figures. He quotes data from the Census of India and shows how the population of the islands has risen from a mere 24,649 in 1901 to 379,944 in 2011, while the population of native communities like the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese has plummeted from 1,999 to 550 during the same period. The 1950s and 1960s were a watershed in the islands’ history when the government gave incentives in the form of land to people to come and settle on the islands. With the growth in population, the stress on the islands also increased, in turn, manifesting itself in the form of shrinking space for the natives.

The encroachment of the tribal lands and the introduction of diseases by the immigrating communities, among others, are the reasons that Sekhsaria argues are affecting the islands’ indigenous inhabitants the most. In the chapter “Embracing disease”, he explains the precarious situation of the Great Andamanese as they have no immunity against diseases like pneumonia, influenza and measles. He records that with every outbreak of pneumonia, influenza and measles, the tribal community has declined.

Sekhsaria says while medical care is important, it is only a short-term solution in this case. For him, a permanent solution is to reduce outside intervention in the Jarawa Tribal Reserve, to which the biggest threat is the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) that cuts through the heart of their territory. The road has not only led to the spread of diseases in the native community, but also introduced its members to alcohol and tobacco. The ATR has also resulted in Jarawas’ exploitation as they are made to dance in exchange of food by some tourists. What is worse is that the road is operational despite a 2002 Supreme Court order for its closure.

The book delves into other problems the Andaman and Nicobar are facing—from deforestation, sand mining to resource stress introduced by tourist influx. Sekhsaria recounts how water is always in shortage in the capital city of Port Blair. “For many summers now, citizens in large parts of Port Blair have been receiving water only once in three days,” he writes, raising concerns about the influx of tourists, especially after freshwater sources in many areas of Nicobar were hit by the tsunami.

There is yet another factor that is tipping the fragile ecological scales of the islands—military missile trials. In 2008, the BrahMos missile was successfully tested in the Nicobar archipelago. Besides being a threat to the ecology of the area, the Navy has been embroiled in land disputes with the locals, especially with the Nicobari community in the Nancowry group of islands.

The book underlines the problems of the islands and their solutions with much clarity, but it seems the government is not willing to think about these issues. In March 2017, the NITI Aayog came up with a document to harness the full potential of the islands, and sadly, it talks about the same clichéd notions of tourism and infrastructural development. On the face of it, this is a new phase of threat to the islands already in flux.

The islands face three levels of flux

PANKAJ SEKHSARIA speaks to Down To Earth

How did your association with Andaman and Nicobar start?
Nearly 25 years ago, a very dear friend, then in the Navy, was posted in Port Blair. He suggested I visit him, and I went there for the first time.

What is the current status of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR)?
The ATR is very much in operation. The 2002 Supreme Court order to close a part of the ATR was never implemented. While there has been opposition over the impact of the closure, the administration has continued to violate the ruling by the country's highest court.

What about the impacts of missile tests?
I don't know the specifics, but there is a growing defence presence in the islands. While one cannot deny security issues, my concern is the generally aggressive stance in such matters. Former president APJ Abdul Kalam, in a seminar in Port Blair in 2009, suggested a nuclear power station as part of his vision for the islands. This line of thinking, which appears unaware of the social, ecological and geological reality of the place, is worrisome.

Your views on the NITI Aayog paper on the islands?
As I mentioned, there is a shocking lack of knowledge and concern about the realities and vulnerabilities. The idea of flux, which is also in the title of the book, points to three levels of flux the islands are facing—socio-cultural, ecological and, perhaps most importantly, geological, with each intricately linked with the other. The geological is critical in the islands, which are located in one of the world's most seismically-active zones. The gigantic tsunami of 2004 was caused by a quake off the Sumatra coast, just 200 nautical miles from Nicobar. For the last 50 years, we have not acknowledged these independent, but connected realities, and this continues even today.

What is the need of the hour?
We need to recognise the place for its specificities but also its unique vulnerability. What is their real sense, what are they as independent units and not just an adjunct to India? These are important things to consider and account for. The place is hugely rich and sensitive, and policy and planning has to be envisioned keeping all this in mind.

This review was published first in the 16-31 January issue of Down To Earth magazine.

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Related Story:

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Andaman takes measures to save Jarawas

IEP Resources:

Andaman And Nicobar Islands: Supreme Court of India judgement concerning Buffer Zone and Jarawa reserve

Report of the committee constituted to holistically address the issue of poaching in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

EQUATIONS comments and additions to the draft Tourism Policy for Andaman & Nicobar Islands

Rethink tourism in the Andamans: towards building a base for sustainable tourism

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