“Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar Story” by Dr.

PankajSekhsaria.Change and flux are major things in any system, it might bepolitical or ecological or geological or cultural system, sometimes we thinkchange should happen and at the same time change shouldn’t happen. Sociocultural,ecological and geological are the three major factors that contribute to Andamanand Nicobar islands. Andaman and Nicobar islands are well known for tourism,cellular jails, and 2004 tsunami and Jarawas. Jarawas is an ancient tribe whichis in existence for more than 40,000 years in Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Since India’s independence, the government was keen to takeadvantage of the fertile land, mineral resources, timber and other naturalwealth that the Andaman Islands had to offer. As early as November 1948, agroup, designated as the Andaman Exploratory Delegation, was sent to theseIslands to examine ‘the prospect of colonization and settlement there and theyfound the islands favourable for “colonization”. It was observed that ‘thereare large possibilities for settlement by those who take to cultivation orfishery as their principal occupation. But to exploit the resources of Andaman,there was an ‘urgent need for labourers of all types as well as skilledlabourers of artisan class’.

  Initiallythe government attempted to identify individuals from the settled populationwho would be “willing” to relocate in these Islands.  But the unwillingness of the settledpopulation to go to these far off islands made the government shift itsattention to the refugees. Seemingly, the rational was that the refugees, whohad already migrated once, would pose fewer problems if asked to move again.Thus, the policy of dispersal presupposed that the refugees had no sense ofbelonging and no choice for destination. Or, rather they should not have a senseof belonging and a choice of destination. The fallacy of this logic was evidentthough. That places like Calcutta attracted more refugees than other parts ofthe region proved the refugees had clear sense and their own reasons aboutwhere to go and where not go. Pankaj in his debut novel, The Last Wave statesthat, for these people, the Jarawas were as much myth as the ghosts or the godsinhabiting the unknown forests of their own imagination.

Refugees from EastBengal, who began settling down on the outskirts of the Andaman Islands’ JarawaReserve in the ’60s and ’70s. Despite living in close proximity to the Jarawasfor several decades, the Bengali settlers have had little interaction with oneof the world’s most isolated tribes. “There are huge legacies and histories ofmistrust between the two communities, which is fuelled by the lack ofinteraction. Until 1998, the Jarawa tribe, who have inhabited the island forthousands of years, were under voluntary isolation and survived reasonably wellwithin the thick forests. Any interaction between the tribe and settlers wouldlead to a conflict from both sides,” explains Sekhsaria, who has based much ofhis story on the cataclysmic event that took place in 1998, when a group ofJarawas stepped out of the forest unarmed.The Royal Greenwich Observatory in around 1998 announcedthat the first sunrise of the new millennium would be visible from the islandof Katchal, of the Nicobar group. Efforts were on to get more than 20,000tourists (largely foreigners) to the tiny and remote island of Katchal, whichwas advertised as the only place in the world where the first sunrise of themillennium will be visible.

It appeared to be the perfect situation for a huge tourismevent of an exotic, remote island, an occasion that will never come again, anda government was very eager and willing to make this event a grand one whichintern generates revenue to the government in huge amounts. However, the entireevent was seriously questioned and opposed by many environmental groups acrossthe country as there were serious flaws in the event and also the serious consequencesof the event. The opposition was strong enough to sustain and makeadministration to respond to the consequences. In early August 1999 asecretary-level meeting held at Port Blair, a decision was taken to scale downthe plan drastically.The campaign that was coordinated by SANE was based ondetailed research and solid facts.

The very fact that Katchal was beingpromoted as the only place where the first sunrise of the new millennium willbe visible was never correct. A clarification was issued by experts ofPune-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics categoricallyasserted that these claims were preposterous and also stated that there were atleast  that were being perpetrated — onethat the new millennium begins on January 1, 2000, and the other that Katchalis the only place where the sunrise will be visible.Experts all over the world, and this includes the UnitedStates Naval Observatories, the National Bureau of Standards and Technology ofthe US and the Royal Greenwich Observatory, England (before its demise in 1998)have accepted and adopted January 1, 2001 (and not 2000) as the beginning ofthe new millennium.The arguments over the timing of the new millennium, thetime of the sunrise and the exact location could well have been discarded asacademic. The logic of raising these points can also be questioned if thisunique opportunity had been beneficial to all. But that was precisely thepoint. There are far greater and serious issues involved in allowing thisincorrectly nomenclatured event on the tiny island of Katchal, says SamirAcharya of SANE, who was the first to realise the problems with an event ofthis nature.

The resident population of Katchal is only 12,000, and nearly 4,000of these are the Nicobari tribals. The impact of suddenly inducting anadditional 20,000 outsiders on this island for a day or two can well beimagined. Acharya points out that this could create a huge health hazard.

Thepresence of 20,000 people means that a minimum of 20,000 to 30,000 kg of humanexcreta and thousands of litres of liquid waste will be added to the localenvironment and this will be in addition to unknown quantities of other solidwaste like paper and plastic, to name the common ones. 

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