Today, the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands are at rock-bottom. Confined to the picturesque islands in the Bay of Bengal, with humans forcibly invading their habitat, transmitting viruses and diseases, their population is estimated at just 769. In other words, they would all fit into a single Boeing 777.
According to the latest census, from 2011, there are 44 Great Andamanese, 380 Jarawa, 101 Onge, 229 Shompen and 15 Sentinelse remaining in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI).
Now India is planning to develop a “sustainable” mega-city in Little Andaman, further endangering the survival of the PVTG while also posing a threat to the fragile biodiversity and natural ecosystems of the island, including the largest leatherback turtle nesting ground in India.
“In the islands of the Little Andaman and Great Nicobar two new Greenfield Coastal Cities will be built. The cities will be developed as Free Trade Zones to compete with global cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai,” says a vision document from the NITI Aayog, or National Institution for Transforming India, a government think tank.
“Zone 1 is the financial district and medi city along the eastern coast of the island with the airport as the catalytic anchor, Zone 2 is the leisure zone located on the southern area of the island [and] would house tourism attractive activities of entertainment and leisure such as casino strip, sports institutes, film city, water based recreation, etc. and Zone 3 is the nature zone located on the western coast of the island with the exclusive forest resort, nature healing district, and west bay nature retreat,” says the 58-page “Sustainable Development of Little Andaman Island Vision Document.”
“If required, the tribals can be relocated to other parts of island” that are “conserved and protected,” states the document.
The proposed plan to relocate the PVTG has caused global outrage.
“We are very alarmed about this proposal and the appalling way it talks of stealing Onge land, and even relocating them, without any mention in the proposal that the Onge’s free, prior, and informed consent must be obtained before their land is taken from them for this project,” said the London-based indigenous rights group Survival International.
“Already an area of their tribal reserve has been denotified without their consent, a gross violation of their rights,” wrote Sophie Grig, senior research and advocacy officer of Survival International.
According to Grig, this denotification took place at a meeting on February 4, and although the first phase of the project only involves a small amount of land, she says that this sets a dangerous precedent.
The organization is calling on the administration of Little Andaman Island not to denotify or undertake any development or changes to the Onge’s land without their genuine free, prior, and informed consent.
Last May, there was outrage on social media after news broke that one of the five PVTGs of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Great Andamanese people, had seen COVID-19 infections. There have been extinctions that obliterated swathes of indigenous groups on the ANI in the past.
In 1921, the Aka-Kol and Oko-Juwoi, the two most thinly populated and particularly vulnerable populations, were wiped out. Between 1921 and 1931 another tribe, the Aka-Bea, went extinct.
During colonial rule, British settlers’ perseverance to establish their control over the ANI chain endangered the lives of many indigenous tribal groups. As a result, Indigenous people became infected with various viruses that eventually took the lives of nearly 8,000 tribespeople.
Government actions have since compounded the crisis, displaying a mix of prejudice and misplaced confidence. In 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the Indian government made a series of “gift-dropping” expeditions on the islands, delivering bananas, plastic toys, and coconuts. The expedition managed to lure several dozen uncontacted aboriginal tribe members. They appeared on the white beaches unarmed to receive gifts. However, the expedition eventually had tragic consequences, recalls an anthropologist who refused to disclose his identity.
In the late 1990s, the Jarawa tribe suffered two deadly outbreaks of measles. During the same period, the sexually transmitted disease syphilis spread through the largest tribal group, the Great Andamanese, bringing them to the brink of extinction.
In fact every chapter of India’s modern history teaches how contact between the PVTG of the ANI and the world has resulted in harm to these isolated communities.
But the Indian government thinks differently. It believes that, like the rest of the Andaman and Nicobar Island group, the islands that the PVTGs call home have long been neglected and isolated from the rest of the country.
“The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have considerable untapped economic potential and strategic advantage to India, but have been neglected and ignored due to ecological environmental constraints,” according to Dr. Vivek Rae, former chief secretary of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
“While it is nobody’s case that the entire land mass should be denuded of forest cover and the tribes relegated to the dustbin of history, there is surely a compelling case for clearing up some of the land and for exploiting the economic and strategic potential of these islands.”
The proposed plan, however, has upset anthropologists and scholars; even government officials have raised concerns about the project.
In a note dated September 26, 2020, a divisional forest officer on Little Andaman Island argued that the ANI in general and Little Andaman Island in particular are an internationally acknowledged biodiversity hotspot. He wrote that these islands have over 2,500 species of flowering plants (including 223 species endemic to the ANI, meaning they are not found anywhere else in the world); 179 species of corals (making it the richest coral reef in India); and 5,100 freshwater animal species, 2,100 terrestrial, and 2,900 marine. Specifically, there are 55 species of mammals (32 species endemic to the ANI), 244 species of birds (96 endemic), and 76 species of reptiles (24 endemic).
Referring to the diversion of forest land for sustainable development of Little Andaman Island envisaged by the NITI Ayog, the officer raised serious concerns about this proposed plan’s impact on the island’s fragile ecosystem.
The officer argued that these objections need to be considered carefully before the authorities make a final decision on the fate of a large tract of tropical rainforest with such irreplaceable biodiversity.
The note stated that the proposed project will not only put at risk the lives of indigenous people who survive on the land, forest, and white sand beaches. The new city will be developed in a seismic zone that is highly vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis.
Anthropologists, too, have a biting response to the proposed plan. “The territory where they [the PVTG] reside… is not simply a geographical boundary but it is their cultural landscape… which they considered their territories for practicing their socioeconomic and religious age-old practices,” a senior anthropologist told me, requesting anonymity.
While not directly dismissing the proposed plan, the Anthropological Survey of India suggested a number of measures be taken before the project moves forward.
“An anthropological impact assessment study may be conducted before the development activities are initiated,” Dr. Nilanjan Khatua, superintending anthropologist and head of office at the Andaman & Nicobar Regional Centre, Anthropological Survey of India, told me.
Professor Anvita Abbi, credited with extensive research in identifying the distinct characteristics of two Great Andamanese languages, Jarawa and Onge, hit out at the government for the proposed city, describing it as a “disastrous plan.”
“This project of the government is totally going to be disastrous to the whole culture, society, and the antiquity of the place. Because these are not tribes who settled down there 1,000 or 5,000 years ago – they have been living there for the last over 50,000 years. In fact it is the civilization of that old nature. This is absolutely a mindless act India today can do to dislocate them somewhere else,” said Abbi, a recipient of the 2015 Kenneth Hale Award and the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honor.
“How can the people who have been living for thousands of years be dislocated from there? And why doesn’t the government leave them alone, leave some tiny islands for them, and look out for some other islands, ports, and coastal areas where they can have tourist complexes?” she asked.
She pointed to a 1970s experiment in which the government relocated Great Andmanese from Little Andaman Island to Strait Island.
The government had good intentions, meaning to shift them to a safer place. However, the tribals lost their roots and their connection with the local flora and fauna, Abbi said, referring to the time she spent with Boa Sr., one of the relocated tribespeople, while conducting research on the language families of the ANI.
Boa Sr. was the last speaker of an ancient tribal language when she passed away in 2010, breaking a 65,000-year link to one of the world’s oldest cultures.
“Boa Sr. lost a plethora of information about the environment and the names associated with the flora and fauna, including the language, after she shifted to a new place,” she said. “During my field trips, like her, many other adults were unable to associate themselves with the plants, leaves, clay, juices that were found in the place they were located.”
Abbi explains that the land where the PVTG have lived for over 50,000 years helped them to groom their language.
“Their ethos, their philosophy, their life pattern, and everything is linked to their environment where they have been born and brought up,” she concluded.
The reason the PVTG of the ANI are so rare today is because repeated outside interference has already brought them to the brink of extinction. Their nomadic lifestyle, the most ancient way of living known to mankind, makes them an easy target.
It’s a particularly poignant question: Will the PVTG – who lived through the 2004 tsunami, vacated the beaches ahead of cyclones, and moved to a safer place during earthquakes – be able to survive the wave of so-called sustainable development?