Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Jarawa debate: Is backwardness "culture"?

The Jarawa tribals of the Andaman were in the news this week. A news video put out by The Guardian showing Jarawa women and children dancing in front of the camera for the benefit of tourists caused uproar in the country. Local media picked up the story and the Government has now ordered an enquiry.

The Jarawa are one of the four Negrito aboriginal tribes inhabiting the Andaman Islands. Their total population is said to be just around 250 or so. These tribes are said to be among the direct descendants of man’s earliest ancestors who migrated from Africa around 65,000 – 70,000 years ago. As late as till the 1990s, the Jarawa were said to be living in their forests in complete isolation and had resisted all contact with outsiders. But in the last fifteen years, the Jarawa have gradually shed their isolation.

I first heard of the Jarawa during my recent visit to the Andaman Islands. On our way to the Limestone Caves in North Andaman, our bus passed through the dense tropical rain forests of Middle Andaman, home of the Jarawa tribes. We passed through these forests escorted by a police convoy. The vehicles were not allowed to stop for a stretch of about 50 kilometers till we reached the other end of the forest. On a couple of occasions during our journey, the Jarawa came close to the passing vehicles, providing a glimpse to the shocked tourists. Their faces were painted yellow and they wore nothing.

This notice pasted in our bus said it all. Though unscrupulous tour operators need to be dealt with severely, there is no reason to deny Jarawa the benefits of modern development 

The construction of the 300-odd kilometer long Great Andaman Trunk Road that runs north – south through the length of Andaman and through the heart of the Jarawa inhabited forest has opened up an opportunity to integrate the Jarawa into the national mainstream. In fact, the Jarawa have now started to venture out of their forests, initiating contact with human civilization. Though extremely hostile initially, the Jarawa are reported to have turned friendly in recent years, asking for food or even medical aid with villagers and farmers living on the fringes of the forests.

But it is unfortunate that some NGOs and environmental groups have been fighting for the closure of the Road, demanding the Jarawa not be ‘disturbed’ or ‘their territory’ not encroached upon. Terms such as ‘human safaris’ used liberally in the media have unnecessarily sensationalized the issue. The Jarawa deserve the benefits of progress and development as much as any other people. Keeping them backward and in isolation in the name of ‘preserving their culture’ is clearly not the way to go.

1 comment:

  1. Definitely,efforts must be made for the development of tribals in the way we developed.