Port Blair, April 17 (IANS) A newly-launched training centre here is expected to play a significant role in enabling the endangered Jarawa tribe, one of the oldest inhabitants of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands whose number has shrunk to a mere 400, to decide their own future, an official said.
"The ANTRI (Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research and Training Institute) has been set up with the purpose of finding solutions to questions that emerge from the field. It is aimed at providing a scientific analysis on issues like what will be the effect of a particular policy or programme on the Jarawas (and other tribes)," Tribal Welfare Secretary G.T. Neethi Dhas told a visiting IANS correspondent."It will formulate a new policy for the integration of tribals with the developed society, but in their own way and own environment without disturbing their distinct identity and unique culture. For our main aim is to enable the Jarawas to decide their future for themselves and not impose our decisions on them," Dhas added.
The ANTRI will work in synergy with the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), the apex welfare body of the Jarawas, one of the six indigenous tribes in the archipelago of 572 islands - of which only 36 are inhabited - islets and rocks in the southeastern part of the Bay of Bengal that is spread over nearly 800 km. While its ambit covers all the tribe, its focus will be on the Jarawas.
The task is daunting because despite the 1,028 sq km Jarawa Tribal Reserve being out of bounds for outsiders, reports of regular infiltration by poachers and the alleged exploiting of the tribals, including women, have been trickling in every now and then.
While a 2012 video showing Jarawa women dancing to entertain tourists in return for food is still vivid, the year started off with the abduction of eight tribal girls in January, who later were rescued by the police.
Recent media reports claiming there are audio clips of a Jarawa man alleging poachers encroach on the reserve and "chase and hurt the girls and sleep with them" has prompted the administration to order a probe.
"Welfare of the Jarawas is our prime commitment. Whenever there have been violations, we have acted swiftly. We will take action in this case as well, if anybody is found guilty," the islands' Lieutenant Governor, Lt. Gen. (retd) Ajay Kumar Singh, said.
"Our main concern is to ensure their welfare, to ensure their livelihood is not encroached upon. As regards their assimilation into the mainstream, we are not working at that now. It's a gradual process warranting a very cautious approach," he added.
Even though he hailed the government and other stakeholders' efforts enabling the Nicobarese - also tribal inhabitants - to assimilate into the mainstream, Lt. Gen Ajay Singh said the administration was working to make the Jarawas decide themselves about their future.
Inhabiting the island for thousands of years, the nomadic Jarawa tribe lives mostly in small groups with hunting, fishing and collecting plant produce being their main source of living.
Talking about the cautious approach, Anthropological Survey of India regional head (Andaman) M. Sasi Kumar said the administration did not want to indulge in any kind of "misadventure".
"Polarised opinions do exist, some feel who are we to decide that the Jarawa children should roam around naked and grow up without access to education? But at the same time can we afford to attempt anything which may jeopardise their existence?" Sasi Kumar wondered.
While the probe report on the alleged sexual exploitation of the Jarawa women is still awaited, Dhas said the administration was working in coordination with all the stakeholders, including NGOs, to prevent infiltration into the Jarawa Reserve.
NGOs working in the island for tribal welfare also advocate that the Jarawas' independence should not be infringed upon.
"They are the oldest inhabitants of the islands and they should be left on their own. Their population has declined rapidly, and we are not aware about how they will react to attempts at assimilation. Keeping in mind their thin population, it is best that their independence is protected at all costs," N.M. Bashir of ARPAN, an NGO, said.
With the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) which cuts through the heart of the Jarawa reserve is facing a lot of flak and was even briefly closed after the Supreme Court orders in 2002, the Andaman administration is working on to develop an alternate sea route.
"There have been misinformed campaigns by some quarters who want stop the traffic. The ATR is the only lifeline for about 150,000 villagers living along the road. We cannot deprive such a large population," the lieutenant govvernor said.
"Traffic on the ATR is strictly regulated through a convoy system. No individual vehicle is permitted. No interaction with the indigenous group by outsiders is allowed. To reduce traffic, we have plans to develop an alternate sea route, but this will take some time. A person faces three to seven years of imprisonment if he is found guilty of doing anything illegal inside the belt.
"We don't have any predetermined notions and it is for the tribes themselves to decide. They have come a long way, but I can't predict what the Jarawas will want. I think slowly but surely they will decide for themselves," he added.
(Anurag Dey can be contacted at [email protected])