On January 21, 2013, the Supreme Court issued an order banning tourists from using the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) as it passes through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve (The Hindu, “SC bans tourists in Jarawa land,” January 22, 2013). Ironically, the order was a direction to the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Administration to implement its own notification of 2007.
The core idea of the initial notification (No.234/2007/F.No. 1-752/2007-TW) was to prevent “any person other than a member of an aboriginal tribe” from indulging in any commercial and/or tourism activities in a buffer zone (BZ) of five kilometres from the boundaries of the Jarawa Reserve. The turn of events, however, is best highlighted by the fact that during arguments in the court in July 2012, the SC was constrained to ask the A&N Administration why it should not be held in contempt for non-implementation of the BZ notification of its own creation. Something had obviously gone terribly wrong in the interim and a clue lies in trying to understand how the administration had sought to implement the notification.
There have been allegations that the BZ notification was brought in to target specific commercial entities, and circumstantial evidence too seems to point to this. Of the hundreds of big and small commercial enterprises in this buffer zone, for instance, only a handful were sent closure notices in the first three years after the notification came into force. In August 2009, the Calcutta High Court struck down the notification in response to an application filed by one of the resorts that was shut down. The administration went in appeal to the Supreme Court, which asked explicitly for the full implementation of this buffer zone. It is here that the story begins to turn because the real implications started to turn up.
Little, if any, thought had been put into the larger implications of the notification. There were a number of questions that the administration had not considered: what would it mean to restrict commercial activities in this five-kilometre buffer zone? How many villages of non-tribal settlers would this buffer zone include? How many people would be impacted? What would it mean for the livelihoods of thousands of these people if all commercial activities were to stop? Not surprisingly there was and still is huge opposition to the buffer zone notification from the local population. The situation was beginning to get out of hand and that is when the administration tried to first dilute the provisions of its notification and then ignore the need for its implementation.
The issue of the ATR that lies at the heart of the court’s recent orders has to be understood in this context. A part of the ATR has been used for many years now by tourists for visiting the limestone caves and mud volcanoes on Baratang Island. Clearly, the use of ATR by tourists (a commercial activity) could not be permitted if the buffer zone notification was implemented in letter and spirit. The administration chose the “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t implement” way out of the logjam it had crafted for itself.
Importantly the road has become, in recent years, the vector and the catalyst for a perverse kind of tourism with tourists taking a ride here in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Jarawa who traditionally don’t wear clothes. This whole thing exploded in early 2012 when videos were circulated by a British media house showing Jarawa women dancing on the ATR, allegedly, to get some food items from tourists. While all have not been convinced of the allegations, there was no doubt that the Jarawa were being compromised in different ways. The huge national and international uproar notwithstanding, the administration took only what can be considered cosmetic steps.
It was repeatedly pointed out that the A&N administration was not just ignoring its own buffer zone notification, but that, it was in far more serious contempt of an earlier Supreme Court order as well. In 2002 the court had actually ordered that the ATR be shut down completely in those parts where it runs through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. Many commentators have noted that had the ATR been shut as per the 2002 order, the current sorry state of affairs would never have come to pass. There would have been no traffic on the ATR, there would be no tourists and a spectacle would not have been made of the Jarawas.
Ironically the A&N administration was creating a buffer zone to secure the fringes of Jarawa territory at the same time as it was wilfully allowing its heart to be eaten away and destroyed. As a matter of fact in an amendment brought in a few days ago on January 17, the Lt. Governor of the islands actually reduced the sea component of the Jarawa Reserve. The lip service being paid to the needs and the welfare of the Jarawa is just that.
Tourism traffic on the ATR has now reportedly been stopped, but the sentiment and cynicism of the local population was captured neatly in a Facebook post by a Port Blair resident a day after the orders were issued — “take it from me,” it said “it would be business as usual.”
(Pankaj Sekhsaria is editor of the Protected Area Update, a bimonthly newsletter on wildlife and conservation published by Kalpavriksh. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)