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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 December, 2004, 15:58 GMT
Andaman aborigines' fate unclear

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Jarawa people. Credit: Indian government website
The Jarawas - one of a number of at-risk tribes people (Photo: Pankaj Seksaria)
The fate of some of the world's most primitive people is unclear after the tsunami strike on India's Andaman and Nicobar islands.

After a tour of the islands in the aftermath of Sunday's disaster, Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the aborigines in the Andamans were safe.

"Most of them live on relatively high ground or in areas not hit by the tsunamis. They would have survived by instinct," he said.

But a number of environmentalists, experts and officials dispute the claim.

An official of the Anthropological Survey of India said: "It is a matter of serious concern that we have heard so little of these tribes so far.

"They are endangered people and it would be an anthropological disaster if they have suffered heavy loss of life, because they are the missing link with an early civilisation."

No news

Madhusree Mukherjee, author of The Land of Naked People and a former editor of the Scientific American, said: "How could [the minister] say such a thing just because the odd Indian Air Force pilot has spotted some tribesmen waving for help on a beach?

"Large settlements of Nicobarese tribesmen have been wiped out and they have suffered enormously."

The Nicobarese, a Mongoloid tribe numbering around 30,000, are 90% Christian.

She says the aboriginal Shompen people, who shun outside world contact, would have been hit hard because their habitat in the Great Nicobar lay in the path of the tsunami.

"I have learnt from my sources that some Onges tribes people, about 40, were evacuated from Little Andaman, but there is no news about the rest," says Ms Mukherjee.

Great Nicobar suffered badly in the disaster. One island in the chain, Trinket, split in two under the impact. Most of the rest are under water.

Ms Mukherjee says other tribes - the Jarawas, the Sentinelese and Great Andamanese, live on higher ground and may have been safe.

The Shompens (200-250 members), Jarawas (about 100), Onges (105), Great Andamanese (40-45) and Sentinelese (about 250) are Negrito tribes, the most ancient people of South Asia.

Turtles

"It is mere speculation that they are safe," says Pankaj Seksaria, an environmentalist who has long opposed unrestricted migration from the Indian mainland.

Aboriginals. Credit: Indian government website
If they were caught on the beaches or in the shallow coastal waters, they would be as badly hit as any of us
Samir Acharya, ecologist

"The government does not have the network to check that out now. It is too busy with relief."

He says the aboriginals have already suffered from mass tourism, rampant expansion of the defence establishment and continuing migration from the mainland.

Andaman-based Samir Acharya, who runs the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, says the tsunami struck at the time of year when the aborigines took to beaches early in the day to hunt turtles.

"This is one of their habits. The turtles come nesting on beaches and the aborigines try to catch them for meat," he says.

"If they were caught on the beaches or in the shallow coastal waters, they would be as badly hit as any of us," Mr Acharya says.

Mr Seksaria says that even if they survived, the aboriginals would not be out of danger.

"If an epidemic breaks out, they will be wiped out," he says, because their immune systems are suspect if they come into contact with the outside world..

Hundreds of Great Andamanese died in outbreaks of pneumonia in 1868, measles in 1877 and influenza in 1896.

Settlers from the Indian mainland, mostly Bengalis and Tamils, make up the majority of nearly 400,000 people on the archipelago of 306 islands and islets and 206 rocky outcrops.


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Panic sets in as people evacuate coastal towns



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