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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 January, 2005, 11:06 GMT
Andaman groups demand settler ban

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Port Blair, Andaman Islands

Jarawa people. Credit: Indian government website
The Jarawas - one of a number of at-risk tribes people (Photo: Pankaj Seksaria)

Even as thousands of settlers flee India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, environmentalists and residents have renewed their demand for curbing migration from mainland India.

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.

"We just cannot sustain large populations. The coast is too dangerous to stay now and we are worried that many settlers may try to move into hills and jungles where the aboriginals live," says Samir Acharya, who runs the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (Sane).

Jungles will have to be cleared to build homes for tsunami victims
Samir Acharya, environmentalist
Sane has been at the forefront of a campaign - joined by many of India's leading environmentalist groups like Kalpavriksh - to ban migration into the islands and to prevent the destruction of forests.

In 1901, the population of the archipelago was 24,649. Exactly, a century later, it stood at 356,265.

Population 'explosion'

"The population explosion was supported by colonial and post - colonial policy but this has been disastrous for the local aboriginals and the environment. This must be checked," says Pankaj Seksaria of Kalpavriksh.

Social worker Basudev Das says the islands can take no more people.

"The population flow from the mainland must stop now. It will be a huge task to find work for the settler farmers and fishermen, so any more people coming here will be seen as a burden," said Das.

Farmland in most of the 38 inhabited islands has been largely destroyed by the tsunami.

Saline water in farms is likely to make cultivation impossible, at least for several years.

Fishermen will also take a hit as the island's cold storages have been shut down and people advised against eating fish.

Bleak future

Among the worst hit are former refugees from Bangladesh, who, along with Tamils, make up the majority of the island's population.

Evacuees from far-flung Andaman and Nicobar Islands arrive in Port Blair
Most Andaman residents migrated from the Indian mainland
Laxmi Kanta Baidya, a settler from Bangladesh who farms at Hathitapu village in the southern Andamans, told the BBC the future looks bleak.

"It will take several seasons of heavy rains to clear the salinity in our fields. Only then we may raise crops again. But what will we eat until then?" asked Baidya.

Jogen Mondal of Chouldari village has similar fears.

"Our paddy crop has been destroyed. The coconut, betel nut and banana trees will also dry up soon. This land will become useless for a long time," said Mondal.

Fishermen and farmers from ravaged villages in the devastated southern islands face a worse predicament.

"Our wells and ponds are full of sea water. No water is left to drink, so we have to get out of our island and head for Port Blair," said Somnath Banik from the tsunami-devastated Hut Bay region.

Hut Bay is located at the eastern edge of the Little Andaman island which was declared a tribal reserve for the Onge aboriginals in 1957.

But 30% of the island was freed up for settlers in the 1970s.

Risky relocation

The rising settler population has led to mindless logging, both by private groups and the government.

This is a clear violation of a Supreme Court ban on felling on the islands.

Environmentalists fear homeless villagers may now move into and cut down jungle to build their homes following the tsunami.

Aboriginals. Credit: Indian government website
About 400 islands, 38 inhabited
Islands are peaks of submerged mountain range
Indian territory, area of 8,249 sq km
Population around 370,000, about 100,000 in Port Blair
Number of tribes, including Jarawas, Onges and Shompens
Officials and politicians are already saying that many of the coastal villages may have to be "relocated on higher ground".

"We may have to find new places for these people. The low lying coast may not be safe," says Andamans member of parliament, Manoranjan Bhakta.

Samir Acharya fears that jungles will have to be cleared to settle the tsunami victims.

"That will be the final nail in the coffin for the aboriginals and the archipelago's unique bio - diversity," says Madhusree Mukherjee, author of The Land of the Naked People and a former editor of Scientific American.

Two key associations of local residents are supporting curbs on unrestricted migration and destruction of forests.

Since the killer waves struck the islands, more than 8,000 people have fled the outlying islands for Port Blair.

Many others are trying to do that. And those who are better off among them are trying to leave for the mainland because they no longer consider the islands safe.

"God perhaps does not want us to stay here anymore," says Somnath Banik of Hut Bay.

Panic sets in as people evacuate coastal towns

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