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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 March, 2005, 13:45 GMT
Extinction threat for Andaman natives

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Port Blair

Aboriginals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Tribes are at risk from imported diseases (All photos: RC Kar)
After decades of efforts to bring the tiny population of what some anthropologists call "Stone Age aboriginals" into the mainstream, the administration in India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands has finally decided to leave them alone.

"It will now be our avowed policy to minimise unnecessary and inappropriate contact between the primitive tribes and settlers [from Indian mainland]," says Uddipta Ray, tribal welfare secretary in the government.

"Only a few officials in our administration will have access to the aboriginal habitats to protect them from poaching and illegal intrusions by the settlers.

"We will ensure their food security, the security of their habitats, we will encourage them to pursue their traditional lifestyle, there is no question of imposing any outside culture or beliefs on them," Mr Ray told the BBC.

'No immunity'

Only around 900 of the aboriginals, belonging to five tribes, are left alive in the archipelago, down from around 10,000 a century ago.

Their dwindling numbers were blamed initially on British colonialism and then on Indian "friendly contact" policy which led to their intermingling with mainland settlers, exposing them to diseases from which they had no immunity.

The Great Andamanese - the most assimilated of the aboriginals - have suffered worst, their numbers now down to 36 from 5,000 a century ago.

Their chief, Jerake, is battling death in a hospital now.

The Onges, taught to eat Indian food and speak Hindi like the Great Andamanese, are down to around 98 people.

Ripped open

"The less contact we have with them, the better is their chance for survival," says Dr Ratan Chandra Kar, whose services in saving the Jarawa tribe from a measles epidemic in 1998-99 have been highly acclaimed by the authorities.

"Every time a primitive tribe has developed much contact with the settlers, they have been hit by epidemics."

Aboriginals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
The Indian government has been accused of internal colonisation

The Jarawas, hostile until about a decade ago, were befriended by "contact parties" who landed on their beaches with gifts at regular intervals.

But their forest homeland was ripped open when the 340km Andaman trunk road was constructed through it to connect south Andaman with the north of the island.

The Andamans' new chief secretary, DS Negi, in a book about the archipelago, has described the construction of the trunk road as "an act of monumental folly".

The road has not been closed despite a Supreme Court order.

The settlers from the mainland, mostly Bengali or Tamil speakers, threatened to launch a protest campaign if that happened.

'Minimum intervention'

Mr Negi told the BBC there is a police presence to keep away poachers and tour operators bringing visitors to gape at naked Jarawas. Offenders have been warned of stern legal action.

Colleagues say Mr Negi is the driving force behind the "minimum intervention" policy.

Sense is now dawning on the administration but it may be far too late to save [the natives] from extinction
Anthropological Survey of India

Some officials argue the policy would be strengthened if visiting VIPs from Delhi were prevented from "Jarawa visits".

It was even suggested that a fence be constructed on both sides of the trunk road.

That was turned down by the authorities for financial and ecological reasons.

The Sentinelese tribe numbers between 250 and 300 people, and their land in North Sentinel island, west of Port Blair, is very inaccessible.

"We did send a team there to assess tsunami damage but we are not interested in pursuing any further contact with them," says Mr Ray.

'Resource base ruined'

For decades, anthropologists, environmentalists and health experts have severely criticised the administration for trying to "mainstream" the aboriginals.

Sita Venkateswar, known for her work among the Andaman tribes, calls the government's contact policy "internal colonisation and calculated ethnocide".

Aboriginals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Today only a few outsiders have access to aboriginal habitats

"Indian policy drove a race of energetic hunter-gatherers to sedentary habits, destroyed their social structure, introduced group rivalries through selective patronage and exposed them to disease by giving them Indian food, tobacco and alcohol," she says.

Officials in the Andaman-Nicobar tribal welfare department agree with her in private. They admit the much-publicised beach landings with gifts to "contact" the tribes were a great mistake.

Those contacts may have made the tribes less hostile to settlers and the administration but they led to more and more encroachment on their habitat.

"Sense is now dawning on the administration and it is a good thing if they leave the aboriginals alone, but it may be far too late to save them from extinction," said one official in the Anthropological Survey of India.

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