India

End of the road for the Andaman Islanders?

Survival International wants to keep an entire island’s inhabitants living in the Stone Age.

Imagine for a moment that the M1 motorway, which runs from Leeds to London, was the only road connecting the north of England to the south. This no doubt congested road would be of fundamental importance for business, for visiting friends and family, and for emergency services, among other things. Imagine, then, if a group of foreign lobbyists, on behalf of a group of 400-or-so people who live near the motorway, began campaigning to close it down because it was noisy and disruptive. Imagine these lobbyists then tell you that you should travel by sea instead – if you don’t, they tell you, they will try to destroy the economy. You would probably want to ask ‘who on Earth do these lobbyists think they are?’.

This may sound far-fetched, but this is almost the exact situation faced by people living on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. London-based campaign group Survival International (SI) is campaigning to close significant portions of the Indian-administered islands’ main artery, the Andaman trunk road.  For residents of the North and Middle Andaman districts, spread over 400 villages, this badly kept single-track road provides an essential route to Port Blair, the islands’ capital. Since opening in the 1980s, the road has become a vital part of the islands’ life - it even allows people to get to the only government hospital on the islands.

SI, however, is calling for the road’s closure in the name of a small Stone Age tribe, the Jarawa, which makes up around 0.1 per cent of the islands’ population of over 400,000. The trunk road passes through the protected reserve (which amounts to over 12 per cent of the islands’ land area) in which the Jarawa live.

It’s hardly surprising that there is a degree of resentment towards the Jarawa tribe from the rest of the islands’ inhabitants, given the special privileges granted to it. Indeed, in the Indian elections earlier this year, MP Bishnu Pada Ray of the BJP party was elected on a platform of reforming tribal privileges. Ray also promised to develop the Andaman Trunk Road, and to consider removing the ‘buffer zone’ around the Jarawa reserve. 

SI is not happy. Last week, it howled condemnation in the Indian national paper, the Hindu, claiming that, ‘instead of protecting the rights of his most vulnerable constituents, the local MP is pushing crowd-pleasing policies such as widening the road and mainstreaming, which would be disastrous for the Jarawa’. SI has started to drum up media coverage in publications such as the Ecologist by running a petition to boycott holidaying on the islands - 7,000 people have signed so far. The message to the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands is clear: unless you abandon the road and start travelling by sea instead, then, in the name of the Jarawa, SI will try to wreck your economy.

In reality, the boycott threat shouldn’t unduly trouble islanders. Recent figures show that fewer than 15,000 foreign tourists visit the islands each year. And given it takes a minimum of around 24 hours to fly to Port Blair from London Heathrow (via Delhi), it’s unlikely to be part of the average carbon-conscious Ecologist reader’s holiday plans. Still, the campaign has effectively attempted to shame the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands in front of a global audience, which puts pressure on the Indian government to intervene.

Moreover, this attempt to interfere in the islanders’ lives shows the contempt in which organisations like SI hold the democratic process. Who cares about the wishes of 99.9 per cent of the islands’ population? The survival of the vulnerable Jarawa should trump all other concerns.

Of course, when SI talks about the tribe’s survival, it does’t mean the survival of the individuals in the tribe. Apart from the occasional outbreak of disease, including a measles epidemic in 2006, the Jarawa tribe is not physically endangered. Rather, SI is defending the way of life of this tribe – an apparently idyllic existence which elevates it morally above the developing lives of the other islanders. As SI has claimed before in a pamphlet, ‘progress kills’.

It is understandable, perhaps, that some Westerners are moved by the fact that the Jarawa tribe’s prehistoric mode of existence is coming to an end.  But the attempt to preserve these last few pockets of undeveloped existence should not come at the cost of the wellbeing and prosperity of the other islanders. Their desire for further developments to the trunk road is nothing to be ashamed of. The islanders are fully justified in asking the foreign representatives of the last 400 Jarawa tribesmen just who on Earth they think they are.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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