The Andaman & Nicobar islands have had the ill fortune of being colonised several times over, first by the British and then by the mainlanders of free India, with nary a thought for the original inhabitants who have lived there for over 40000 years. Located closer to Burma and Indonesia than the Indian mainland, these remote outposts of India in the Indian Ocean also house the southernmost part of India – Indira Point, besides forming the northern tip of the Ring of Fire that skirts the Pacific south-east Asian rim.
Ironically, the region’s military-strategic importance for India’s security, its verdant evergreen forests and ample forest resources have been major factors accounting for its environmental degradation over the past five decades. The burgeoning population of mainlanders brought about by the official desire to ‘colonize’ these islands has not only resulted in a drastic fall in the indigenous population, but triggered indiscriminate sand mining to feed the needs of the realty sector on these islands. Coupled with logging, this in turn destroyed the coral reefs which are now just a fraction of the extensive ecosystem they constituted in the past. For the Negrito-Andamanese, the zeal to mainstream them has brought only sorrow. Their numbers have dwindled to a handful, even as hitherto unfamiliar diseases and ailments have been brought in by modern civilization and decimated their populations.
For the local fauna and flora, too, exotic species brought in by the colonising British and mainlanders have spelt doom. The giant African snail has devoured the local snail population; stray dogs have literally eaten into the turtle population on the beaches, while the clearing of mangroves for timber has destroyed coral reefs along the coasts. A Kolkata-based company brought in some 35 elephants in to help with timber logging in the past. But the company failed, and the elephants were left behind. As the numbers of this pachyderm grew, they played havoc with the local flora and fauna.
The 2004 tsunami was, perhaps, the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. The earthquake that preceded it and the tsunami itself ravaged the islands, with a point south of Port Blair serving as a pivot around which the Andamans were heaved up and the Nicobars pulled down. The result was that miles of coral reefs in the northern Andamans were left exposed above water to ultimately die, while every island in the Nicobars was surrounded by a wall of rotten vegetation due to severe land subsidence. The Pandanus and the Nipa palm populations were destroyed, badly affecting the Nicobarese community which is economically dependent on them for their daily needs.
Since the avifaunal population is largely dependent on the floral vegetation, this left many species vulnerable.
Among them are the Nicobari megapode, Edible Nest Swiftlet, and many others. The seriousness of the problem is compounded by the fact that most species in the islands are endemic (confined to one area/ region). In fact, as Pankaj Sekhsaria emphasises in his book Islands in Flux: The Andaman & Nicobar story, there are 20 avian species endemic to the Andamans, and eight to the Nicobars, with two data-deficient species (as per the IUCN Red Data book) – the Andaman Crake and the Nicobarese Scops Owl, also found on these islands.
Although recent years have seen better sense prevail, with migration from the mainland put on hold, logging stopped, and steps taken to protect forests, as per recommendations of the Shekhar Singh Commission, the government’s zeal in pushing up tourism revenue has put a major burden on the infrastructure and basic services on the islands. The imperatives of tourism have also prevented the union territory from abiding by the Supreme Court’s order calling for the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road that runs through a Jarawa Reserve. It has also caused a lot of harm, with government employees being encouraged to visit the Andamans with free air fare post-tsunami (to give a fillip to tourism on the islands).
The demands of strategic security have seen defence establishments gain momentum here, and a nuclear plant is under consideration. Even where every precaution is being taken to rejuvenate and protect mangroves and the coastal environment, there have been cases of wanton destruction. For example, large swathes of horticultural resources were cut to make way for a helipad when a former president came visiting.
Unfortunately, very little of the environmental catastrophe of the islands has ever been covered by India’s national media. A classic case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, the islands have made it to the national consciousness only when some disaster struck.
This is where Islands in Flux: The Andaman & Nicobar story plays a landmark role – it offers a better understanding of these islands and their indigenous peoples. As one who has been covering the islands as a researcher and journalist over the past 20 years, Sekhsaria questions the development paradigm that sidetracks the indigenous peoples of the islands in a bid to achieve what is termed ‘growth’ by the civilized world. A collection of perceptive articles from publications as far apart as Economic & Political Weekly, Inter-Press Service, Tehelka, Frontline, Down to Earth, The Hindu, Sanctuary Asia, and Indian Birds over the years, the book is testimony to the extensive work Sekhsaria has put in. The articles combine an academic’s extensive research with a journalist’s objectivity to make insightful reading.
The appendices which list local names for major geographical landmarks and the recommendations of the Shekhar Singh Commission and the Supreme Court to protect the islands, as well as vignettes that illustrate how nature thrives where the indigenous people dwell even as the environment is in decline elsewhere make the author’s bias clear.
An ardent cry for environmental justice, the book makes a plea for the islands to be left to their original inhabitants, enabling them to survive the onslaught of the civilized world.
However, since it is impossible to put the clock back, it would have been in order for Sekhsaria, to make some concrete suggestions for a balanced approach to development, wherein the concerns of the ethnic population are kept in mind even as development and growth are pursued.
(Reviewed by Rina Mukherji.)
October – December 2017