Five months after the infamous Jarawa Video incident featuring scantily clad Jarawa tribal women allegedly dancing for tourists in return for food and money, the Central Government finally acted on the matter by approving the proposed amendments in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956. The execution of the law that brings into effect a ‘buffer zone’ in a five-kilometer radius around the Jarawa tribal settlements in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and provides for imprisonment of up to seven years for those violating government norms for this area, has been approved by the Union Cabinet.
The regulation also provides for tough penal provisions to deter unauthorized entry, photography, videography, hunting, use of alcohol, inflammable material or biological germs, or even advertisements to attract tourists in the buffer zone. Any violation can attract a prison sentence of three to seven years and a fine up to Rs. 10,000.
This step seems to have received wide acceptability as the embarrassment that the video brought at an international level is not likely to be given a second chance. However, the intention behind the amendments is being questioned by many and has invited resentment from among the non-tribal settlers in the marked area who fear abuse of such laws.
Since the onset of discussions on the proposed amendment in the regulations, the settlers have had sleepless nights fretting over the implications for them. The issue of the proposed buffer zone always took center stage in these meetings organized by the administration, sidelining the actual purpose of those meetings.
Soon after the Cabinet cleared the proposal, the administration issued a clarification saying that the amendment brought forth will in no way affect the peaceful co-existence and the day-to-day activities of the villagers settled in the vicinity of the Buffer Zone. The law enforcing authorities have already been instructed to be very careful before registering any criminal case so that no innocent settler is harassed. However, the attempts of the administration to clarify their stand and convince the general public that the regulations will not be misused have not gone down well with the settlers.
In 2007, the decision of the Administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a Union Territory, to declare a 5-km Buffer Zone around the Jarawa Reserve in South and Middle Andaman, closing all tourism and commercial activities within the 5-km Zone, was challenged in the High Court. The Calcutta High Court dismissed the notification on the grounds that the principal regulation only permitted such notifications for ‘reserved areas’ and the Regulation had no reference to ‘buffer zones’.
But now, when the approval of the regulation has been given by the Central Government, the possibility of the Apex Court accepting the buffer zone is high. If approved, this is likely to create a new furor in the Islands as it will alter the lives of thousands of non-tribal islanders of the thirty one revenue villages settled by the same Administration shortly after Indian Independence in 1947.
The problem lies essentially in the demarcation of the Buffer Zone. Of these thirty one villages, the ones which have not witnessed any presence or visit of the Jarawas but fall within the demarcated area will also be required to follow the same Regulation. “We are worried about our village. There is a creek separating us from the Reserve and Jarawas have never visited our village. Without properly marked boundaries, there are chances of inadvertent harassment,’ said Kumar, Pradhan of Shoal Bay Panchayat.
“As is highlighted everywhere, the motivation behind the amendments were not very honest and in right earnest,” says Debkumar Bhadra, a blogger from the Islands. “The point is that the islands has been populated by Government of India under various colonization and rehabilitation schemes starting from 1949 i.e. well before enactment of original ANPATR (in 1956). Having said so, it is only obvious that any amendment in the ANPATR should have been effected keeping in view the presence of islanders, their needs and aspirations as well. But what has happened is in stark contrast to the principles of natural justice,” he said.
And what about the 'protected' Jarawa group seen with one-litre PET bottles packed with rice grains; and floats made of table-sized thermocol sheets and tightly capped empty plastic cans in their hands? Do they have a say in the decision being taken on their behalf? Even that has been “banned” as the Administration in a release directed the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS) volunteers/officials to tactfully advice Jarawa Tribals (without asking them what they want?) not to interact with non-tribals, settlers and others.
In fact, in many places where the Jarawas venture out of their reserve, a frequent barter of food items in exchange of forest produce has been reported. This routinely takes place in Tirur, a village in South Andaman district. During their visits to the revenue villages, Jarawas bring forest produce for barter with local residents living at the fringes of the forests. Bringing crabs, honey and other products, they are lured by the offer of tobacco and old clothes, and more interestingly, pepe, or cash. If they did all this willingly, then they must be having an opinion on the approval; they are, after all, an intelligent lot that has survived thousands of years in seclusion and complete harmony with their surroundings.
Overlooking the participation of Jarawas in the decision, one can only wait for the changes this approval will bring on the ground, for without sincere efforts to protect the reserve from plunderers; there is little hope for the Jarawas. Many doubt whether the lack of proper mechanisms that fail to implement even the existing regulation will be able to bring any major change. “It’s more about their land and their resources which needs protection rather than the Jarawas themselves,” opined a tribal rights activist.
Written by Zubair Ahmed, a Port Blair based journalist for Charkha Features and republished here in arrangement with Charkha Development Communication Network.