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KOLKATA, Jan 16 2012 (IPS) - In the eastern city Kolkata, a tourist just back from a holiday in India’s Andaman islands last week boasts he threw bananas to Jarawa tribe members and secretly photographed them when their car passed through a jungle.
This was days after a London newspaper group posted a video of waist-up naked women members of the vanishing tribe of 403 dancing before tourists at the behest of tour operators. Visitors say it is common to spot a Jarawa on the Andaman Trunk Road, take pictures, and make them perform.
This is an attraction tour operators offer on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Many visitors return with trophy images and video footage of the tribe.
“There are sometimes mild protests from the local drivers. But they do dance before tourists, who throw food items at them from cars,” says Rajkumar (name changed), a tourist from Kolkata.
Andaman is home to primitive tribes like Onge, Sentinelese, Jarawas, Great Andamanese, Shompen and Nicobarese. Among them Jarawas are the most threatened.
According to international NGO Survival International, that earlier exposed the vulnerability of the tribe to a nexus of corrupt police and tour operators, the ancestors of the Jarawa and the other tribes of the Andaman Islands are thought to have been part of the first successful human migrations out of Africa.
NGOs say the principal threat to the Jarawas comes from encroachment onto their land sparked by the building of a highway, the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), through their forest in the 1970s. This exposed them to disease and poachers.
The controversial video on the site of The Observer and The Guardian was procured by British journalist Gethin Chamberlain. “The video is circulating among tour operators. I’m told it was shot in recent years, though we don’t have an exact date,” he tells IPS.
As the story triggered national outrage and invited the flak of activists and anthropologists, the government ordered a probe and promised action.
“It is absolutely disgraceful and shameful. I am going there to take stock of the situation first hand,” India’s Tribal Affairs Minister V. Kishore Chandra Deo tells IPS from New Delhi.
Tribal rights activists slammed Andaman authorities which tried to pass the video as taken in 2002 even though the file betrays the claim.
“The tribe is very threatened and at least a few people should be indicted for contempt of court since the ATR was ordered to be closed down to tourists by the Supreme Court of India way back in 2002,” says Prof. Shekhar Singh, who was appointed ten years ago by the court to head a one-man commission to recommend measures to protect the tribe.
“All the 403 Jarawas are not there on the roadside. Some 20 to 30 hang around. But they are susceptible to diseases from us. So the road must be closed,” Singh tells IPS.
“There were some 46 recommendations from us, including closure of the ATR, but hardly any were implemented. They are exposed to diseases like measles, and they should have access to healthcare rather than be made to perform like animals before visitors.”
Singh says it is important to know their language and then offer them a choice on their welfare. “They should have a choice rather than we imposing ourselves. A Jarawa mother should decide if her child will be treated with herbs or be taken to a modern hospital.”
According to Survival International, “the road brings settlers, poachers and loggers into the heart of their land. This encroachment risks exposing the Jarawa to diseases to which they have no immunity, and creating a dependency on outsiders. Poachers steal the game the Jarawa rely on, and there are reports of sexual exploitation of Jarawa women.”
According to Samir Acharya of the Society of Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE), the controversial road is not actually a lifeline for the farmers to transport their produce as claimed by the authorities.
“The major use of the road is by tourists and government officials. The farmers use boats and prefer the waterways,” says Acharya, who lives in Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
“It is difficult to keep tourists away from the tribe if the road is open. So it is better to close the road to tourists, honouring the 2002 Supreme Court direction.”
The activist says there has been an onslaught on the lifestyle of the Jarawas, and mainstream society is almost forcing them to change their way of living.
“They are living here for over 60,000 years and we have seen through experiments that an average Jarawa is much fitter than an average policeman. A Jarawa member’s metabolism is different from ours and their bodies are made for rough life, our world’s onslaught is causing them harm.”
He says the Jarawas are getting malaria and other diseases from their contact with mainstream people. “We have made them wear clothes, but have not been able to teach them that those clothes should also be washed. We rob them of their traditional knowledge, but simply do not know how to deal with them. We can at best leave them in their 700 square kilometres territory.”
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