A shocking video showing members of the Jarawa community of the Andaman Islands being made to dance in exchange for Rs 200 has put the spotlight on this otherwise ignored people and islands. In the last few days, much space in the media has been occupied by a range of claims and counter-claims about the date of the video, about the police's involvement and the role of tour operators. The administration has filed an FIR against unknown persons and a hunt is on to nab the culprits.
Even though the video has generated a lot of heat, there has been very little focus on what lies at the root of this episode: the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR). The ATR is where tourists go to 'see' the semi-clad Jarawas, flouting the law of the land.
In May 2002, the Supreme Court asked the island authorities to shut down those parts of ATR that run through the forests of the legally notified Jarawa Tribal Reserve. The BBC video, which is believed to have been made some three years ago, was shot in those restricted parts.
The order is now a decade old but the defiant administration of this Union Territory has violated the orders of the highest court of the land. A series of administrators have come and gone but their contempt for the apex court has remained. If the recent evidence and statements by the island authorities are anything to go by, there are no signs that things will change.
It is also relevant here to note the history of this ATR. The construction of the ATR was initiated more than four decades ago by denotifying the Jarawa Tribal Reserve and for the express purpose of extracting timber from the pristine forests. Over time, the road has not only become a route for the exploitation of valuable resources of the Jarawa, but has also brought in all kinds of undesirable inputs and influences; the tourists, of course, being the most recent. Around the world, roads in tropical forests and in lands of indigenous peoples have faced similar destruction. In the Andamans, we had a chance with the Supreme Court order to correct this - at least to some extent - but the opportunity is being squandered.
It would be appropriate here to quote what RK Bhattacharya, former director of the Anthropological Survey of India, said in his 2004 report to the Kolkata High Court: "The ATR is like a public thoroughfare through a private courtyard… Closure of the ATR would perhaps be the first gesture of goodwill on part of the dominant towards an acutely marginalised group almost on the verge of extinction."
The video offers us yet another opportunity to make that 'gesture of goodwill'.
(Pankaj Sekhsaria is associated with the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh. The views expressed by the author are personal.)