I write this article as our plane flies over the Andamans. It takes me back to the first time I flew over them. It was two days after the December 26, 2004, tsunami. Before getting down to writing this, I re-read a piece I had published at the time. In it, I noted how there were very few beaches on most of the islands. There were, but they were under water.
Two years and the waters have receded, though not fully. They probably never will. Two years and the lives of the islanders have changed forever. The struggle to get used to new livelihoods, the months spent in temporary shelters, the culture of aid and assistance, have qualitatively altered the nature of life in the archipelago.
Sometimes I think it is not so much the tsunami as the hurricane of people, government programmes and NGOs that have been the greater force of change. Like every other major intervention into a slower-developing area, its effects have been a mixed bag. But if I were to answer the question that I am most often asked, “How are things there?”, I would answer: “It’s a change in course for many, but largely the people have not thrown away the stuff that really matters — familial attitudes, traditions, sense of community. Their quality of life has definitely not suffered. If anything, it’s better today. The one major worry though is how the islanders will adjust to life when all the governmental aid that has been doled out to them these past two years comes to a stop. Then there is the tricky phenomenon of large amounts of hard cash in the form of compensation in the hands of erstwhile poorly off people. Think about it. This is a region in which conservative estimates put the amount of aid (only governmental), into this region in the past 24 months at Rs 1,500 crore.”
But for me, it is the softer, less immediate issues — issues relating to a peoples’ psyche — that are the ones that need to be understood. I have been to the islands 15 times in the past two years. I have met farmers, industrialists, tribal captains, doctors, footballers, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, orphaned children, conservationists. Barring none they will admit to feeling a sense of apartedness from Indians on the mainland — a sense of the poor, country cousin.
It doesn’t take a Carl Jung to see there exists an emotional and psychological schism between us on the mainland and those on the islands. I am a decently educated person but till the tsunami hit the region, I knew almost nothing about the archipelago. No clue who lived there (save some vague idea about fierce-looking diminutive tribals with paint on their faces — snippets from some documentary?), what they wear, or even what the islands look like. That this ignorance has ceased to surprise locals is no measure of their sensitivity to the issue.
They, too, would love to have a one-day international cricket match being played here. They too would love to have an episode of a music talent show beaming from here. (I have heard some Nicobarese sing. They are pretty damn good.) They understand the neglect is neither intentional nor is it driven by politics. It is mostly driven by distance: 1,155 km from Chennai, 1,200 from Calcutta; at its southernmost, the territory is barely 200 km from Indonesia. More important, it is distance that is all water. So, only a fraction of us know Havelock Island has one of the finest beaches in Asia; that the total population across 36 islands is estimated at a trifling 4.5 lakh (Bombay is at 18 million) of which the tribal population would not be more than 33,000; that Kanyakumari is not the southernmost tip of India, Indira Point on Campbell Bay is.
Don’t get me wrong. It is not that locals — both native islanders and the migrants — are walking around with shoulders rounded with low self-esteem. It’s just that when you get talking to them about the rest of India, they acknowledge a feeling of separateness. Let me ask you this. When was the last time a child in school or a college-mate or a colleague, or someone you were hiring, said they came from Mayabunder or Katchaal or Hut Bay?
Which is why the first initiative that my NGO, The Foundation, is implementing is one which will see, every two years, three boys and three girls being selected from 85 government schools across the islands and given full scholarships to study, from Standard VII to XII, in a boarding school on the mainland. The first batch of kids leave for Rishi Valley school in July 2007.
I have had a lot of people ask me why we are spending close to Rs 2 crore on each batch of six children just to put them through six years of school. Wouldn’t it be so much more sensible to start a school in Port Blair? Or give tens more scholarships to children on the mainland? The answer is simple. Of course, it would. But there would be little chance of a bridge built between us and them. There would be no children learning a new way of life and sharing their ways at home with us.
There would be little chance of teenagers knocking at the doors of National Institute of Design or Nirmala Niketan. Would HRD departments at Infosys or MTV get applications from Car Nicobar? In a country where the two Indias, Dalit-upper caste, Hindu-Muslim, urban-rural, rich-poor, have never been further apart, ours is a minuscule effort in bringing the two a little closer together.
For me, this marks the beginning of a process that started two years ago when I stumbled off a plane in Port Blair with a head full of ignorance and a little bit of idealism. It is my interaction with the leader of the boy scouts in Rangat who had worked 36 hours without food to start a relief camp, my conversation with Fortifer, the tribal captain of Trinket Island as he stood holding back the tears looking around at the devastation of the tsunami that had split his island into three, my memory of the little boy in a relief camp who had his hands clasped over his years as he struggled to forget the sound of the tsunami (“like a jet plane”) as it erased his family, that compelled me to return again and again.
Today it is this simple connection, this elemental emotional tug that makes me look forward to the years ahead.
Rahul Bose is an actor and social activist and can be contacted on www.tsa.in/foundation