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Review: Islands in Flux by Pankaj Sekhsaria

An important book provides insights into a region that is largely neglected by mainstream India

books Updated: Sep 23, 2017 13:45 IST
Prerna Singh Bindra
Prerna Singh Bindra
Hindustan Times
Siblings Mion (left) and Ichika, members of the Great Andamanese tribe, in Port Blair in 2005, on the first anniversary of the tsunami. 454 people died and 3,073 were listed as missing in the tsunami in 2004.
Siblings Mion (left) and Ichika, members of the Great Andamanese tribe, in Port Blair in 2005, on the first anniversary of the tsunami. 454 people died and 3,073 were listed as missing in the tsunami in 2004.(PRATAP CHAKRAVARTY/AFP)

For the longest time, the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, rich with rare endemic wildlife remained on my wish list, inaccessible due to expense and distance. It was only in early 2005 that I made my way there to report the aftermath of the tsunami. The visit was turbulent – the island was reeling with the massive destruction unleashed, and a profound sense of loss. My brief stay was an unsettling mix of the exquisite and the tragic: my first, bewitching sight of the coral wonderland, walking the rich, riotous — and diminishing — rainforests that clothe the emerald islands, witnessing dead bodies being unearthed from under flattened homes and trees even three weeks post the tsunami, and the heartbreaking, haunting encounter with a once-proud people, the Jarawas, running after our vehicle, arms outstretched for a packet of biscuits. The cost of dignity, priced Rs 4.

The tsunami, I gathered, was one among the many storms — none so pronounced — the islands had been battered by, their violence gradual, but no less virulent.

It is this steady invasion of the island, of its people, cultures and ecology, so that its original identity is subsumed that journalist and researcher Pankaj Sekhsaria has meticulously chronicled over the past two decades and brings together in the Islands of Flux. He calls it — bluntly and boldly, a colonization. The exploitation of the islands was started by the British who systematically logged the great forests for timber, unmindful of the animals and plants they housed, and the tribes that depended on it — an agenda followed with “clinical efficiency by a modern, independent India.” After 200 years of tyranny by a colonial power that fattened itself on the back of its people, land and resources, India gained freedom only to itself emerge as a colonizer. In the late 1960s, the Government of India had an official plan in place to “colonise” the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

This is the subtext that runs through the book, a collection of Sekhsaria’s articles, published in different newspapers and magazines. The pieces give insights into the islands — there are 572 in all, with only 36 being inhabited — their environment, wildlife, indigenous people, the influx of mainlanders, and their idea of development.

Massive deforestation took away from the tribals their means of sustenance. The consequent soil erosion killed live coral and marine life. The other onslaught was from settlers from mainland India — they encroached on and cleared the jungles, brought in disease, alcoholism, industry, and an economy alien to the local cultures. They ridiculed the Onges, the Great Andamanese and other tribal people — isolated for millennia — as ‘uncivilized’, making them outsiders in the land they belong to. Their numbers dwindled, and were soon vastly outnumbered. From instance, from being the sole inhabitants of Little Andaman, there are today over 120 outsiders for each Onge.

This exploitative vision has only worsened with successive governments, who have given a thrust to ports, industrial infrastructure and tourism, including inside sanctuaries and tribal reserves. Coastal and environment norms are being tweaked to accommodate these.

No contemporary record of the islands can be complete without the tsunami, which shifted the very geography of the islands. Sekhsaria delves on these wounds and suggests other far-reaching consequences one of which is escalating military activity. Owing to its strategic location — far from mainland India and close to Myanmar, and Indonesia, the archipelago has always been of strategic importance, serving as a launching pad and a look out post. Post tsunami, there was a flurry of defence activity and proposals. The Brahmos missile, test-fired on one of the remote islands, made news in March 2008. Other controversial proposals include a missile-firing testing system that would endanger the ground nesting of the endemic Nicobar megapode in the Tillanchong Sanctuary and a RADAR station in the only home of the Narcondam Hornbill on Narcondam Island.

Read more: Indira Gandhi: Linking forests to welfare

The problem in this vision of development, a view of the islands as a military and economic colony is that it fails to consider the fragile ecology and the vulnerable indigenous communities. “The islands has always only existed on the margins of the consciousness of the nation. Did the earthquake and tsunami further ratify the fringeness of the fringe, allowing for experimentation, explosions and targeting in the interests of the Centre?” asks Sekhsaria.

The writing is elegant, the pen compassionate, the vision clear, even if the book is hampered by the fact that it is a collection of reports, hence lacking flow, and with a few overlaps across reports.

That apart, Islands of flux is an important book, providing a unique document from a region that rarely features in the mainstream media, and in dialogues in faraway Delhi. Even more lacking is an understanding of its unique wildlife, forests, people, culture and the intricate link between these, which the author writes of with finesse. This book is particularly relevant as the country sees mounting tensions from other such ‘colonies’ in the hinterland, where farmers, fisherfolk and tribal people are up in arms against the juggernaut of development: mines, ports, power plants, industries that erode ecology that sustains them, and a way of life.

The writer tackles this complex, nuanced subject with sensitivity and an insight backed with his years on the ground.

Read more: Eye on China, India plans infrastructure boost in Andaman and Nicobar islands

I hope that the book will bring the islands closer to the state that rules it but fails to serve it, and to tourists who visit it, unseeing and uncaring of their footprint. I know I need to visit again, to see the island with eyes anew.