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“Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar Story” by Dr. Pankaj

Change and flux are major things in any system, it might be
political or ecological or geological or cultural system, sometimes we think
change should happen and at the same time change shouldn’t happen. Sociocultural,
ecological and geological are the three major factors that contribute to Andaman
and Nicobar islands. Andaman and Nicobar islands are well known for tourism,
cellular jails, and 2004 tsunami and Jarawas. Jarawas is an ancient tribe which
is in existence for more than 40,000 years in Andaman and Nicobar islands.

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Since India’s independence, the government was keen to take
advantage of the fertile land, mineral resources, timber and other natural
wealth that the Andaman Islands had to offer. As early as November 1948, a
group, designated as the Andaman Exploratory Delegation, was sent to these
Islands to examine ‘the prospect of colonization and settlement there and they
found the islands favourable for “colonization”. It was observed that ‘there
are large possibilities for settlement by those who take to cultivation or
fishery as their principal occupation. But to exploit the resources of Andaman,
there was an ‘urgent need for labourers of all types as well as skilled
labourers of artisan class’.  Initially
the government attempted to identify individuals from the settled population
who would be “willing” to relocate in these Islands.  But the unwillingness of the settled
population to go to these far off islands made the government shift its
attention to the refugees. Seemingly, the rational was that the refugees, who
had already migrated once, would pose fewer problems if asked to move again.
Thus, the policy of dispersal presupposed that the refugees had no sense of
belonging and no choice for destination. Or, rather they should not have a sense
of belonging and a choice of destination. The fallacy of this logic was evident
though. That places like Calcutta attracted more refugees than other parts of
the region proved the refugees had clear sense and their own reasons about
where to go and where not go. Pankaj in his debut novel, The Last Wave states
that, for these people, the Jarawas were as much myth as the ghosts or the gods
inhabiting the unknown forests of their own imagination. Refugees from East
Bengal, who began settling down on the outskirts of the Andaman Islands’ Jarawa
Reserve in the ’60s and ’70s. Despite living in close proximity to the Jarawas
for several decades, the Bengali settlers have had little interaction with one
of the world’s most isolated tribes. “There are huge legacies and histories of
mistrust between the two communities, which is fuelled by the lack of
interaction. Until 1998, the Jarawa tribe, who have inhabited the island for
thousands of years, were under voluntary isolation and survived reasonably well
within the thick forests. Any interaction between the tribe and settlers would
lead to a conflict from both sides,” explains Sekhsaria, who has based much of
his story on the cataclysmic event that took place in 1998, when a group of
Jarawas stepped out of the forest unarmed.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory in around 1998 announced
that the first sunrise of the new millennium would be visible from the island
of Katchal, of the Nicobar group. Efforts were on to get more than 20,000
tourists (largely foreigners) to the tiny and remote island of Katchal, which
was advertised as the only place in the world where the first sunrise of the
millennium will be visible.

It appeared to be the perfect situation for a huge tourism
event of an exotic, remote island, an occasion that will never come again, and
a government was very eager and willing to make this event a grand one which
intern generates revenue to the government in huge amounts. However, the entire
event was seriously questioned and opposed by many environmental groups across
the country as there were serious flaws in the event and also the serious consequences
of the event. The opposition was strong enough to sustain and make
administration to respond to the consequences. In early August 1999 a
secretary-level meeting held at Port Blair, a decision was taken to scale down
the plan drastically.

The campaign that was coordinated by SANE was based on
detailed research and solid facts. The very fact that Katchal was being
promoted as the only place where the first sunrise of the new millennium will
be visible was never correct. A clarification was issued by experts of
Pune-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics categorically
asserted that these claims were preposterous and also stated that there were at
least  that were being perpetrated — one
that the new millennium begins on January 1, 2000, and the other that Katchal
is the only place where the sunrise will be visible.

Experts all over the world, and this includes the United
States Naval Observatories, the National Bureau of Standards and Technology of
the US and the Royal Greenwich Observatory, England (before its demise in 1998)
have accepted and adopted January 1, 2001 (and not 2000) as the beginning of
the new millennium.

The arguments over the timing of the new millennium, the
time of the sunrise and the exact location could well have been discarded as
academic. The logic of raising these points can also be questioned if this
unique opportunity had been beneficial to all. But that was precisely the
point. There are far greater and serious issues involved in allowing this
incorrectly nomenclatured event on the tiny island of Katchal, says Samir
Acharya of SANE, who was the first to realise the problems with an event of
this nature. The resident population of Katchal is only 12,000, and nearly 4,000
of these are the Nicobari tribals. The impact of suddenly inducting an
additional 20,000 outsiders on this island for a day or two can well be
imagined. Acharya points out that this could create a huge health hazard. The
presence of 20,000 people means that a minimum of 20,000 to 30,000 kg of human
excreta and thousands of litres of liquid waste will be added to the local
environment and this will be in addition to unknown quantities of other solid
waste like paper and plastic, to name the common ones.


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