Only human

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am


'Dance,' the policeman says. The girls, naked from the waist up, jiggle for him. The camera, held by a tourist, pans around to another young woman, naked but for a bag of yellow grain held awkwardly in front of her groin.

'Dance for me,' the policeman commands again. The young woman giggles a little, looks shy, hops from foot to foot. 'Dance, dance.' But she won't dance. The camera swings back to the others. They clap, dance, jump - just as they have been paid to do.

This video is the trophy the tourists dreamed of when they set off into the jungles of the Andaman Islands on safari, because theirs was no ordinary safari. This is a human safari, and the prey is a 'Stone Age' tribe only recently contacted, taking their first tentative steps towards the outside world, trusting, innocent and hugely vulnerable.

The policeman is there to protect the young women and the rest of their tribe, the Jarawa of South Andaman Island, a tourist paradise set in the Bay of Bengal, belonging to India but closer to Myanmar.

It costs about 15,000 rupees (HK$2,100) to bribe the policeman, who gives the girls food to dance. Well-heeled tourists club together, appearing eager to pay.

Every day, hundreds of tourist cars line up in front of the gate lowered across the Andaman Trunk Road. A sign next to the gate lists the times of the convoys - four a day, each way, one roughly every three hours. Another sign lists the rules: no pictures, no contact, nothing that could harm the fragile Jarawa, who have been beset with diseases from the outside world since they started to come out of the jungle 14 years ago.

The signs are ignored: the tour operators have assured their passengers that they will get their chance. The cameras click, the tourists throw bananas and biscuits to the tribespeople, just as if they were feeding wild animals.

THE VYAS BROTHERS shop stands on the edge of the main shopping area of Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It sells handicraft items and small wooden Jarawa figurines.

'There are two procedures,' Rajesh Vyas explains, when asked how a tourist might get to meet the Jarawa. The first, he says from behind the shop counter, is legal: take a car to the northern end of the island and come back the next day. If there are Jarawa on the road and there are not too many other vehicles around, the car can slow down and pictures can be taken (although that is illegal).

The second procedure is not legal. In broken English, Vyas explains how he can arrange for the police to help fix up a meeting. It will cost 10,000 to 15,000 rupees for the police alone and the same again for everything else: car, driver, gifts for the Jarawa, biscuits, snacks. A meeting is guaranteed, he promises.

IT GETS LIGHT EARLY in the Andamans. By 5.30am, a line of about 130 cars and 25 or so buses stretches back from the entry gate to the Jarawa reserve. Tourists mill around, drinking tea, eating snacks from roadside stalls and taking pictures of one another on their mobile phones. Everyone is taking pictures. Everyone has a mobile phone.

Vyas has found a driver, Guddu, who is prepared to carry a passenger who wants to photograph the Jarawa, regardless of the risk of having his car seized if caught. A slight drizzle is falling. The first convoy of the day is already strung out, the vehicles about 50 metres apart.

'Jarawa,' Guddu says, pointing to the side of the road. 'Keep your camera down.' In front of the small group of tribesfolk is a policeman and another man in blue uniform, the tribal security guard. There are too many cars around to snap away and these policemen have not been paid off.

'If you not get picture, I give you. I have video, too,' says Guddu.

The car plunges on through the towering jungle. Suddenly, Guddu is slowing and talking urgently. 'Take photograph. Take, take, take.' In front of the car, two Jarawa women have stepped out of the forest. One is standing in front of the car, the other moving round to the rear window. There are no police, no security. It is all very quick, over in less than 20 seconds. One of the women leans in through the window, arm outstretched. Guddu exclaims in alarm, the car lurches forward and the women are gone. What did she want? Food, he says, or money. 'Maybe the camera. The police teach them.'

The vehicle reaches the jetty for Baratang island, the end of the road. Many tourists continue on to see the limestone caves - the purported purpose of the tour. Others opt to park up and sit out the hour or so wait before they can set off in the return convoy.

On the way back, there are more Jarawa, large groups, men, women and children, standing and sitting by the roadside. They are guarded by police, who wave the vehicles on, but it is clear now that these Jarawa are there by choice, because they know the convoys will come. They are not merely being protected from the tourists; they are being protected from themselves.

The safari is at an end. Guddu takes out his phone, passes it into the back seat. On it is a video, about 20 seconds long, of five Jarawa girls, bare-breasted but wearing red string skirts. A voice - that of a policeman - tells them, 'Nacho, nacho [dance, dance]', and they do, clapping their hands and wiggling their hips, jumping in the air, a traditional tribal dance. They stop, and the voice tells them again to dance. The video ends and Guddu uses his Bluetooth connection to transfer it, phone to phone.

'Look closer at the Jarawa sitting by the roadside,' says Denis Giles, later. Giles is editor of the Andaman Chronicle, though he seems to spend as much time campaigning on behalf of the Jarawa as he does working on the paper. Where are the older people? It is the young who have come out of the jungle, who are fascinated by the outsiders and what they have to offer. As they grow older, they lose interest, realise that the outside world is not for them, says Giles.

'I believe that one fine day, the Jarawa will have to come out and mix. They can't stay in the forest forever. They are aware that there is a world outside the forest. But it should not be a cultural shock to them; they should choose the pace at which they [engage],' Giles says.

Instead, they are being thrust into ever closer proximity to tourists and other islanders. They believe the police are protecting them, Giles says, but the reality is that the police are using them. He says the police have taught the Jarawa to beg; the police take the money they collect and give them tobacco, which they never previously used, and food. The possibility of abuse is all too obvious and, Giles says, there have been cases in which Jarawa women have given birth to children fathered by outsiders. The babies are not accepted by the tribe and are killed, he says.

In an attempt to reduce contact, the authorities have cut the number of convoys to eight a day. But tourism is important to the economy and there is no appetite for a total ban. The Indian government would like to close the road completely but many in the islands regard it as a lifeline along which all of their supplies are transported. Switching to a sea route will not be practical until navigational channels blocked by the earthquake that triggered the 2004 tsunami can be reopened.

However, there are deeper and more complex issues that the authorities are wrestling with, according to Ajai Saxena, the secretary of the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti, the island administration's tribal welfare office. It is Saxena's job to decide what is best for the Jarawa. The problem he faces is that he cannot be sure what is happening within the tribe, let alone how to tackle any issues that arise.

'They are humans and they are looking at us. They are at a crossroads and we are not sure what is on their mind.'

The administration wants time to try to work out what to do. Should it shut the Jarawa off from the world for their own good or allow those who want to make contact to do so?

ANTHROPOLOGISTS think the Jarawa are descendants of some of the first humans to move out of Africa. They have been in the Andamans for tens of thousands of years, possibly having reached here by a land bridge. The official headcount is 403, after the birth of a boy on November 15, confined to a 1,021 square kilometre reserve.

Pictures from the end of the 19th century show that there have been previous attempts at contact, but even well into the last decade of the 20th century, the Jarawa remained hostile.

It was only in 1998 that they started to emerge from the jungle, after a young man, Enmai, broke his leg while raiding a settlement. His friends left him behind; he was found and taken to hospital for treatment.

On his return to the jungle, Enmai told others in the tribe that he had been well treated and that there was a strange and fascinating world outside. Others ventured out. Enmai became a minor celebrity; he was even flown to Delhi to meet the prime minister. But Enmai eventually tired of the excitement; he returned to the deep jungle and does not come out any more.

Most of the Jarawa feel the same way, says Dr Anstice Justin, head of the Anthropological Survey of India's Andaman operation.

'The inner core feeling is not to have interaction with outsiders,' Justin says. He points to the fact that the Jarawa are still making and using bows and arrows as a sign of their desire to continue their culture. But some members of the tribe have been seduced by the outside world and the results are predictably dispiriting, he says. Some of the Jarawa have adopted the vices of outsiders - tobacco, alcohol and the chewing of betel nuts. He thinks they are on a dangerous path, that they should be kept away from the outside world for now.

'Forced co-existence would be total genocide for them,' he says.

The Jarawa are vulnerable to unfamiliar diseases. Already they have started succumbing to measles and mumps and even malaria, to which they had appeared to have some sort of immunity.

In 2007, the government established a buffer zone around the Jarawa's reserve - five kilometres deep on land, 10 kilometres from the high tide mark out to sea - to try to protect the tribe from further interaction with the outside world, in particular a luxury resort being constructed on the edge of the reserve by the Barefoot travel company, which bills itself as a 'movement for tribal peoples'. A court case over the resort is with India's Supreme Court. In the meantime, the resort stands abandoned near the shore of Collinpur beach, in Constance Bay, on the west coast of the island.

However, the buffer zone has brought its own problems. When India was partitioned after independence, many Hindus fled what would become Bangladesh. The government settled them in the Andamans, where they built plantations and fished. Many were killed by the Jarawa but thousands established themselves.

Now they find their plantations off-limits, the sea out of bounds. The only way to gain access is to bribe the police, says 35-year-old Sapan.

Sapan's family has been growing coconuts and areca (betel) nuts in Constance Bay since they arrived, in 1949. Sapan is sitting in the bow of the boat we're in, looking out towards the Jarawa's forest. A hut can be seen in a small clearing, but there is no sign of life. The tribe moves from place to place, using temporary shelters. They have larger communal huts hidden deep in the jungle.

The Jarawa come to Sapan's plantation twice a week in groups of 15 to 20, Sapan says. They ask for food, boiled rice, dahl, whatever the villagers are cooking. Sometimes they bring crabs, fish or venison to trade. It is almost 15 years since they started coming to the village. Now they are friendly; but it was not always so.

'The Jarawa are very innocent; they don't lie or do mischief. Earlier, even if they attacked, they would only come on the full moon. They used to attack using bows and arrows. I never saw them shooting because it was dark, but we saw the bodies after they left,' he says.

For now, the Jarawa and the settlers are on friendly terms, but the buffer zone is placing a strain on the relationship.

'Let us live in our village and let them live in their jungle,' says Sapan.

Keshab Mistry, 39, pulls on the single oar, propelling the boat towards the white sandy shore. The problems are the road and the tourism, he says. The tourists don't want to see the limestone caves, he adds, they want to see the Jarawa. The tour operators pay off the police and the tribal welfare people. It is all about money.

'They settled us here and now they are saying we must stop using our land,' he says bitterly. 'We don't understand what is going on. Why can't they let us both live here? We are not against the Jarawa but it is creating a kind of fear.'

S.B. TYAGI, police superintendent for South Andaman, sits in a large office and trots out the official line: the convoys have been halved in number, the route is lined with police, the vehicles move at 40km/h and no one stops. If the Jarawa come onto the road, the tribal welfare people try to persuade them to go back into the forest. But there are, he admits, 'occasional instances' where the Jarawa come into contact with people who throw bananas and biscuits to them.

'It is not a foolproof arrangement but we are making the effort. People have to understand that if there is a policy of non-interaction there has to be a list of rules. But still some of the drivers and tourists slow down.'

He is aware of the allegations against his officers and makes no attempt to deny them: 'The moment we come across any misdemeanour on the part of our police officers, they are dealt with swiftly. The tour operators and police are local, so there may be situations in which they look the other way. There may be incidents where our officers are negligent and we have taken action.'

He cites an incident involving an officer who was censured for allowing two bus drivers to take Jarawa girls into the jungle.

'Who knows why they wanted to,' he says. 'Some people will have the urge to look at Jarawa women as sexual objects. Humans will be humans. One can only try to educate them.'

The policeman's punishment was to have his promotion delayed by six months, he adds.

The islands have an official population of 350,000, but the actual number is thought to be closer to 600,000. Newcomers from India arrive constantly and there is considerable pressure for land: the concern among activists is that if the Jarawa are assimilated into mainstream society, the jungle will no longer be protected and they will come under pressure from developers to sell their land. Without the jungle, their way of life will disappear and they will drift out of history, just like the Great Andamanese, who once lived in the area around Port Blair. Their numbers have fallen from 10,000 in the late 18th century to about 50 and the tribe is now confined to a small island.

'They lost the will to live,' says Giles. 'The government gave them all facilities, it gave them jobs, but they started drinking and begging. They lost their self-respect and their language and their culture. It is easy for politicians to say 'integrate', but it is not simple to put it into practice.'

Perhaps the Sentinelese, who live in isolation on the Andamans' North Sentinel Island, have the right idea, he says. The tribe remains hostile, attacking with bows and arrows those who come close. The government made a few attempts to make contact with them, then gave up in 2000.

'They remain hostile, so there is no tourism,' says Giles. 'But the Jarawa have given up their hostility, so now people want to make them a tourist attraction.'

Human rights group Survival International has been campaigning for the Jarawa for nearly 20 years. Spokeswoman Sophie Grig says the situation is precarious.

'The Jarawa could easily be decimated or reduced to a state of dependency, as has happened to so many other tribes worldwide,' she says. 'It is crucial that the Jarawa be able to make their own decisions about the sort of future they want - and that the realistic consequences of these decisions be made clear to them. The reality is that if they give up their way of life in the forest, they will be at the very bottom of the economic pile.'

Before Enmai disappeared once more into the jungle, he spoke about the simple life the Jarawa enjoyed, of gathering fruit and hunting pigs, of fishing for turtles, of climbing trees.

They had no god, he said. When people died they left them under a tree until only the skeleton was left and then they tied the bones to their bodies to bring luck during the hunt. Men went hunting, girls collected honey and fruit.

He had seen the world outside the jungle: which did he prefer?

Enmai hesitated, tried to be polite, not to offend his hosts. But it was clear where his heart lay.

'Jungle is good,' he repeated, many times.