It's all about a road. A road that was touted as the path to development, integration with the mainstream, and convenience for the new settlers. What the 340-kilometre-long Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) brought in its wake, instead, was disease and death for the indigenous communities of the Andamans, especially the Jarawa tribe.

Originating in Port Blair in South Andaman, the ATR cuts across the islands to reach Diglipur in the North. It runs on four different islands: South Andaman, Baratang, Middle Andaman, and North Andaman. In two places, the vehicles using the ATR climb on to ferries that are needed to cross the creeks. In some places, it traverses through some of the finest surviving tropical rainforests - virgin tracts of forestland that have traditionally been home to the Jarawas. The ATR that rips through their reserves has raised the interaction of the Jarawas with the settlers and the tourists manifold; alongside it has also eroded much of their original way of life.

Picture: A Jarawa woman receives biscuits from a passenger bus plying the Andaman Trunk Road.

Picture Credit: Pankaj Sekhsaria

The ATR is recent, the Jarawas ancient. They belong to the Negrito group of tribal communities including the Onge, the Great Andamanese and the Sentinelese living on the Andaman Islands. These are communities that have lived and flourished here for at least 20,000 years, but their end could be well round the corner. Just 150 years ago, their population was estimated to be at least 5,000. Today, while the total population of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has risen to about four lakhs, all the four tribes are numbered at not more than a mere 500. Of these, the Jarawas are about 250.

Over the years, the tremendous pressure on these tribes to preserve their identity has only increased. The most significant reason for this is the shrinkage of their forest habitat - their lifeline - because of deforestation and settlements. The Great Andamanese are on the verge of extinction, with just about 30 of them remaining. The Onge - the sole inhabitants of Little Andaman in the early sixties - are reduced to just a hundred.

What semblance of their own identity the Jarawas had was quickly threatened by the ATR; their much larger historical territory has now been reduced to a reserve of 700 square kilometres, as the forests that provide them with all the necessities of life have been ripped apart. As Samir Acharya of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology says, "Closing the ATR and putting an end to the indiscriminate interaction between the Jarawas and the settlers would appear to be the only way to save this ancient tribe."

From the 1960s, the Jarawas opposed the construction of the ATR, fearing its its impact on their lives. They were not consulted, and they showed their displeasure by resorting to hostility and attacking the workers. Work was temporarily halted in 1976, but was resumed soon. Gradually the thick forests of the Jarawas became more and more accessible to the outside world. Settlements increased, timber was heavily extracted, poaching activities rose, and the natural ecosystem of the Jarawas was gravely threatened. Protests by various environmentalists, anthropologists and the Jarawas themselves were ignored. Today the road is ready, and the increased traffic that now passes through the Jarawa land has only served to unleash new causes for concern.

When an isolated community comes into contact with others, it is particularly vulnerable to diseases against which its members have not acquired immunity in childhood.

Contact with outsiders has brought disease to this insular community. In 1999, a measles epidemic hit the Jarawas, infecting nearly 60% of them, an alarming figure for a community as fragile and small as this. Says Dr. James Woodburn of the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, "When an isolated community with low population density (like that of the Jarawas) comes into contact with one of high density (like the settlers), it is particularly vulnerable to diseases like measles against which they have not acquired immunity in childhood."

That is not all. The intense contact which the ATR provides with the outside world has induced the Jarawas to consume a variety of foods containing salt, sugar, saturated fat, etc, that their body systems have never been accustomed to. This can result in significant changes in their metabolism and consequently expose them to diseases of the modern communities such as blood pressure, diabetes and heart ailments. With increased access to such foods, the Jarawas are also gradually giving up on their traditional foraging activities.

Moreover, the interaction between the two is highly unequal. The Jarawas are placed in a weak position against the dominant culture, and are thereby exposed to the vices of the latter. Consumption of tobacco, alcohol, gutkha by the tribals are now commonplace. Sexual exploitation of the Jarawas has also been reported. Over the years, a new kind of tourism has developed in the islands - Jarawa tourism. They have become a chief attraction for visiting tourists, resulting in disgusting instances of voyeurism. Tourist vehicles charge something between Rs.6,000 to 8,000 for a single trip from Port Blair to Rangat, to provide passengers with a fleeting glimpse of the Jarawas.

Did the administration not anticipate such devastating consequences to indigenous lifestyle, or was it all swept under the carpet of development? In any event, the ATR has not proved to be the best way to travel in the Andamans. The traditional inhabitants of these islands, most of whom live along the coast, have always used the sea route. The ATR has made even less sense when one considers the costs incurred to maintain this road. Huge amounts of money (over Rs. 15 crore) and timber are used for maintenance. The SANE estimates that this maintenance consumes a minimum of 12,000 cubic meters of timber, one-eighth of the entire amount that is logged from these islands annually.

The ATR has, understandably, been a subject for heated debate, especially with various environmental action agencies. In 1998, in an issue relating to excessive logging activities in Little Andaman and the danger posed to the Onge tribe, the Pune-based environmental action group Kalpavriksh, the Port Blair-based SANE and the Mumbai-based Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) filed a writ petition before the Kolkata High Court. The administration stonewalled it. It was argued that the matter could be taken up only in the Supreme Court, and the case landed there.

On May 7, 2002, the Supreme Court of India, while hearing this case, accepted the recommendations of a commission it had appointed earlier to look into the issues and passed a set of landmark orders. The one-man Shekhar Singh Commission, set up in 2001, made 25 major recommendations regarding the conservation of the forest habitat. One of these was the shutting down of that stretch of the Andaman Trunk Road that passes through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve areas. It even stated a time frame of three months for this to take effect.

However, the recommendations accepted by the SC have not been put into practice by the local administration. Instead, a review request has been filed. The environmental groups are in the process of preparing a responsive affidavit. Says Pankaj Sekhsaria of Kalpavriksh, "The request for a review cannot be justified. This is a clear violation of the SC's orders." A hearing is scheduled for the end of this month and that will be one significant factor deciding the fate of the Jarawas.

The ATR hangs like a sword over this fragile community. Regulatory arrangements alone are insufficient to guarantee their existence; as the Singh Commission noted, the Jarawa's continuing survival depends on closing the road that winds through their lands and lives.