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How the proposed rail line in Andamans can threaten the Jarawas

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-03-2017 Rahul Chandran

Bengaluru: The small Jarawa tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar islands may be in danger because of a proposed railway line.

The Jarawa population is estimated to be about 430. They live in a protected reserve forest on the island of middle Andaman, through which a railway line is proposed to pass.

The Indian Express in February reported that the railway ministry is set to approve an old proposal to build a railway line from the union territory’s capital of Port Blair to Diglipur, on North Island. The ministry’s planning and finance directorates have already cleared the proposal, the newspaper said.

Experts feel that the proposed railway line would bring more people in contact with members of the Jarawa tribe, exposing them to unfamiliar diseases, among other dangers.

The proposed railway

L-G Jagdish Mukhi told Mint last month that he had asked for an old proposal to be expedited on the grounds that there were now a lot more people in the island and a rail link would be a defence asset considering Diglipur was close to China.

“It is important to ask why has this project been revived again now? The plan for a railway line has been a long-time fantasy that has been abandoned each time after reasoned consideration. What is the rush for it now? How many people are going to travel? And does the cost match up with revenue generation estimates?” said Vishvajit Pandya, an anthropology professor at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute for Information and Communication Technology and a director of Port Blair-based Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research and Training Institute.

“We are still not very clear whether the proposed railway would be built through sections of the Jarawa reserve forest but it might be, considering the non-reserve areas do not have the kind of soil or terrain to build a railway line,” he added.

Without a voice

The Jarawas are just one of the six tribes that inhabit these islands in the Bay of Bengal. They are also one of only two tribes (the other being the Sentinelese) that did not vote in the general election of 2014, which means they have no representation in the government.

Around 250 Andamanese and roughly the same number of the Onge tribe voted in the 2014 general election, said K.P. Nagraj, assistant electoral officer for south Andaman. Only about “two or three” of the Shompen tribe voted.

According to Pandya, the problem is that most government interventions to the Jarawas are prescriptive in nature with the establisment telling the Jarawa what they would do, instead of finding out from them what they want.

“It is not that they are not allowed to vote. It is just that effort has not been taken to convey the politics of the right to vote,” said Pandya. Nowhere in mainland India is there a tribe without the right to vote, he added.

According to Virginius Xaxa, a professor at Tejpur University, “we are treating tribal populations such as the Jarawa in much the same way as the British treated Indians before Independence.”

He said, “(That) these people are naked, they are savages, they are colonial depictions of the people. That was a time when everything other then the west was bad.

Let’s not repeat what happened in the 18th century, 19th century (when Europeans colonized large parts of the world and annihilated many indigenous tribes).”

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