A decision by India’s Supreme Court to reverse a previous ban on so-called "human safaris" by tourists in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will endanger the welfare and very existence of the Jarawa tribe who live there, said human rights activists.
In January, the court issued an "interim order" that essentially banned tourists from traveling along the Andaman Nicobar Trunk Road, a highway where travelers would photograph isolated Jarawa people for their own amusement.
Last year, Britain’s Observer newspaper released disturbing videos showing Jarawa women and children being forced to dance for tourists in exchange for food and biscuits, like animals.
Survival International, a group that advocates for indigenous peoples around the world, called such treatment of the Jarawa a form of gross exploitation and had called for the Indian government to ban “human safaris.”
But now that India’s government has suddenly reversed the prior order, Survival worries about the fate of the Jarawa.
“This complete volte-face is extremely alarming, and Survival will continue to campaign vigorously and vociferously for the closure of the [Trunk] road,” said Survival’s director Stephen Corry in a statement.
“It’s a terrible thought that it’s back to business as usual for the human safaris. Surely the closure of the road to tourists has given everyone in the Andamans a chance to rethink this degrading and disgraceful practice. Human safaris should not be allowed to begin again.”
A Survival spokeswoman told the Daily Telegraph: “One tourist described one of these trips as ‘like a safari ride.’ Apart from being humiliating, they rob the Jarawa of the right to chose how to interact with mainstream Indian society and to control who comes into their territory, as the tourists pass through their land without their consent.”
Enmai, a young Jarawa man, told Survival of the tourists who constantly hound his people: “I don’t feel good. I don’t like it when they take photos from their vehicles.”
According to various reports, local police and tourism officials have been complicit in allowing tourists and travelers to humiliate and exploit the Jarawa.
Sophie Grig, senior campaigner at Survival, complained that tourist convoys pose a great danger to the Jarawa.
“The long convoys of tourist vehicles, often with 60 or 70 vehicles, stop the Jarawa being able to move freely around their forest,” she told the Daily Telegraph.
“The tours have also caused accidents, including one incident when a Jarawa boy lost his arm trying to grab some sweets or biscuits that had been thrown from a moving vehicle.”
In a letter to the Supreme Court, Survival asked the judges to “make the ban on tourists permanent and to order the Andaman Administration… to close the road through the Jarawa reserve completely.”
Numbering only about 400 in population, the Jarawa were largely isolated from the outside world until about 15 years ago.
Survival is also gravely concerned by a suggestion that the court may allow Andaman government authorities to encourage the assimilation of the Jarawa with the outside population – something called “mainstreaming.”
“Forcing tribal peoples into the mainstream has disastrous consequences, as rates of disease, depression, addiction and suicide soar,” Survival stated, noting that the Bo people of the Andamans were once forcibly assimilated by the British, with their last member dying in 2010.
Survival declared that the Jarawa, not the state authorities, “should be able to control the amount and type of contact they have with outsiders, and to choose what, if any, changes they make to their way of life. So far, the Jarawa have shown no sign of wanting to leave their forest to join the mainstream.”
Aside from tourism, Jarawa face other dangers – namely, the expansion of commercial activities on the islands by outsiders. The construction of roads in the 1970s brought with them settlers, poachers and loggers right into the heart of the Jarawa's ancient forest.
“This encroachment risks exposing the Jarawa to diseases to which they have no immunity, and creating a dependency on outsiders,” stated Intercontinental Cry, another activist group for the rights of indigenous people.
“Poachers steal the game the Jarawa rely on, and there are reports of sexual exploitation of Jarawa women.”
About three years ago, an Indian MP named Bishnu Pada Ray even called for the forced removal of Jarawa children from their parents so they can be assimilated into the mainstream of Indian society, echoing past policies for treating natives in the U.S., Canada and Australia that are now regarded as disgraceful.
The Andaman and Nicobar islands are located in the eastern Bay of Bengal – politically they belong to India, although they are far closer geographically to Myanmar and Southeast Asia.