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Rediff.com  » News » Rare Andamans tribes may have perished

Rare Andamans tribes may have perished

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December 29, 2004 19:42 IST

The beautiful and serene islands of Andaman and Nicobar have been devastated.

There are chances that some of the rare tribes living in these islands may have perished due to the tsunami waves that hit large parts of southeast Asia on Sunday, say experts. If not completely wiped out, at least a large number of them may have been killed.

Lying far from mainland India in the Bay of Bengal, Andaman and Nicobar islands are home to some of the rarest tribes in the world. The population of these tribes has been falling drastically over the years.

And even as a debate raged whether these tribes should be mixed with the "civilized population" or left to their traditions to preserve their ethnicity, the deadly tsunami struck.

"It's a big loss. It's a loss not just of human lives but also for the study of anthropology," said A K Kalla, head of the anthropology department of Delhi University.

The Andaman Islands are spread over an area of 6,496 sq km. To its north lies Nicobar with an area of 1,831 sq km.

The Andamans is separated from the Nicobar by a 145 km wide channel.

Known to the Europeans since 7th Century AD, the Andamans consists of 200 islands, while the Nicobar has 19 small islands.

The tribals living here came in first direct contact with the rest of the world when the British occupied the islands in late 19th Century.

The Negrito tribe living in the Andamans are perhaps the most ancient race on the earth. Some of their behaviour resemble those practised in the Stone Age.

The Sentinelese are the most isolated community in the world, while the Great Andamanese tribe is perhaps the smallest community in the world.

The Onges are said to be the happiest looking people of the world and the Jarawas are known for their unpredictable nature.

Efforts to make contact with the Jarawas have been futile. They are very shy people and have stayed away from settlers on the island, says Kalla.

In the Great Nicobar Island are the Shompens. They live a semi-nomadic and primitive life. They camp in difficult and remote terrain on the island, making it difficult to contact them.

The latest Census report says there are 266 to 270 Jarawas, 98to 100 Onges, 150 to 200 Shompen, 200 to 250 Sentinelese, 20,000 Nicobarese and only 40to 45 Great Andamanese.

The Andamans is comparatively less affected by the tsunami. Unlike the Nicobarese, the tribes in Andaman live in hilly areas and not near the sea.

The worst-hit are the Car Nicobar and Chawra Islands.

The people of the Nicobarese tribe, which lives here, have Mongoloid features.

Nitin Maurya, a researcher in Delhi University, has done his doctorate on the Nicobarese tribe. He returned from Car Nicobar just six months ago.

He says out of the 20,000 people living in Car Nicobar, 12,000 to 14,000 are Nicobarese tribe.

"They mainly reside on the periphery of the island. So the casualty obviously is lot more than what the officials are saying. But because the Nicobarese population is quite high, there are chances that lot of them may have survived," said Maurya.

The Nicobarese have been mixing with settlers on the island. They wear clothes like normal people and even come to work in the towns. But they have their own food and traditions.

Sentinelese tribe, which is anthropologically the most important one, is also facing danger. They live on the flat North Sentinel Island. Their population is estimated to be around 100. No exact count is possible as the tribe has remained isolated.

Along with the Nicobarese, the Sentinelese tribe has also been affected by the tsunami.

Kalla says it is difficult to make an assessment of the loss as many people in these tribes remain isolated. No anthropologist has been able to make contact with the Jarawas.

"It is difficult to get the dead bodies from the sea. And we don't have much knowledge about the tribe so it is difficult to say how many of them died," says kalla.

"Even the choppers have not been able to locate people stuck in the islands. The only thing we can trust is the satellite pictures. The pictures show that large parts of the islands have been completely wiped out. It is really sad."

Some experts say the tribes have their own ability to survive such disasters. But Kalla disagrees.

"Indigenous methods work, but only in small disasters. This time it would be too much to expect. It happened all of a sudden. One may glorify the tribal culture but one should also be realistic. If people in Chennai and Colombo perished, what do you expect of the tribals?" asked kalla.

The officials in Delhi are waiting for the field report before declaring the total loss of tribal population.

"Officials are now busy with relief work so we have no knowledge of the extent of damage to the tribals," an Anthropological Survey of India official said.

Downplaying the issue, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters on Tuesday that the aborigines in Andaman and Nicobar Islands -- Ongi, Sentinel and Jarwa tribes - were safe.

But the major question that remains is of rehabilitation.

Maurya says: "Hardly anything is produced in Car Nicobar. Even vegetables come from Little Andaman Island. Now the situation is such that the officials will have to carry everything from Chennai."

"Government had invested so much in the infrastructure in these islands. Everything has been devastated now. Rehabilitation will be costly."

Ehtasham Khan in New Delhi
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