Sabyasachi Patra

Book Review : Islands in Flux

Islands in Flux

The Andaman and Nicobar Story By Pankaj Sekhsaria

Pankaj Sekhsari has been writing articles documenting the various conservation challenges afflicting Andaman and Nicobar Islands for the past few decades. The A&N Islands are so far from the Mainland India that they would have remained out of our minds and consciousness except for a few tireless writers, campaigners and activists like Pankaj Sekhsaria.

Islands in Flux

Public memory is short. More so in this age of facebook and twitter where the attention span of people appear to be shorter than the lifespan of a bubble, the issues of Andaman and Nicobar Islands – especially the major events impacting the environment, wildlife and biodiversity – becomes obscured from public memory. So the need of the hour is a compilation of the issues and thankfully Pankaj Sekhsaria decided to bring a book “Islands in Flux, The Andaman and Nicobar Story” based on his past writings.

The articles are bunched under several sections like Setting the context, In the Supreme Court, Indigenous peoples, The Jarawa, Environment, Ecology and Development, December 2004 and Its aftermath and Academic Papers. The appendices contains recommendations of the Shekhar Singh Commission, January 2002, Supreme Court Order of 7 May 2002, policy on Jarawa, historical timeline of Andaman and Nicobar etc.

In the past, Pankaj had written a novel “The Last Wave” which is loosely based on actual events and issues of Andaman and Nicobar Islands The Last Wave. The Last Wave despite being a fictional account had aroused the curiosity of many people regarding A&N Islands as well as romanticised its environment, forests and its Indigenous people. With the publication of the book “Islands in Flux, The Andaman and Nicobar Story”, the readers as well as researchers will get fair idea about the issues faced by Andaman and Nicobar Islands including some of the issues like the blatant non-implementation of the Supreme Court order by the ANI administration.

A layman before reading this book may wonder why do we need to be worried about the preservation of the environment and wildlife in these remote islands.

Chidiya Tapu

Chidiya Tapu

The author readily points out that though conservation is mostly thought as an antithesis of development, albeit mistakenly, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands the impact of environmental destruction shows the direct negative impact on the islanders. “The destruction of the beaches, which the turtles use for nesting, threatens the survival of one of nature’s most magnificent creatures. But the human communities that depend directly on this environment are also being forced to pay a heavy price, both ecological and economic. Sensible conservation policies must be evolved in order to ensure that for once there will be no losers, only winners.”

The biodiversity of Andaman and Nicobar Islands needs to be protected because much of the islands flora and fauna is endemic i.e. found no where else.

Christmas TreeTube worm / Spirobranchus giganteus

Christmas TreeTube worm / Spirobranchus giganteus

Overall, 9 per cent of the fauna is endemic: 40 per cent of the 244 species and subspecies in the case of birds and 60 per cent of the fifty-eight species of mammals. The A&N Islands support a significant diversity of reptiles and amphibians, also with a high level of endemism. Currently, seven amphibians and sixteen reptile species are considered endemic to the Andamans and two amphibians and fifteen reptiles are endemic to the Nicobars”.

Bungarus andamanensis / Andaman Krait

Bungarus andamanensis / Andaman Krait

Representing 700 genera and belonging to 140 families, about 14 per cent of the angiosperm species are endemic. Among the non-endemic angiosperms, about 40 per cent are not found on mainland India, but have only extra-Indian distribution in South-East Asia. The butterfly diversity and endemism is also high; reported to be over 50 per cent of the 214 species and 236 subspecies that are found here”. (Page 109)

Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a treasure trove of biodiversity. Our scientific community has only scraped the surface and there is much to discover, says Sekhsaria. “For a field biologist of any kind, be it marine, herpetological or botanical, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the ecological equivalents of the well-known ‘magician’s hat’. Put in a little effort, some resources and time, and out comes a fascinating ‘rabbit’. So much so that every time there is a field study or survey in the islands, some new information becomes available.”… (Page 104, Ecological Treasures… Unlimited)

Andaman Cat Snake / Boiga andamanensis

Andaman Cat Snake / Boiga andamanensis

it is being suggested that the total number of coral species in these islands could be around 400. This would then compare to the richness of the coral triangle, the area of the greatest marine diversity on earth, comprising the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The A&N lie just north-west of this coral triangle and at 400 species, would be supporting about 80 percent of the diversity found in the coral triangle….Good coral populations indicate a healthy marine system, which in turn is very critical for other species that inhabit the oceans, sea turtles for example.” (Page 104, 105, 106 Ecological Treasures… Unlimited)

Neon Slug

Neon Slug

 

The Problem of Exotics:

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands also face the problem of exotics. Many species have been introduced by people in A&N Islands. “Elephants and many other creatures, including the spotted deer, cat, dog and squirrel, birds like the common crow, common myna and the peafowl and other creatures such as the giant African Snail” have caused havoc to the native flora and fauna.

In the fifties P. C. Ray & Co. was granted a contract to extract timber from Interview Island. “in the early 1960s, the company went bankrupt and had to withdraw. Unable to transport the elephants back, forty-odd animals were let loose on the uninhabited island. They turned feral and actually flourished…The 1994 study on Interview Island by N. Sivaganesan and Ajith Kumar found that the elephant population had risen from around forty to seventy-one and that this had led to a significant impact on the native vegetation. Some plant species, particularly cane, bamboo and pandanus were reported to be in decline…the habitat changes induced by the elephants could possibly result in the loss of microhabitats to the detriment of species such as the king cobra and the water monitor lizard.” A 2002 study by ANET found that the “elephant population now stood at around thirty-five. Shortage of food was considered to be the major reason for this decline, though poaching and disease may well have been factors. The study, in fact, confirmed that cane, bamboo and pandanus, favoured elephant foods, were now virtually absent, except on very steep and inaccessible rocky slopes. There was also major damage caused by debarking trees, mainly the smaller ones having a diameter in the 10-40 cm range. There was also extensive soil erosion and the forest under-storey was fast vanishing, indicating a threat to the long-term survival of the forest itself.

Chital or Spotted deer too has been introduced in the Andamans. These deer were the subject of another study published in 2002 by Bandana Aul of the Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, Puducherry. “Since chital browse extensively on seedlings, the high densities of chital have affected the natural regeneration of forests in the Andaman Islands and that there is an urgent need to start reducing the population. It goes on to suggest that hunting licenses be issued and that deer ranching as practised by New Zealand be permitted.” (Page 111 -113)

Pankaj Sekhsaria through his writings brings out how the Government has dealt with the islands in a ham handed manner with one hand not knowing what the other is doing.

 

Janus faced establishment:

The case of the Cuthbert Bay Turtle Sanctuary in Middle Andaman, one of the more important turtle nesting sites in the islands, is somewhat ironic. On the one hand, it is promoted as a tourist destination for its scenic beauty and nesting turtles, while on the other, a part of this beach has been handed over to contractors for sand mining, which affects the turtles and defeats the very purpose of establishing the sanctuary and promoting tourism. The establishment of a fisherman’s colony here and the proliferation of dogs have added to the problem.” (Page 100, Turtle Tales)

The author also points out how the various arms of the Government have been willfully violating the law.

He points out that in 1965, the Ministry of Rehabilitation, Government of India, published an important document related to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands titled ‘The Report by the interdepartmental team on accelerated development programme for A&N Islands’. In that report it is mentioned, “The completion of the Great Andaman Trunk Road would go a long way to help in the extraction of forest produce”. Since Jarawa Tribal Reserve was declared in 1957 under the provisions of the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR), 1956, “the 1965 report then was in complete violation, or was a result of complete ignorance of this legal protection to the Jarawa and the forests that they have inhabited for thousands of years”. (Page 86-87)

 

Contempt of Supreme Court:

Many people in India would not believe that it is possible to disobey the Supreme Court orders. The Supreme Court had ordered the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road passing through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. However, many would be amazed to know that its been more than 15 years and “in what can only be called audacious defiance, the administration of this little Union territory has willfully violated orders of the highest court of the land. A series of administrators have come and gone but the contempt for the Supreme Court remains.” In this writing the author has also quoted R.K.Bhattacharya, former director of the Anthropological Survey of India’s 2004 report to the Calcutta High Court “The ATR is like a public thoroughfare through a private courtyard…In the whole of human history, we find that the dominant group for their own advantage has always won over the minorities, not always paying attention to the issue of ethics. Closure of the ATR would perhaps be the first gesture of goodwill on part of the dominant towards an acutely marginalized group almost on the verge of extinction”. (Page 87-88)

 

Can we Admit mistakes of the Past?

Pankaj Sekhsaria points out how the various indigenous people living in the A&N Islands have been decimated by the contact with us and how their numbers have drastically fallen leaving them on the verge of extinction. Among the indigenous people the Jarawas had shunned all contact and used to fiercely resist the advances of the British and later the Indian colonisers. However, laying down frequent and persistent bribes in form of everyday food items and curios on the road and simultaneously decimating the forests and wildlife so that the food source of these tribals drastically reduce has resulted in the Jarawas now coming out more and more into the open and mixing with people. An independent race of people have been converted into beggars. Some of the images of Jarawa women coming near the bus and the bus driver giving her biscuits were submitted to the Supreme Court and have been included in this book. The contact program has become disastrous for the indigenous people as they don’t have the resistance power for many of the germs that we carry.

Pankaj’s writings on this issue acts like a mirror showing us that we are behaving in the same unethical manner as the British did with us or as the Australians did with their aborigines. Since the Australian Prime Minister has apologised to the Australian aborigines, one wonders whether we Indians have the moral courage to admit our past mistakes and takes steps to rectify before it is too late.

There are many other issues covered in this book like impact of subsidised tourism to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands or the ill thought out plans of former President APJ Abdul Kalam. Hopefully this book is widely available so that people can understand that“this island chain is a fragile biodiversity hot spot that is home to a number of extremely threatened indigenous communities like the Jarawa and Onge (in the Andamans) and the Shompen (in the Nicobars)” and realise that “already, these communities are significantly outnumbered and marginalised.” So we have to shun our colonial mentality and start thinking about the original inhabitants of A&N Islands as well as its bio-diversity.

The “Islands in Flux, The Andaman and Nicobar Story” is 268 pages and is published by HarperCollins India and is available in paperback. This book is full of information and will act as a reference on the A&N Islands for years to come. The articles are an easy read. Priced at Rs. 399/– “Islands in Flux, The Andaman and Nicobar Story” is a good buy and is highly recommended for Students, researchers, activists, conservationists, Government officials as well as laymen.

Sabyasachi Patra
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Sabyasachi Patra

Sabyasachi is an award winning Cinematographer and shoots for international broadcasters, feature films and corporates to make a living. He is a passionate wildlife filmmaker and photographer and has won awards and accolades for his documentary 'A Call in the Rainforest'. He has been striving to make his films and photographs full of life and emotion and write articles to educate and evangelise the need for conserving the last tracts of vanishing wilderness and wildlife in our country. He hopes that his wildlife films, photographs and writings force people to pause, look, ponder and ultimately take action.
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