The Jarawa and the Grand Trunk Road
It has come to our attention that the Indian government has recently been turning a blind eye to “human safaris” in which tourists are illegally visiting (or should I say harassing) the Jarawa. ContemporaryNomad.com does NOT encourage any form of visit to the Jarawa and we STRONGLY support the ban on travel to the Andamans until such issues have been resolved. Visit Survival International for information on the Jarawa and their struggle. We emphasize that our encounter with the Jarawa took place during the crossing of a collapsed bridge in 2009 before these organized safaris began.
After our previous post, I thought that I should comment a little more on our encounter with the Jarawa, one of the most isolated tribes in the Andamans. Those of you who have traveled in the developing world and have encountered tribal people there may be wondering how such traditional people could be standing right next to the road. It’s a very good question.
The Andaman Grand Trunk Road is a highly controversial construction which Indian authorities felt the need to construct in the 1970s. It cuts straight through the heart of the Jarawa territory essentially allowing vehicles to pass through a highly protected area. In an attempt to limit their exposure to the outside world, the Indian government set up extreme rules limiting their interaction with the outsiders. While there are many moral questions underlying this limitation, it has succeeded in maintaining Jarawa isolation.
But people are people. In the late 90s, curious about their surroundings, a few Jarawa started leaving their reserve and interacting with surrounding communities. Unfortunately, this limited interaction exposed the tribe to measles with deadly results. Again the tribe pulled back.
In recent years, a few Jarawa have been interacting with the armed guards and occasionally with private Indian cars that pass through their territory. These interactions are often rewarded with tobacco or unknown foods. Due to international criticism over this interaction, the Indian government seems to be cracking down. Still, there is a road full of interesting vehicles passing through, so they naturally still come out to take a peek at the outside world.
In our Trans-Island Odyssey post, we describe how problems with the ferry system required us to transit the Jarawa reserve on the controversial Grand Trunk Road. Because of storms and flooding, one of the bridges had collapsed and we were forced to exit the bus, climb across a river bed, and enter a second bus on the far side of the collapsed bridge. Of course, our climbing across the river and the machinery being used to repair the bridge were subjects of great curiosity to the Jarawa who hid behind the trees and watched the passengers. (NOTE ADDED IN 2013: I want to emphasize this was not one of the notorious “Jarawa safaris” now being reported by Survival International.)
One interesting aspect of our encounter was that they showed no fear of Indians. However, when our small group of foreigners emerged from the bus, they appeared to be terrified and ran to hide in the bamboo groves. This was an interesting observation because we had heard several rumors that Indians tell the Jarawa to fear foreigners. I’m starting to wonder if those rumors are true.
Out of curiosity, I asked locals why photographing the Jarawa was prohibited. The consensus seemed to be that the Indian government banned photography because the Jarawa went “naked.” Not the answer I was hoping for. I was hoping to hear explanations about respecting their beliefs or, perhaps, something about their discomfort with having outsiders continually pointing cameras at them. Unfortunately, the answer seems to reveal more about Indians than the Jarawa.
Visit Survival International to learn more about the Jarawa and what you can do to support indigenous rights.