Reserves that are central to the ecological security of a unique group of islands: Tribal rights and conservation – Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The entire Nicobar islands is a tribal reserve and is key for the survival of a number of species of rare and endemic flora and fauna.

Unlike the rest of India, tribal rights and conservation are not at the opposite ends of the spectrum in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Yet, there are challenges.

In a national scenario where wildlife conservation and tribal rights have ended up at the extreme ends of an acrimonious spectrum, the situation in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands stands out in stark relief. We have here a situation where the protection of the indigenous peoples, the forests and the islands’ biodiversity including its rich bird life are all intricately linked. Evidence suggests, in fact, that forests protected legally in the islands as tribal reserves are more important for wildlife and biodiversity conservation than the protected area network created under the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act.

Wildlife conservation

The islands have 105 protected areas (wildlife sanctuaries and national parks) which constitute a significant percentage of the all India number of a little over 600. Yet, it has been argued that they don’t actually play an important ecological role in the islands. Most of these protected areas (PAs) are tiny islands and rocky outcrops that sometimes have an area of as little as a few hectares. The largest forest area protected for wildlife in the Andamans, for instance, is the 133 sq km Interview Island Wildlife Sanctuary. Importantly, this island experienced intense and sustained timber extraction operations till about the middle of the 1960s. Compare this with the 1,000 sq km Jarawa Tribal Reserve that is spread over three large islands (South, Middle and North Andaman) and the implications are obvious. That a significant part of this tribal reserve has never been subject to any timber extraction operations underlines the importance of the reserve from an ecological and biodiversity point of view. […]

Tribal reserves

At the heart of the story, then, is the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR) that was created in 1956 and under whose provisions large areas of forests and adjoining seas have been designated as tribal reserves. This includes the entire group of the Nicobar Islands (about 1,900 sq km) and four tribal reserves in the Andaman Islands (nearly 1,600 sq km). The Andaman reserves are named after the four aboriginal negrito communities that have been living in these islands for at least 40,000 years: the Great Andamanese, the Jarawas, the Onge and the Sentinelese. These reserves, then, are not just critical to ensure the natural resource base and cultural security of these tribal communities, they are central also to the ecological security of this unique group of islands. […]

Conservation challenges

The challenges, however, are more complex than they appear at first. One of the biggest has been the large influx of people from mainland India. The population in the islands has grown six fold from about 60,000 in 1960 to an estimated 3,80,000 today as per 2011 census. The population of the indigenous communities on the other hand (Onges – 100 and the Jarawas – 375) is extremely small and has remained steady over the many decades. The situation clearly demands careful intervention. One such framework was provided by the orders of the Supreme Court, which were passed in 2002 in response to a public interest litigation filed by non-governmental organisations. The court had asked for putting in place an inner line area system to prevent the influx of people, stopping commercial timber extraction, removal of encroachments, phasing out of sand mining from the island’s beaches, use of appropriate construction materials, closure of the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Plantation and Development Corporation that had been logging the forests of Little and Middle Andaman since the 1970s; and closure of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) where it runs through and along the forests in the Jarawa Reserve.

Nearly a decade later, many of these orders have not been implemented. The population influx continues, little effort has been made to move to more island-friendly methods of construction and the ATR still remains open to traffic. […]

The challenges and the opportunities are as clear as they can be!

Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of the environmental organisation Kalpavriksh.

Source: “An intricate web” by Pankaj Sekhsaria (The Hindu, 4 February 2012)
Address : https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine//article59800934.ece
Date Visited: 24 July 2025

Andaman’s clean environment, ecology must be preserved: President Murmu
PORT BLAIR: President Droupadi Murmu on Monday stressed on the need for preserving the clean environment and ecology of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Murmu, while addressing a gathering during a civic reception here, called for maintaining a balance between development and environmental protection. “It is very important to preserve the ecology and environment of this island. We have to maintain a balance between developmental work and preservation of the environment while moving forward,” she said.

Source: “Andaman’s clean environment, ecology must be preserved: President Murmu”, Times of India, 20 February 2024
URL: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/andamans-clean-environment-ecology-must-be-preserved-president-murmu/articleshow/107848922.cms
Date Visited: 1 July 2024

“National development and the development of tribal communities are
linked to each other.” –  Droupadi Murmu | Speeches by the 15th President of India >>
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Learn more about water-related issues that affect India’s tribal communities >>

“Together, we must endeavour to strengthen tribal communities which are the role model in preservation of water, forest and land, and learn from their connection with nature and the surrounding environment for the sake of the entire human race.” – journalist and tribal rights activist Dayamani Barla in The Wire >>

“It is unfortunate that we hear of the destruction of some of the finest tropical forests in the country at the same time as our environment minister is telling the world at the ongoing United Nations climate conference in Egypt that India is ‘a part of the solution and not the problem’. There is a huge gap here, clearly, between words and deeds,” said a researcher on the environmental issues on the condition of anonymity, according to The Hindu.

Source: “Over 130 Sq Km Forest Land to Be Diverted for Great Nicobar Island Megaproject” by The Wire staff
URL: https://thewire.in/environment/great-nicobar-island-project-130-sq-km-forest-area
Date Visited: 21 January 2023

The mega project is determined to axe over eight lakh [800.000] trees in Great Nicobar. The government should remember an ancient tradition which dictates that “in Great Nicobar before attempting to cut down a tree in the jungle… permission is always obtained from the Shompen.” | Read the full article here >>

The Crux

Ecologists, anthropologists, and domain experts call the in-principle permission given by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) for the diversion of 130.75 sq km of forest in Great Nicobar for a Rs.72,000-crore mega project an impending ecological disaster. 

The island’s indigenous people, whose traditional habitats and worldviews the mega project imperils, are also frantically trying to have their voices heard.  

In January 2022, the Andaman and Nicobar Pollution Control Committee conducted a public hearing. Tribal people say they were assured that the project will not harm traditional land and resources. They now feel helpless and abandoned. 

Great Nicobar is a traditional habitat of two historically isolated indigenous communities—the Shompen and the Nicobarese—who were the sole inhabitants of the island until the government set up seven revenue villages, settling 330 ex-servicemen families (settlers) from 1969 to 1980. 

Before the tsunami, they inhabited over 30 villages. Their primary livelihood activities included fishing, hunting-gathering, pig and poultry rearing, and horticulture of coconut and areca nut.

Ajay Saini is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He works with remote indigenous communities. The views expressed are personal.

Source: “Great Nicobar: Whose land is it?” by Ajay Saini
URL: https://frontline.thehindu.com/environment/great-nicobar-whose-land-is-it-shompen-and-nicobarese-still-await-return-to-homes-from-temporary-camps/article66349832.ece
Date Visited: 23 January 2023

Over the past decades, the Jarawa indigenous peoples have been hit by the arrival of settlers from elsewhere in India and the limited development that has taken place, especially the construction of the Andaman Trunk Road and the rise in tourism. As is typical in such instances, this has meant the spread of disease among the Jarawa, sexual and other forms of abuse by outsiders, incursions into their territory and rampant poaching. […]

To promote the area as a destination, the government has sanctioned a Rs 50 crore project on the development of a sea route from Port Blair to Baratang, one of the islands and home to the mud volcanoes.

Source: Rajat Arora, Economic Times, 26 September 2015
URL: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/infrastructure/modi-governments-rs-10000-crore-plan-to-transform-andaman-and-nicobar-islands/articleshow/49111067.cms
Date Visited: 4 December 2020

Remembering Samir Acharya, Who Fought to Preserve the Cultures of Andaman and Nicobar | Read the full story by M. Rajshekhar >>

The activist repeatedly insisted that instead of asking the tribes to change, non-locals needed to adapt to the islands instead of coming in with ‘mainland thinking’.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, closer to Indonesia than to India, hardly ever feature in the national consciousness. The last time the archipelago made national headlines was in 2003 and 2004 after the tsunami. And, yet earlier, when some members of the indigenous Jarawa tribe walked out to voluntarily contact mainland settlers on the islands.

This remoteness has allowed extraordinary impunity on the islands. Bureaucrats rule like kings. Local politicians push migration to the islands in the hope of adding to their votes. The local officials collude by understating population in the archipelago – as I found in 2004, the number of folks with names on ration cards is higher than what the census reported. Into the 90s, the Andamans, one of the most biodiverse parts of India – with rich, ancient rainforests – saw lots of logging. In the guise of extending ‘development’ to the tribes, the infamous Andaman Trunk Road was built as well, cutting through the forests where the Jarawas lived.

In the past, under British rule, several of the Andamanese tribes had come close to extirpation. So much so that the battered remnants of several were clumped together into a new tribe that we now call the Great Andamanese. See Madhusree Mukerjee’s The Land Of The Naked People, on the endangered tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, for more on this. Or see anthropologist Sita Venkateswar’s Development and Ethnocide. After Independence, that project of conquest continued. Every so often, there would be chatter about the imperative to ‘mainstream’ these tribes as though they have no say.

We will, obviously, not get into the inconvenient truth that every time India tries to ‘develop’ her tribal communities, they end up destitute, working as wage labour in our fields and factories and brick kilns. In Port Blair itself, some years ago, the son of Jirake, the king of the Great Andamanese, had been found begging.

Those are the battles the activist Samir Acharya, who passed away on Friday, October 16, fought. He opposed logging in the islands – apart from fishing, the biggest economic activity there – in the 90s and found himself wildly unpopular. Think of the guts this takes. To be a sole voice opposing logging while living amidst those gaining from loggers and an administration so unimaginative it saw logging of old-growth forests – not tourism – as the economic mainstay of the isles. And yet, he didn’t just speak out, he mounted legal challenges. In May 2002, when the matter reached the Supreme Court, it banned all felling in protected forests and told the Union Territory administration to remove settlers encroaching into those forests. It also ordered two stretches of the Andaman Trunk Road to be closed. In her book, Madhusree Mukerjee describes the aftermath [i.e. he became regarded as the most hated man on Port Blair, held responsible for the decimation of thousands of livelihoods].

To this day, convoys continue to run down the Andaman Trunk Road, with passengers craning necks in the hope of seeing the Jarawas.

What they didn’t see was what he did. Members of the tribes deserved greater consideration. As he told Rediff in an interview shortly after the 2004 tsunami: “Each island has its own culture, tradition which is unique. They are not one tribe. Like we say all Chinamen look alike but we know there is great diversity among them. Similarly is the case here. So it will be a unique loss of culture. Each island has a very small population. Each has its own culture. If one island also gets wiped out it will be the loss of an entire culture, a whole tradition.” (He was talking about the Nicobarese but that point applies to all the tribes in the archipelago). […]

Administrative decisions compounded the crisis. With deforestation, the isles’ capacity to retain rainwater fell – rainwater ran off denuded slopes instead of recharging aquifers. […]

Dredging beaches for sand (for construction) resulted in silt settling on corals, which reduced local fish population, and weakened fisherfolks’ livelihoods. Even the Andaman Trunk Road, he said, was an instance. People in archipelagoes take boats, and know how to swim. The settlers, said Acharya again and again, needed to adapt to the islands instead of coming in with mainland thinking.

For this reason, when Jared Diamond’s Collapse (on how unravelled ecological foundations were the undoing of disparate societies) came out, he was an avid reader. In the Andamans, that process of a society weakening its ecological foundations was unfolding in front of us. Chats followed where we wondered if we could tell Diamond about the Andamans. […]

The problem facing the islands persisted. The pressure to mainstream the tribes continued – in November 2014, environment minister Prakash Javadekar had again asked how long India can leave the Jarawas as museum pieces? Never mind that, even as this performative debate continued, the state and its tribal department had allowed the worst of our society – paan, tobacco, liquor and now, COVID-19 – to reach these endangered communities. Newer threats, like a transhipment port at Great Nicobar, emerged.

Evil springs up again and again. Each generation must fight it. Samir Acharya, in his unassuming, chain-smoking way, shepherded the isles through a dangerous time.

We must now be worthy of him.

M. Rajshekhar is an independent reporter studying corruption, oligarchy and the political economy of India’s environment.

Source: “Remembering Samir Acharya, Who Fought to Preserve the Cultures of Andaman and Nicobar” by M. Rajshekhar, The Wire, 18 October 2020
URL: https://thewire.in/rights/samir-acharya-andaman-nicobar-activist-culture-preservation-tribute
Date Visited: 6 August 2022

State/Union Territory-wise list: Scheduled Tribes in India >>

Statisticians all over the world have questioned how, in a vast country like India, which has a high degree of illiteracy, you can possibly have a high degree of enumeration. There is obviously something wrong with the census data. And the inadequacies of census data are more acute in urban areas than rural. Overall, it is possible that the degree of undernumeration is low because mobility is low. Unlike in the West, people are not frequently changing jobs. In the villages, most people know each other. So it isn’t surprising our census figures for rural areas are more dependable than those in urban areas. But the extent of undernumeration is disturbingly high in urban areas.

Source: Population expert Sumanta Pal in “Censuses mean little” by Ashish Bose, Down To Earth, 15 December 1993
URL: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/interviews/censuses-mean-little-31796
Date Visited: 21 July 2022

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Photo and video recommendation: a voice from rural India worth being heard

Whether you plan a visit or seek to learn more about India’s rural life – perhaps inspired by the Gandhian social movement or Rabindranath Tagore – explore “a living journal, a breathing archive” in the Adivasi category of PARI: the People’s Archive of Rural India initiated by distinguished photo journalist-turned-activist P. Sainath, continually enriched by stories from all over India.

“In less than 200 years, photography has gone from an expensive, complex process to an ordinary part of everyday life. From selfies to satellites, most of the technology we use and spaces we inhabit rely on cameras. […] While photographic documentation can aid in shaping history, it can also be a window into the horrors of the past.” – Read more or listen to Butterfly Effect 9 – The Camera on CBC Radio Spark 26 May 2023 >>

For additional learning resources visit the website of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), “a public interest research and advocacy organisation based in New Delhi”:

Communication for Awareness
CSE’s publications and informational products have been its strength and they have always combined research and readability to get the message across.

CSE’s tools for awareness raising are periodicals, publications, films/short spots, briefing papers, exhibitions, posters and other products. CSE’s informational products reach people in more diverse ways such as features service, website and e-news bulletins. […]

Source: About CSE
URL: https://www.cseindia.org
Date Visited: 10 July 2022

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Tribal communities (Andaman and Nicobar Islands):
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Anthropology & Anthropological Survey of India

Colonial policies Andaman | Independent India Andaman

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Cultural invisibility – India’s 600 potentially endangered languages | Linguistic Survey of India (official website) >>