A member of Shompen tribe displaying ID card after voting in the recent general elections
A member of Shompen tribe displaying ID card after voting in the recent general elections

Great Nicobar mega project: PMO outreach to indigenous tribes admirable but meaningless

It is unusual that the delegation chose to meet the community of Shompen tribe that had no intention of meeting it and had no meaningful communication but did not engage with the Nicobarese that wished it the most.

A delegation of the Principal Secretary (administrative chief of the Prime Minister’s Office), the Home Secretary (administrative chief of the Ministry of Home Affairs [MHA]), and the Joint Secretary (Union Territory [UT] Division, MHA) recently visited Great Nicobar, the southernmost landmass of the country and the site for the Rs 75000 crore greenfield composite project centred around a transhipment port. They were accompanied by the UT’s Chief Secretary (CS), who is also the Chairperson of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO). 

This state agency is tasked to execute the ‘Great Nicobar Holistic Development’ project under the direction of the NITI Aayog. As per multiple media reports, the central delegation spent almost a day in Great Nicobar and most notably engaged in a ‘significant outreach’ with the two indigenous communities of the island, Shompen, a largely nomadic hunter-gatherer Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, and Nicobarese, a semi-traditional Scheduled Tribe. The Shompen live in social groups (bands) of variable sizes, speak in a yet-to-be-decoded language with significant inter-band variability (four region-based groups are identified by the Shompen Policy, 2015), and are frustratingly under-researched. Traditionally living Shompen are largely known from the descriptions of the Nicobarese and, as a result, the tribe’s name is derived from the moniker (Sam-hap) used by the Nicobarese. 

Due to their proximity and barter relations with Nicobarese, especially before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, few Shompen could meaningfully converse with the Nicobarese in the Nicobarese dialects. Just about 2-3 Shompen can respond in Hindi, none of whom can utter beyond a dozen words. The individuals who can respond in Hindi did so after adopting non-nomadic lifestyles and are no longer a part of nomadic bands. The use of a few Hindi words by the rest of the nomadic Shompen is restricted exclusively to bartering foraged natural items for rice grains with the tribal welfare officers of the Andaman Aadim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS, UT Administration) and a few settlers. Even among the Nicobarese, despite their partial acceptance of modern lifestyle and education, not all are fluent in Andamani Hindi (the predominant link language). The complexities of their expressions, especially due to their unique worldview and the concomitant insular experience are often lost in translation. The level of misunderstanding about the Nicobarese is such that mainland settlers and local administration conflate the two Nicobarese sub-groups of southern Great Nicobar (the southern Great Nicobarese) and northern Great Nicobar along with Little Nicobar (the northern Great Nicobarese) with the Nicobarese of Central and Northern Nicobar Islands. 

Before the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the Nicobarese lived in relative sociolinguistic isolation along the western and southeastern coasts of the island but had to be temporarily rehabilitated to the island headquarters at Campbell Bay, where they still languish as an internally displaced society. As per anecdotes shared by a human ecologist, such was the extent of separation between the Nicobarese and the mainland settlers in Great Nicobar, that in the aftermath of the tsunami when the surviving Nicobarese were brought to the ‘colonized’ parts of the island, the settlers were perplexed about their origin and assumed them to be from Thailand (about 490 km east).

According to news reports, upon arrival on May 3, 2024, the delegation interacted with five members of the Shompen community through a Great Nicobarese mediator in the presence of AAJVS officers at the Forest Camp in the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve. Several crucial details of the official meeting were unreported. For instance, if the central criteria for undertaking this visit was outreach to the indigenous communities, weren’t representatives of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India (GoI), and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), a constitutional tribal rights body eligible to be part of the delegation? Likewise, why weren’t researchers from the UT administration’s Empowered Committee on tribal welfare like Dr Vishwajit Pandya, Dr Manish Chandi (who drafted the Shompen Policy 2015), or the representatives of the Regional Centre of the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), GoI not part of the local team?

None of the news reports offer any clarity on which band(s) the delegates met and whether it was one of the bands to be affected by the partially cleared project. Although the ‘outreach’ by the strategic decision-makers of the project is admirable, especially since the decision can be potentially threatening (as cautioned by genocide experts) and even fatal for the bands, one can’t help but wonder how meaningful such a short interaction is. Tribal policies of the Andaman and Nicobar Administration in the recent past have prohibited visits by senior officials, including the Secretary, NCST. If the conversation was meaningful, it is almost certainly of immense anthropological value since the Shompen bands currently in contact with the AAJVS are extremely shy and reserved. Therefore, assuming that the delegates conversed with the band(s) that the project will directly displace (Kirasis, Kurchinom, and Bui-jayae; Shompen settlements), it will be no mean feat to explain the complexities of the infrastructural project that can be challenging to comprehend even to the best modern minds. Oddly, such a crucial interaction between the delegation and two of the most marginalized communities of the island is shrouded in mystery, and the rest of us are to remain content with the characterization of this interaction as a ‘significant outreach’?

A closer look at all similar interactions after the declaration of the GNI project in June 2020 between top officials like the Union Minister of Shipping, Union Minister of Tribal Affairs, Lieutenant Governor, and even the President and the indigenous communities (mostly, Nicobarese) irrefutably establish that official exchanges have never been made public and perhaps, not even recorded. What is consistent in such exchanges is that members of the Nicobarese communities are dressed in regalia for dance performances each time to showcase and entertain the ‘official’ visitors, and pose for photos after the performance.

Is it a coincidence that it is yet unknown how officials of the Department of Rehabilitation under the Andaman and Nicobar Administration negotiated with the Shompen (who occupied the current revenue areas of GNI) to establish the first large settlement of ex-servicemen and ‘colonise’ the island in the 1960s? Could the history of GNI be repeating? The news sources also state that the CS made presentations on the history, and traditions of the indigenous tribes in question, primarily the Shompen. There is nothing more palpable than the commitment of the august dignitaries to immerse themselves in learning about the local indigenous communities even if it was for less than an hour but to hear about them from the Chairman of the agency focussed on potentially wrecking their lives is not only ironic but borderline sadistic! Wouldn’t anthropologists well versed with the communities be a better alternative?

The seemingly benevolent exchange appears to be suspect in the light of an appeal placed several months ago by the Chairman of the Tribal Council (CTC) of Little and Great Nicobar where he challenges the predominant perception of the government/administration that the local Nicobarese communities are ‘integrated’ and ‘modern’, and asserts the need to have an interlocutor to communicate with the government on crucial pending matters including the settlement/relocation to ancestral villages on the eastern and western coast of the island among others. 

At least five settlements (Chingenh, Pulo Bha, In Haeng Loi, Pulo Pakka, Kokeon; the last four jointly referred to as Pulo Bhabhi) of the Great Nicobarese fall within the Master plan of the GNI development project but are neither marked on any working plans nor were they discussed at the public hearing held on 27 January 2022 or any administrative meetings. Without an interlocutor, the CTC claims that “our (Nicobarese) community cannot understand the jargon of official documents and most often do not know what we are saying yes to”. A probable fallout of this administrative heedlessness and apathy in ensuring effective and transparent communication is the withdrawal of the ‘No Objection Certificate’ granted to the diversion of forest land to the tune of 166.10 sq. km for the GNI project dated November 22, 2022, a crucial step for the grant of forest clearance. The letter by the CTC describes misrepresentation, misinformation, non-transparency, and attempts to trivialise and coerce him to approve the NOC, a classic example of settler colonialism, and administrative high-handedness (‘We know what is best for you’ syndrome). Unsurprisingly, despite the withdrawal of NOC and an appeal to revoke environmental and forest clearances being sent to every possible administrator throughout the echelons of bureaucracy, no public record of an acknowledgment exists, just like the crucial local negotiations in the past. With no official statement about an interaction between the local Nicobarese representatives and the delegation, the current meeting must have been another stark reminder of being reduced to entertainers (Kantaka payuh, a traditional dance form was performed) for the ‘babus’ from Delhi.

The sole information shared about the CS’s presentation to the delegation is that the ‘Shompen and Great Nicobarese always lived in peace and never clashed with each other’, a grossly inaccurate and misleading piece of information. Several studies including ones from the Andaman and Nicobar Regional Centre of AnSI have categorically cautioned against the homogenization of Shompen, just like the Nicobarese. Despite living on the same island, Shompen bands occupy vastly different ecosystems with extremely heterogeneous resources (water, food, building materials, etc.), influencing their lifestyle, beliefs, customs, traditional practices, language, relationships within and between groups, and reciprocity with the Nicobarese. Expectedly, anthropologists have evidence (like the Nicobarese folktales describing belligerent Shompen torching their villages) to assert that the two tribes had a fairly long period of mutual hostility which might not have transformed into symbiosis (barter of essential commodities) across all bands concurrently.

As a matter of fact, most information on Shompen exists from about 3-4 bands, which is grossly insufficient to comprehend their uniqueness let alone mitigate the adverse effects of large-scale destruction of their habitats and with it, their culture. There are some obvious questions to be asked here as well: did the presentation mention how cholera contracted from settlers killed several Shompen in the 1980s or how a former Shompen chieftain (Mingi) of Laful died upon contracting leprosy in 2014, or that many Shompen have shown a substantial prevalence of pre-hypertension and hypertension conditions as per a recent study? Was there a mention of Kagaz and Kakein, two young Shompen men who died by suicide (in 2012 and 2018, respectively)? Both lived with Great Nicobarese in New Chingenh and were ‘integrated into the mainstream’; their friends from among the Nicobarese community acknowledge depression to be an issue both fought with for long, being drowned amidst a society and cultures that were alien to their own. Did he also mention the video produced by Dr Vishwajit Pandya for the NITI Aayog, in which a Shompen man says “Do not climb our hills, our forests” or the letters from noted anthropologists including Dr TN Pandit and retired bureaucrats (Constitution Conduct Group) who have appealed to revoke the project, or the letter from The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, United Nations Human Rights which seeks information on steps taken by the government to ‘prevent any adverse and irreparable impact’ on the ‘livelihood and existence’ of Shompen and adherence to laws/policies protecting their rights? How about the recent letter from genocide experts or Members of Parliament (Mr Kuldeep Rai Sharma, and Mr Binoy Vishwam)? Besides, did the delegation take adequate precautions (use of masks and hand sanitizers) against disease transmission while meeting the Shompen members? Wasn’t there a mumps outbreak in Delhi during April-May when the delegation travelled to the island?     

However, what the delegation was most uniquely positioned to do and regrettably didn’t, was to interact with the settler communities of Great Nicobar, many of whom that remained after the tsunami are in their third generation and recently, completed 55 years of their existence. A visit to Shastri Nagar and speaking to the settlers would have made it clear how the tsunami has affected their farming practices, how they are coping with their first displacement, and what leaving their settlement again for the proposed Chingenh airport could mean to them; residents of Laxmi Nagar would have been proud to tell the delegation that their panchayat is an awardee at the National Panchayat Awards 2023 under the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Panchayat Satat Vikas Puraskar but the infrastructure to process the solid waste (the largest open garbage dump is outside this village) of the entire island is still under development; residents of Vijay Nagar would have certainly mention pending financial compensation from the tsunami, submergence of agricultural lands and inaccessibility to the ones that remain.

The suffering of the settlers at Joginder Nagar remains unabated even after the tsunami, especially for the ex-servicemen families who have to travel to Vijay Nagar to tend to their farms, their demand for a minimum support price for coconut and areca nut, and greater budgetary allocation for agriculture remains unfulfilled. Residents of other settlements around the main township of Campbell Bay such as Govind Nagar, Kamal Basti, Rajiv Nagar, Medical Colony, Gaddha Basti, and ALHW Colony would have emphatically stated each of their unique problems. But beyond the listed problems, there are much bigger issues that each islander would have presented in unison such as lack of reliable basic medical care, scarcity of water in drier months and flooding in wetter months, poor quality of drinking water, unregulated pricing of vegetables, inorganic cultivation, and the high price of essential commodities, expensive conveyances to Port Blair, poor standards of education, inadequate maintenance of roads, irregularities in government employment and limited economic opportunities. Couldn’t the delegation spend a few additional hours to get a sense of the plight and aspirations of the people they meticulously planned to settle on the island? Couldn’t they have interacted with the ailing ex-servicemen who voluntarily enrolled in the rehabilitation program, the fishing community of coastal Andhra that supports the piscine cuisine of the islanders, the community of builders from Jharkhand who created the basic civic infrastructures, all of whom have tackled the hardships of an unknown land far away from their ancestral homes, survived on minimum resources, and paved the way that made it possible for the delegates to relish the services that they enjoyed in Great Nicobar?

It is unusual that the delegation chose to meet the community that had no intention of meeting it and had no meaningful communication (Shompen); met but did not engage with the community that wished it the most (Nicobarese); and ignored the community that has the highest reliance on the resources that the delegates command (settlers and mainlanders).

The author is a researcher specialising in the region and does not wish to be identified.

The News Minute