The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a microcosm of multitudes – not just because of their unique location, ecology and biodiversity, but also because of the variety of contexts within which they can be experienced and studied. (But information and studies on the islands are sparse and hard to find, so you might find this backgrounder useful for some cultural and historical context.)

As a noted researcher, writer, activist, and photographer of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Pankaj Sekhsaria embodies the diversity of the region in his own work. Sekhsaria has been chronicling the stories of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades now. With a sharp understanding of the islands’ issues, ranging from the cultural to the political to the economic, he has been instrumental in crafting both intellectual discourse and active intervention pertinent to this landscape. His recently released book, Islands in Flux – The Andaman and Nicobar Story, is a collection of his journalistic writings on the ANI over the past twenty years.

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Pankaj Dekhsaria is a noted researcher, writer, activist, and photographer. Photograph by Peeyush Sekhsaria

Islands in Flux is a tapestry of events in the island story, organised by themes that transcend timelines and continue to be relevant today. With their unique location off the mainland and their interconnected threads of culture, community, ecology, and geology, the Andaman and Nicobar islands defy singular, linear narratives – they are truly islands in flux.

We sat down to talk with him about his experiences from the union territory that most of us on the mainland know shamefully little about.

What motivated you to put together a chronicle of the islands?

What motivated me was the need for a consolidated account of the islands, that could comprehensively cover a gamut of issues. I realised that every few years, with every new person that comes into the administration, we had to start from scratch. Despite so much information out there in the public domain, it’s like these people were saying things in complete ignorance of certain issues, without any historical knowledge. So two years ago, I thought, why not make another consolidated account [his first compilation was titled Troubled Island and released in 2003] so that all the facts are in one place. 

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Tracks of a nesting Giant Leatherback Turtle. Galathea, Great Nicobar, 2003. Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria

When you compile such a large body of writing, certain themes begin to emerge, and that’s how this book is organised. It offers a snapshot of issues beyond the usual. The islands aren’t just about the tsunami, or about the Jarawa. Even older stories have a new salience in today’s context – those issues haven’t gone away. I have had readers telling me that they weren’t even aware about some of these issues that plague the islands.

What first brought you to the islands, and what has the journey been like so far?

I grew up in Pune, and was pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in engineering. By then, I was already interested in wildlife and writing. It was a ‘forced’ gap year that started it all. I had enrolled in a post-graduate degree in journalism, but two months into the course, I found out that I hadn’t cleared my Bachelor’s and couldn’t continue the journalism course, so I had a lot of time on my hands. At the time, a very dear friend of mine was based in Port Blair, working in the Navy. He invited me to come over, and that’s how I showed up at the islands for the first time, more than 20 years ago. I spent about two months there, travelled, met people, and got to know about the issues at the forefront. I came back to complete my graduation and then enrolled for a masters in communication at Jamia [Millia Islamia University] in Delhi. It was when I moved to Delhi that I got in touch with Kalpavriksh, which had been working in the islands for some time. And then I went back for a research project in 1998.

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The archipelago is rich in biodiversity. Pictured here, a Giant Robber Crab on South Sentinel Island; and an orchid, Papilionanthe teres, in Port Blair, both photographed in 1998. Photographs by Pankaj Sekhsaria

It was during this visit of yours that the Jarawa first came out in large numbers. Could you describe that experience?

Yes, the first big interaction of the Jarawa was in early 1998 and I, absolutely by chance, happened to be there at that moment in time. It was the first time they’d come out in such large numbers, though we didn’t know that at the time. I had a camera on me and took a lot of pictures, which today serve as historical documentation of a historic moment. It was particularly puzzling, given the fact that Jarawas have long been hostile towards the settlers, to whom they have lost large swathes of their forests. In fact, over the next few months, there were several more reports of Jarawas coming out of their forests. 

(To read more about the Jarawa’s trysts with their neighbours, read Pankaj’s article “Jarawa Excursion”, published in Frontline in 1998)

Had you known about the Jarawa before that?

The Jarawa have always incited a huge amount of fear and curiosity. I remember a time during my first visit when I was on a harbour cruise with one of the local boats that take tourists to popular sites around Port Blair: I heard one of the tourist guides telling stories to her captive audience about how the Jarawa are an extremely dangerous people; that they applied their saliva, which was poisonous, to their arrowheads before shooting at you. Knowing this to be untrue, I became incensed and spoke up, telling her she couldn’t claim such things without any evidence.  

At the same time, there were organisations that would defend the rights of the Jarawa. One of the first was the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE), started by Samir Acharya. SANE began their work much before anyone else was even in the picture. Samir has been a pioneer of tribal rights and environmental activism in the islands for almost 30 years, and is a great influence on me. Along with BNHS, we took a case for the protection of the forests and the tribal communities here to the High Court and then to the Supreme Court in 1998. At that time, one knew only a little bit about these issues.

While reading your book, I noticed the use of language that is particular to the islands – from a colonial definition of tribes as “primitive relics” to the contemporary “settlers”, the people who’ve come from outside. How have you seen the dynamics between them play out?

There’s a complex historical context to these issues. According to recent research, indigenous people have been on the islands for 30,000 to 40,000 years. Most of the current population came to the islands from the 19th century onwards; the Cellular Jail itself was built only in the beginning of the 20th century. All that’s a very short story – it’s only 150 years old. 

The settler population is even more recent – it only dates back to the late 1950s and ’60s, when the Indian government thought of the Andamans as an ‘empty space’, and encouraged people to go live there. The government often gave incentives such as 10 acres of free land to settlers. It’s a very interesting history, and it’s only now that people are studying it deeply – who were these settlers? What were their compulsions and limitations that forced them to make such a choice? We have to remember that they were also vulnerable. 

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Headed towards South Sentinel Island, home to the humongous Coconut Crab. Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Historically speaking, we have put them in conflict with the Jarawa, because these lands originally belonged to indigenous peoples. And sure, with two communities living side by side, with one’s lifestyle being imposed on the other, much conflict has ensued; biodiversity has suffered. Administration officials admit in private that they are unable to do anything to ease the tension between the tribal communities and the settlers. The two groups are locked in a tussle over land rights, and the atmosphere has been vitiated by some administrative policies of the past.

The settlers aren’t the ‘outsiders’ though – what’s interesting is that they, as local people too, are very upset with people like us from the mainland taking a stand on island issues. The insider-outsider card is played often, however futile it may be. The real challenge is that policy decisions are made far away in New Delhi.

At a talk you recently held in New Delhi, you mentioned that it’s difficult for you to fully comprehend the situation of the indigenous communities of the ANI today. Could you delve a bit deeper into that? 

At this point of time, I don’t know enough of what is happening, say in the case of the Jarawa. In any case, we have limited knowledge of these communities, and that in itself can be problematic. We are often asked how we can represent the Jarawa, even going to court for them. The work we have done is from the outside, we are operating as outsiders. What we do know, is that changes are taking place very rapidly. The outlook for indigenous peoples is a very sad state of affairs – physically and culturally – and one that’s being repeated in different parts of the world, not just the Andamans. 

One interesting thing is that what’s being tried for the Jarawa – in terms of education, health, rehabilitation – is better than what’s been done before. There is an awareness and an acknowledgement that we have to do things differently. What we don’t understand is whether that’s good enough. If the Jarawa were still in the forest, and hadn’t come out, it would be a different situation. But they have been coming out and interacting, and if we remain fully aware of the historicity and context behind their presence here, that’s what may help. But at the end of the day, I don’t really know. The position of the administrators is extremely unenviable.

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This photograph, taken in 2003 on the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR),  shows the kind of undesirable interaction that the traffic on the road was helping to facilitate. The driver of this passenger bus was handing over something (most likely biscuits) to a Jarawa woman. The pictures were submitted to the Supreme Court via its Central Empowered Committee as evidence of the impacts of the ATR. Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Now that there’s more of a focus on the development of infrastructure and strategic outposts on the islands, how have you seen policy pertinent to the ANI evolve over the past decade? 

My key concern and contention is that, not just in the last ten, but fifty years; government policy, planning, bureaucracy and the political establishment has not understood the key challenges faced by the islands. The key thesis, if I might, is that the idea of ‘flux’ is central to the existence of the islands. There are three levels of flux that the islands are facing – socio-cultural, ecological and most important, perhaps, geological. You can think of it as a pyramid, at the very top is the socio-cultural context – for instance, the constant change and dynamism of the communities: indigenous peoples such as the Jarawa, the Onge, the Great Andamanese, the Sentinelese, and the settlers who have come in in the last few decades. Their reality is dependent on the next block of the pyramid, the ecological and environmental context – the land, water, soil, coast, sea – which decides the conditions in which these communities will live. You have to take into account the unique tropical conditions, the climate, the high endemism of species. The third, and perhaps most critical level of flux is the geological context. The islands are located in one of the most seismically active zones in the world. The tsunami of 2004 was caused by an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, just a couple of hundred nautical miles from Nicobar. 

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Sekhsaria has been chronicling the stories of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades.

For the last fifty years, we have not acknowledged these independent, but connected realities. A recent NITI Aayog report does not take any of this into account while planning large infrastructure projects. In 2009, at a defense-related seminar, former President Kalam talked about building a nuclear power station in the islands, in a landscape where you’ve had earthquakes which have been 9.3 on the Richter scale. Imagine the vulnerability we’re setting ourselves up for. What happens to the nuclear power plant if another earthquake or tsunami happens? Similar plans were made long ago in a 1965 report. The same ignorance is still prevalent in 2017, despite so much more information being available, despite a deeper understanding, despite technological advances. 

(To learn more about policy measures designed for the islands, read Pankaj’s article “Islands on the Seam”, published in The Hindu this March) 

Tourism in the islands is on the rise. From an ecological perspective, how much tourism is too much tourism? 

That’s a genuine concern, but the scale of tourism hasn’t increased all that much yet. The number of proposals to take tourism to more remote parts of the islands is small, but growing. There are issues of resource availability and waste management which will have to be considered. On the whole, I find it difficult to say no to tourism, but it’s a slippery slope. A very critical understanding needs to be built, and we need to develop the tools and arguments to help people understand that for all its benefits, tourism isn’t the ultimate solution. 

Even from an economic and livelihoods perspective, tourist arrivals in 2004 fell from a lakh to zero in a matter of a week after the tsunami. So it’s important to remember that tourism could become unviable at any point, and we shouldn’t be putting all our livelihoods eggs in the tourism basket, so to speak.

We recently wrote about a photo exhibition of Pankaj Sekhsaria’s photographs of the islands, reproduced in silk. Read about it here. The exhibition travels next to The Story of Space festival, an interdisciplinary arts and science festival in Panjim, Goa from November 10-19.

Sekhsaria writes a regular column on the environment for The Hindu. You can read it here. Pick up a copy (print or digital) of Islands in Flux here.