Conservation and Society

: 2005  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 233--238

Influenced by the Sea

Rauf Ali 
 Senior Research Fellow, FERAL, Post Box 28, Pondicherry-605 001, India

Correspondence Address:
Rauf Ali
Senior Research Fellow, FERAL, Post Box 28, Pondicherry-605 001

How to cite this article:
Ali R. Influenced by the Sea.Conservat Soc 2005;3:233-238

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Ali R. Influenced by the Sea. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2005 [cited 2020 Jan 28 ];3:233-238
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Full Text

Simron Jit Singh. In the Sea of Influence: A World Systems Perspective of the Nicobar Islands. Lund Series in Ecology, No. 6 (2003). Lund University, Sweden. Pp.333. ISBN: 91-628-5854-8.

I took MV Chowra from Port Blair in the Andamans, to Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar for the first time in 1991. The journey, a distance of about 500 km, took four days, while the return took three. We stopped at Car Nicobar first, and a pontoon was towed to the ship. We rode this pontoon through a swell, and it took about two hours to get to the shore. Further south at Chowra and Teressa Islands, loading and offloading occurred using racing canoes that appeared magically from the shore. The swells were over a metre, and one's footing had to be very precise, else one took an unintended bath. I watched the Nicobaris do exactly this. They got bored of waiting in the long lines down to ladder to disembark, so leapt off into the sea and swam to the boats. Meanwhile, a truck battery and a brand new 2-in-1 didn't quite make it across the gap between ship and canoe, and began their repose on the ocean bed. In the meantime, the ships officers raged, ranted and swore at any Nicobari in the vicinity.

Weren't there jetties? Well, these had been planned for years, but somehow the money ran out. On the way back, there was a desperate rush to get sacks onto the ship. What was in them? This is the legendary copra trade? And how was it that all the shops appeared to be run by non-Nicobaris, on every island we actually December? Well, yes, there are laws regarding that, but ways to get round these laws. I got the impression that I was back in the 18th Century, and a very corrupt colonial 18th century at that.

Now fast-forward a decade. This time it's a larger ship, a ship that goes to Chennai, a ship that is too big for the jetty at Nancowry. We watched a harrowing effort to disembark in stormy weather, and it was astonishing that nobody drowned. Oh yes, in the meantime a couple of jetties have come up, but can't be used by the bigger ships. We're still in a corrupt colonial 18th Century milieu. There's a joke going around about a senior bureaucrat who had been transferred away from the Nicobars recently. He didn't have enough money to build a house on the mainland? He must have been incompetent as well!

Simron Jit Singh is a human ecologist working in the central Nicobars, and his book attempts to make sense of all this. He begins with an introduction to the subject of human ecology. He then looks at the history of these islands, beginning with the early visits by the Chinese, who traded both for copra as well as harvesting the edible birds nests for birds nest soup, something the Nicobaris did not benefit from. He goes on to look at the colonial history of the Nicobars, documenting the attempts by the Danish and the English to colonise these islands. He then gives an overview of the history of the Nicobars in independent India. Finally, he reaches a few human ecology conclusions, and indicates where he thinks the development process in the Nicobars is leading.

In the introductory section, Singh puts forth his basic thesis: "emerged…was a profile not of a completely subsistent society, but of one that was already tradedriven, and on a path of development that is mostly externally driven". Copra and areca nuts were identified as the main items exported in exchange for rice, sugar, cloth and fossil fuels. The second chapter deals with various definitions and methods used, and appears to be cut and pasted from the methods chapter of his dissertation. This is highly technical, as well as unnecessary for a book of this nature. The meat really begins with the third chapter, where patterns of geography, biogeography, settlement and community organisation are briefly examined. The next chapter is an overview of the 'social metabolism"-the material and energy flows that have been identified, specifically on the island of Trinket in the Central Nicobars.

Here some interesting assertions are made, and it would be interesting to see more material on these. The export of biomass is more than the import, and this is seen as deleterious. I fail to see why, if only surplus biomass is being harvested. This approach also assumes that biomass balances define sustainability: an idea that is absolute anathema to any other kind of ecologist. Whether the grassland is natural or not is also apparently important in figuring out whether harvest is sustainable or not, though the logic of this is not clear. If species endemic to the grassland exist, then the grassland is certainly natural-especially as it occurs on islands that do not have a history of cattle introductions. However, whether the grassland was natural or converted three hundred years back from forest should be immaterial, as it is the 'climax' ecosystem there. Maybe we are getting too much into semantics here? Also, the assumption that the productivity of grassland is less than forest, in tropical high rainfall areas is something to be tested. Extrapolating productivity figures from a standard textbook is not adequate, and field data should be relatively easy to obtain.

The next three chapters are historical in nature, dealing with the early period, the Danish colonial rule, and finally the British rule. Danish rule can be summarized in a phrase: they came, they died, they came again-apparently ad nauseum. In these chapters and the following ones, I wish that a little more attention had been paid to Car Nicobar-for the sake of completeness, if for nothing else. We then move into the period of modern history, and Singh analyses how the forces that shaped post-independent India had their effect on the Nicobars as well. The centre of power in the Nicobars shifted to Car Nicobar, with this island becoming the new administrative capital, and later the district headquarters. Development efforts tended to be concentrated in Car Nicobar as well. A violent clash of different worldviews seems to have occurred: "what began as an effort to help the Nicobarese… ironically ended up placing them at the disadvantaged end of a newly established but uneasy alliance".

Private trade was abolished and the cooperatives took over the copra trade. The cooperatives, in spite of everything going their way, somehow always managed to go bankrupt. The reasons for this, and I see this as one of the key development issues in the Nicobars today, have unfortunately been glossed over. Vested interests were able to control the management of these cooperatives (chief of these being the Ellen Hinango Limited Cooperative, or EHL as it is known locally) and allegedly milked them of their profits. This still continues to happen, and the same vested interests still have enormous political and financial clout, having an important say on the administrative decisions. A consequence of this is that the Nicobaris get a much lower price for their copra than the minimum support price that is supposed to be guaranteed by the government. The other major force that has shaped the Nicobars in modern years has been the tremendous influx of outsiders that have settled in the Nicobars and effectively control the trade in the other items besides copra.

Finally, Singh looks again at the human ecology aspects. Are the Nicobaris victims of unequal trade? At the moment, this seems to be the case. Also, the recent trade also includes materials such as sand; the removal of sand has had noticeable deleterious effects all over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and is problematic here as well. This will be discussed later.

Singhs' book, unfortunately, has been overtaken by events that could not ever have been factored in-namely the tsunami of December 26, 2004. As opposed to other places, a veil of secrecy seems to have been drawn over the tsunami and its effects. Lets look at a few things that haven't been aired endlessly over the media. On Great Nicobar Island, the waves were up to 5 m high. Stories that they were upto 25m high are based on misinterpreted observations of the splash pattern. Trinkat has split into four distinct islands. Katchal Island was probably the worst hit in terms of human casualties, with casualty estimates of possibly 4500. In Car Nicobar, 2000 people died. These were estimates by the Nicobari captains, and the numbers of illegal settlers that died have been under reported.

The Government insists that only 800 people died, though they accept that about 600 people are missing. They hide behind the specious argument that somebody cannot be declared dead until the body is found. Also, that they were capable of running relief operations and didn't need an NGO presence- leading to reports of supplies rotting on the runways and jetties, and being sold through private outlets.

I suspect that to understand why this secrecy has occurred, we have to go back to the rules that were supposed to protect the tribals of the islands: the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribals Rules (ANPATR), 1956. Under these, the Nicobars were declared as a tribal reserve (with areas that were denotified whenever the fancy took the Government). Purchase of land by outsiders was banned; in fact the movement of outsiders into these areas was banned. Anybody wanting to visit these islands needed a tribal area permit, issued by the Deputy Commissioner at either Port Blair or at Car Nicobar. These tribal area permits became both a source of corruption, as well as a means of hiding that corruption. Enormous amounts of money changed hands for the settlers to obtain and then retain their tribal area permits. With these in hand, unequal trade with the Nicobaris gave many of these illegal immigrants the affluence they had only dreamt of. Since these permits were difficult to obtain, anybody without a very good reason to visit the islands was kept away. This included journalists, meddling NGOs and other busybodies who might expose corruption, which is why most Indians had never heard of the Nicobars until their unintentional and unwelcome foray into the international limelight last December. Zoologists and anthropologists did occasionally manage permits-however, it was made abundantly clear that any attempt to blow the whistle on the goings-on there would result in denial of future work permission. Very few individuals are willing to commit professional suicide in this fashion.

Astonishingly, most of the video shots shown by the news channels purporting to be from the Nicobars, were shot in Port Blair. The few video clips that did make it out from the Nicobars show their own tale. The scenes of refugees boarding the flights show mainland Indians pushing their way onto the flights, as the Nicobaris keep a very subdued profile in the background. Its these same people who are not being allowed back into the Nicobars, as the Government belatedly acknowledges that many of them were there illegally in the first place. We have interviews that state that these illegal settlers had already been there for fifty years, and it was their right to go back. The Andaman and Nicobar Administration has resisted these pressures so far, and this is perhaps the first manifestation of the changed dynamic the tsunami has made possible. What happens as the politicians put on the pressure for these settlers to be allowed back, in return for votes in the next election, remains to be seen.

The next issue is what happens to the copra trade. The focus on the islands nowadays again provides an opportunity. The exploitation in the purchase of copra is likely to come under scrutiny, one hopes. This hope might be belied because some of the individuals who were supposed to have been exploiting the Nicobaris are now on the relief coordination committees-akin to putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. One hopes that enough pressure is now put to form a marketing organisation where Nicobari interests are paramount, and which cannot be subverted by the politicians and businessmen in Port Blair. The copra trade is also tied to tourism. The A& N Administration claims that the only way to reduce the subsidies to the Nicobars is to encourage tourism. A couple of years ago a tour group consisting of foreign journalists had actually been organised to visit Car Nicobar. To the relief of a lot of us, the journalists mostly thought introducing tourism was a terrible idea. Hostility from the Nicobaris to the idea was obvious throughout the tour (for which I was a reluctant resource person), though the Administration claimed that the Tribal Councils supported the idea. I got a different idea from the members of the tribal council I talked to: they are still intimidated enough by the bureaucrats to tell them what they think these bureaucrats want to hear. If the Nicobaris even get the minimum support price they are entitled to, the subsidies, and therefore the tourism, will most likely become unnecessary.

Singh also raises the issue of sand exports. This is disastrous from the environmental point of view. It has resulted in beaches disappearing and coastal erosion occurring on a large scale throughout the islands. The effects of the tsunami would certainly have been mitigated in many places if the beaches had still been intact. All the new construction plans involve the building of concrete houses. These will break up the traditional Nicobari joint families into nuclear families and probably have serious impacts on their culture (R. Sankaran, pers. comm.). A better option is to rebuild the traditional tuhet, the community huts,with wood and thatch. Wood would have to be brought in from the Andamans for this, but would be a small proportion of what was previously exported from there.

Finally, there is the infrastructure of the islands. Considerable allocations towards infrastructure have been made for the Nicobars over the last few decades. Very little of it may have been actually spent. Until four years ago, Campbell Bay boasted of four phone lines to Port Blair, and calling out from there was a major task. It was grimly amusing to read all the statements about 'ravaged infrastructure'. The tsunami has provided the perfect cover up. Lets see if the next time around is any better.

This book is difficult going for the lay reader. It is badly edited in places, and reads like a dissertation in others. It also does image-building for a select few in the Nicobars, and creates the impression that a few individuals have contributed disproportionately to the recent history of the islands. This last 'observer effect' has already led to attitudinal changes among a section of the Nicobari community, and these changes are not necessarily positive. On the other hand, the book also defends people who are indefensible; for instance, some of the Port Blair traders who have fostered a colonial attitude towards to Nicobars. The book has serious continuity problems. A lot of material could be placed usefully into appendices. The human ecology section does not lead to any clear conclusions. However, for all its possibly the least known part of this country. It is a useful purchase for anybody interested in the islands and their people. I look forward to the sequels to it.