A Call From The Far Shores

Published By: 
The Navhind Times
Dated On: 
27th October 2016
A Call From The Far Shores

Environmentalist freelance journalist, photographer and author Pankaj Sekhsaria has spent 20 years studying and fighting for the ecology of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. His first fiction novel 'Last Wave' about these islands is getting released here in Goa along with his photo exhibition. In conversation with NT BUZZ he speaks about the tussle between ecology and development and what lessons the islands can learn from Goa as they are both defined by sea.

Q: When we speak about Andaman and Nicobar Islands we conjure an image of exotic beaches and forests. As a researcher who has spent more than 20 years here, what I the real image of these islands?

A: I would say that this image of the islands is still true in large measures. The oceans here are rich and the ecological systems have a huge diversity of life. There are many rare, endangered and endemic species of flora and fauna that are found here, four species of sea turtles nest on the beaches and the coral reefs. There are of course many challenges related to development, increasing population and growing tourism, but in the balance I would agree that the islands continues to be pristine, rich and undisturbed.


Q: We’ve heard recently that India has drawn up an ambitious, Rs. 10,000 crore plan to transform the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into the country's first maritime hub. Also few years ago there was an opposition from environmentalists for the army's static radar and dummy missile projects as there were concerns over threat to the Nicobar scrubfowl and the Narcondam hornbill's habitat. How do you look at these development projects on these ecologically sensitive islands?

A: So, these development plans that are hinged on greater defence infrastructure on the one hand and a significant push to tourism on the other are going to be the biggest challenges for the ecology of the islands and importantly also for the people, particularly the small numbers of indigenous tribal communities that have been on these islands for thousands of years. Ambitious plans are being proposed, but one is not sure how much fragility of the islands has been accounted for Potable drinking water, for instance, is a big challenge in Port Blair at the moment and we have to keep in mind that the islands are located in one of the world's most seismically active zones. If these and other constraints are not kept in mind, development plans could actually end up causing more damage than bringing any benefit.


Q:Can you elaborate about your litigation in the Supreme Court to protect the green cover of these islands?

A: Following a six month research and investigation project I did in the Andaman’s on behalf of Kalpavriksh we first filed a PIL in the Calcutta High Court in 1998 related mainly to the island of Little Andaman. My research had shown evidence of violation of the Onge Tribal Reserve that covers 530 sq. kilometers of Little Andaman Island. The Onge community has been living here for thousands of years but one could see rapid change that had been initiated following development plans for the islands that were put in place in the 60s and 70s. My research showed that the Forest Corporation was logging timber in excess of what they were supposed to. The petition highlighted these facts and also dealt with the issue of sand mining along the coasts of the islands. We could see that this sand mining was detrimental to the coastal integrity of the islands and also to species like sea turtles who use the beaches for nesting.

A series of developments later, which included obfuscation and denial by the A&N admin, we were forced to take the matter to the Supreme Court under the Godavarman (forest) case. In 2001 the SC passed an interim order halting all timber operations in the islands and simultaneously set up the Shekhar Singh Commission to look into 'forests and other allied matters' of the Islands.

The commission presented a detailed report and set of recommendations in February 2002, which were then accepted almost completely by the court in its order of May 2002. The court passed a wide range of directions for the protection of the indigenous people, forests and the environment of the islands. These included a substantial reduction in timber operation (only allowing timber to be cut for local use and to ensure livelihoods), a substantial reduction in sand mining from the islands' beaches, use of appropriate construction technology for houses and buildings, establishment of the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research Institute, removal of encroachments from forest land and also closure of the Andaman Trunk Road in those parts where it runs through the forests of the Jarawa Tribal Reserve.


Q: When we are speaking about the Jarawa community we have a limited idea of their lifestyle. Can you elaborate about this community and do you think their existence is under threat due to development projects and tourism?

A: We have to remember and recognize that they are really the first inhabitants of these islands. They've been there for thousands of years and their right on the forest and resources is paramount just as they should have the right to live in the way they want to live. If we look at the history of the other communities in the islands, like the Great Andamanese and the Onge, we see how unfair it has been to them and the challenge really is for us to respect them and allow them to make the choices that they want to make. The Jarawas, importantly, are also changing very fast and it will be both challenging and interesting to see in what direction their society moves and what is the nature of their interaction with the other societies and communities that live around their forests. If they are able to negotiate these changes in a positive manner, there certainly is hope for them, but that really is the big challenge.


Q:Speaking about your first fiction novel based on Andaman and Nicobar Islands titled, 'Last Wave', any particular reason that you thought of writing about the Island especially about the Jarawa community in a fiction format? Do you think this format is more appealing?

A: There are many reasons for deciding to write the story of the islands in a fiction format. For one, I wanted to challenge myself and see if I can tell the story of the islands in a genre (fiction!) that I had never done. It was mainly journalism and academic writing that I was doing and I wanted to explore other forms. I also realized that the story of the islands, like any other place, is multi-faceted and has many layers and non-fiction writing has its limitations in communicating that richness and that diversity. Fiction perhaps is better suited as it helps us weave in different strands. I also realized that the larger Andaman story had not been told and telling it in the form of a novel would reach out to a different set of people or even of it is the same people, the format would be different.


Q:You are hosting various events in Goa and as you are aware Goan ecology is also under tremendous pressure from real estate, mining and also few tourism projects. How you draw the parallel between the two places?

A: I have unfortunately not seen much of Goa, so can't say for sure. But clearly there are parallels - the coastline for one and the tourism industry. Tourism in the Andamans is nowhere close to what we see in Goa, but there is a huge push to promote tourism there. The Andamans should learn from the experiences of Goa, both good and bad, and perhaps some collaborative work can be done in this field. Both Gia and the Andamans are in some senses defined by the sea and that is a big commonality - an opportunity and a challenge. Coastal ecosystems have been one of the most neglected in the Indian context and that is where coastal states like Goa and the islands can work together and learn from each other. Fortunately, the pressures of mining, real estate that Goa and other parts of the country are experiencing are not there in islands - but we have to watch out.


Q:Lastly, what is it about Andaman and Nicobar Island that inspires you to work for its conservation?

A: It is a spectacularly beautiful place, just as it is fragile and home to many things that are not found elsewhere on the planet. I've had great experiences and learnt a lot from the place and the people there and one feels a certain sense of responsibility to do something for them.