Andaman authorities have halted tourist safaris to save members of an endangered tribe that has lived in the forests for tens of thousands of years. Activists say the ban is in best interests of the Jarawa.
When the local government of the Andaman Islands announced that it would build a road to connect the north with the capital Port Blair in the south, activists warned it could prove disastrous for the endangered Jarawa people.
The 360-kilometer (220-mile) road was to carry essential provisions for the Indian settlers in far-flung areas and give them access to medical facilities in the capital.
The road, cutting through thick forest, was resisted by the reclusive Jarawa, whose campaign of opposition included attacking the workers.
Despite the violence, the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) was opened to the public in 1998. Members of the tribe, some of whom had not seen outsiders except for government officials and researchers, remained hostile to outsiders in their reserve. The trouble continued. Jarawa men shot arrows at passing vehicles along the ATR and even killed some people.
However, the pattern eventually began to change when one Jarawa boy, En-mei, fell in the forest and was treated in Port Blair for his injuries. The hostility of the Jarawas towards any connection with the outside world waned.
In the past decade or so, tour operators have even begun to take tourists along the ATR to meet the semi-naked Jarawa people.
Drivers flout the rules
According to the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation, 1956, it is illegal to take pictures of the Jarawa people, or interact with them. However, bus and cab drivers are known to have routinely stopped their vehicles within the Jarawa reserve so that tourists can meet the tribespeople.
"The regulation was openly flouted as everyday scores of buses and cars helped some hundreds of tourists attract the Jarawa men, women and children," Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle and Jarawa rights activist, told DW. Biscuits, sweets, chewing tobacco and "paan" (a leaf stimulant) are reportedly used as an enticement.
"Jarawa girls and women were specially targeted, with the tourists ogling them," Mr Giles said to DW."Many made the innocent girls dance and pose for their cameras. The tour operators went commercialising the trips like sort of 'human safaris.'"
After the activists began campaign demanding a ban on tourists in the Jarawa reserve, in 2002 India's Supreme Court ordered the closure of the ATR. But Andaman authorities did not bother to act on the court order and the tourism in the Jarawa reserve went on thriving.
Coerced into dancing
In January last year, a video-clip emerged showing some naked and semi-naked Jarawa girls, including a pregnant woman, being coerced into dancing for the amusement of tourists. The Indian government faced international pressure to put and end to the safaris. In June, 2012, the Supreme Court passed another order to stop tourism in the reserve.
Last month, campaign group Survival International (SI), which has long campaigned for the rights of the Jarawa wrote to the Supreme Court urging it to take "immediate action" to have Andaman authorities enforce the existing orders.
Two weeks later, the court ruled that the "disgraceful" tourism in Andaman Islands must be stopped immediately. This time the Andaman authorities readily complied; at the end of January they finally closed the ATR for all tourist vehicles.
Activists fighting for the Jarawas have hailed the closure of the ATR for tourists as a major victory. "Tourism has been one of the main threats to the Jarawa for several years," SI spokesperson Alice Bayer told DW. "Allowing tourists to travel along the road robbed the Jarawa of their right to control the land, and also risked exposing them to diseases to which they have little immunity. Now, closure of the tourism will stop the Jarawas from being treated like zoo animals."
Out of Africa
The Jarawa are one of the five indigenous tribes of the Andaman Islands and are ethnically different from Indians. According to anthropologists they are the descendants of the first humans who came out of Africa with DNA tests suggesting they are close relatives to the southern Africa's Kalahari Bushmen.
It is believed they have lived in the tropical rainforests of the Andaman Islands for up to 60,000 years. There are currently only around 400 members of the tribe, which some local politicians have suggested should be assimilated into mainstream society.