'Human safari' fears as Andaman Islands road reopens
Degrading tours described as “human safaris” are being allowed to restart in a tribal reserve in the Andaman Islands, a campaign group has warned.
A road that cuts through a reserve of the Jarawa people will be reopened after it was temporarily closed to traffic, including tour vehicles, following a decision by the Indian Supreme Court.
The Andaman trunk road is the main access highway for the island but campaigners say it opens up the reserve to unscrupulous tour guides who have in the past exploited the tribal community. They claim it also risks exposing the Jarawa people to diseases, through their contact with tourists.
The Jarawas, one of several indigenous tribes living on the archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, only began to make contact with mainstream society in 1998. Today they number around 400 and lack immunity to many common illnesses.
Survival International (www.survivalinternational.org) has been campaigning to put an end to tours that it says treats the community like animals in a zoo, and welcomed the earlier decision to close the road, which it said reduced the traffic entering the reserve by two-thirds.
“Before there was any awareness of this, tourists used to throw biscuits and sweets to attract the Jarawa close to their vehicles,” the spokeswoman told Telegraph Travel.
“One tourist described one of these trips as ‘like a safari ride’. Apart from being humiliating, they rob the Jarawa of the right to chose how to interact with mainstream Indian society and to control who comes into their territory, as the tourists pass through their land without their consent.”
Following its work to raise awareness of the tours, the group suggests that those that remain are run by private tour guides and taxi drivers hired by tourists already on the island.
The tours are often sold as trips to Baratang Island, where visitors can see limestone caves and a mud volcano.
“In actual fact the main reason for many to travel along the road is to catch a glimpse of the Jarawa,” the spokeswoman explained, “and many tourists will openly admit this.”
Sophie Grig, senior campaigner at Survival, called for the Andaman Authorities to put in an alternative route of access for islanders and to ban tourists from the reserve.
As the court order has yet to be published, reasons behind the ruling remain unclear. It is thought however that local settlers filed an affidavit stating they needed the road to access the hospital in Port Blair, the capital. Survival argues that the interim road closure had been interpreted in a way to allow locals to continue using the road.
There is also conflict between developers who want to open up the island to commercial activity and fears that some Indian politicians may favour the “mainstreaming” of the tribe.
Ms Grig said the reopening of the road, expected to take place on Friday, was a blow to Survival’s three-year campaign. "It is hard to believe that the Supreme Court has allowed these human safari tours to start up again.
“The long convoys of tourist vehicles, often with 60 or 70 vehicles, stop the Jarawa being able to move freely around their forest.
“The tours have also caused accidents,” she added, “including one incident when a Jarawa boy lost his arm trying to grab some sweets or biscuits that had been thrown from a moving vehicle.”
The island authorities were widely condemned in 2012 after a video was circulated in western media showing semi-naked Jarawa women being coerced by a police officer to dance for tourists in return for food.