Five reasons why claims by forest dwellers for their land are low – and rejections are high

On February 13, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of more than 10 lakh families of Adivasis and other forest-dwellers from forestlands across 16 states. The order came while the court was hearing petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The petitioners had demanded that state governments evict those forest dwellers whose claims over traditional forestlands under the landmark law had been rejected.

…In the days since the ruling, tribal activists have denounced the order while some conservationists and bureaucrats in the forest service have welcomed it. A key part of their defence? According to the judgement, a total of 18.8 lakh titles have been granted under the Forest Rights Act, while 19 lakh claims have been rejected. In a statement released on Thursday, Wildlife First said all 19 lakh rejected claims were bogus. It said: “The Supreme Court is focusing only on recovery of forest land from bogus claimants whose claims stand rejected.”

The answer to these contrasting perspectives lies in how the forest rights act is being implemented — how are claims submitted and how are they processed? This report, a followup to what I filed shortly after the judgement was posted online, takes a closer look at those processes. The answer, in short, is that all rejected claims do not indicate bogus claimants. Do read.

Centre’s weak legal defence of forest act means ten lakh families could be evicted, say activists

On February 13, the Supreme Court ordered state governments to evict over 10 lakh forest-dwellers whose claims over forestland have been rejected, a direction that will hurt some of India’s most vulnerable people.

The order came in a case on the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act, which was passed in 2006 aiming to “recognise and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded”.

The harsh direction was possible, allege Adivasi activists and lawyers, because the lawyers of the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs mounted a weak defence of the Act. The case has dragged on for over 10 years under multiple benches, with the Supreme Court yet to answer questions on constitutional validity of the law.

There is an incredible suboptimality here. Some of the claims by the petitioners are indeed valid. As are the concerns of the tribal activists. And so, right now, I am just sitting around holding my head thinking about the hideous complexity of it all and, equally, the casual ease with which both the tribal ministry and the Supreme Court are approaching this question.

Missing in the panel set up to frame India’s new mineral policy: Adivasis, ecologists, civil society

Does the KR Rao Committee ring a bell?

It was set up last month by the Union Ministry of Mines after the Supreme Court’s tough judgement on illegal iron ore mining in Odisha. Disposing of a petition filed by the non-profit Common Cause, Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta not only ordered the Union government to recover the full value of iron ore mined illegally by the mining lease owners, it also asked it to review India’s mining regulations.

These regulations have failed to arrest illegal mining in the country as is evident in several cases across India – for instance in Karnataka and Odisha, as well as Goa, where the Supreme Court imposed a ban on iron ore mining in 2012, and Tamil Nadu, which has seen rampant illegal sand mining for several years. They have also failed to mitigate the social and environmental consequences of mining. Indeed, there are glaring economic inequalities in India’s mineral-rich districts. Communities living close to the mineral reserves teeter at the edge of destitution and battle environmental pollution even as a handful of politically-connected people amass extraordinary riches.

The Supreme Court therefore directed the Centre to set up an expert committee, chaired by a retired judge, to identify the regulatory lapses that allowed illegal mining. It also directed the Union government to review the National Mineral Policy, 2008, in order to bring in greater transparency, environmental protection and more social and economic growth.

Accordingly, the Ministry of Mines set up the KR Rao Committee on August 14. The committee is expected to submit its report on October 31. Its composition, however, raises questions on whether India’s mining sector will see a fundamental overhaul or more of the same.

The Dongria Kondhs of Odisha now face a more formidable enemy than Vedanta

Two years ago, when the tribal people of Odisha’s thickly forested Niyamgiri hills unanimously rejected the plans of the London-based conglomerate Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite in their lands, it appeared that a decade-long struggle to protect the hills and forests – and the tribal way of life – had finally succeeded.

But that might have been a case of premature celebration. Fear and anger are again stalking the hills.

Security camps of the Central Reserve Police Force have been mushrooming in this part of Kalahandi district. From one camp established five years ago, there are now three on the periphery of Niyamgiri. More are expected to come up.

Government officials cite rising Naxal activity as the reason for the security buildup. But among the tribal Kondhs, the increased paramilitary presence is leading to fears that the government is trying to force them off their land.

the reconfiguration of the nicobars

revisiting the overloaded archipelago

at the mayabunder jetty. (the photo sums up my life with almost literal exactness. a beautiful planet, anthropogenic activity, dead biodiversity – that is a dead sea krait at the bottom of the photo – and me watching biodiversity haemmorrage away)

for a while now, i have been trying to go on a cycle ride at the end of every year — have succeeded three out of four years. in 2014, biologist vidya athreya and i went to the andamans. and i came back and wrote this story about cycling up the islands.

The friend is a biologist curious to see what the forests in this archipelago are like — the Andaman & Nicobar Islands were connected to what is now Indonesia before rising sea levels cut them off. As such, not only are life forms on the isles closer in origin to Indonesian than Indian ones, their geographic isolation has resulted in the creation of several species unique to them. As for me, I am looking to get into shape. This is also my second trip to the islands — the first was a reporting assignment in 2004 just before the tsunami. The ride is a chance to see how the patterns I spotted then – water shortages, over-population, and decimation of the indigenous people – have unfolded since.

on the whole, not much has changed on how we manage the islands. see this 2004 story. also see this article, by biologist tr shankar raman, about travelling along the ATR.
ps: the link is to a pdf of the page. my colleagues at et — anirban, manoj, kamal, sunil and amrit — have consistently designed stunning pages for my full page stories. this is just the latest in a long chain. if you want the online version of the article, go here.

is the forest rights act being implemented well? (the answer is ‘no’)

Last month, union tribal Minister Jual Oram told the Lok Sabha that India is making “satisfactory progress” implementing the “Forest Rights Act” (FRA). However, a closer look at the numbers he submitted in the house indicates otherwise.
my story on how the government’s claims about “satisfactory” implementation of the forest rights act are garbage. what is underway is a game with statistics.

in which we argue the critics are missing the real picture on NOTA

The popular perception is that the ‘none of the above’ (NOTA) option – a measure of rejection of all candidates – did not make a difference in the recent assembly elections, being as low as 0.6% in Delhi. But the NOTA choice came third in terms of votes polled in as many as 148 of the 520 constituencies in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, suggesting widespread discontent with governance deep inside the country. Of these 148 constituencies, 63 are in MP, 51 in Rajasthan and 34 in Chhattisgarh. Most of these constituencies fall in Maoist-affected, tribal or rural areas. Take Bijapur, in Naxal-affected southern Chhattisgarh, where over 10.1% of voters chose the NOTA option.

the recent assembly polls were the first ones where voters had the option of rejecting all candidates. in the more marginalised parts of the country, a lot of voters have done so. their gesture has india’s experts struggling. a small story by my friend avinash (celestine) and me.

The Act That Disagreed With Its Preamble

I have waited the longest time to upload this. I had spent all of 2009 studying the drafting of the “Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. I finished writing it. Sent the paper to a journal called Conservation And Society. Got busy with my job at the Economic Times. And when the reviewers’ comments came, I was too neck deep in journalism to be able to rework the paper. Well, a year and a half after their feedback, I finally finished reworking it.

But, sigh, I am still to send it to the journal. In the meantime, here is the abstract. This, from what I know, is one of the few accounts of the pre-legislative process in India, of how laws evolve from a “political promise” into a “legal reality”.

In 2006, India passed an Act recognising hitherto unrecognised rights of tribals and other forest-dwellers over the forests that sustain them. However, for all its merits, this Act, ‘The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006’ is a puzzling document. It is ambiguous in parts. There are differences between its text and its preamble. It leaves critical questions on operationalisation unanswered. All this has marred the Act’s implementation. To explain how contradictions and ambiguities entered the text of what should have been a precise legal document, this paper reconstructs the drafting process through which the Act took shape. Briefly, it argues that every actor who participated in the drafting of the “Forest Rights Act” the people movements, the Left, the Tribal Ministry, the Environment Ministry, the wildlifers had a different conception of the problem the Bill had to resolve and, consequently, the provisions it needed to contain. There were few attempts to harmonise these divergent views. The final Act emerged from a law-making process where no actor influenced more than a few provisions. In the process, the meaning of the final text became an incidental outcome a combination of parts that do not fit together very well.

on the latest cabinet reshuffle

the latest cabinet reshuffle underwhelmed most people. no big heads rolled. the larger ministeries stayed untouched. and parts of the media swiftly wrote it off as minor and inconsequential.

in this article, my colleague devika and i argue that there are at least two significant moves in this reshuffle. jairam ramesh moves from the environment ministry to the rural development ministry. and kishore chandra deo enters the cabinet as the minister for tribal affairs and panchayati raj.

why so? because it looks like an attempt to win back the rural and tribal votes the Congress has progressively ended up alienating in the past few years.

There’s a bit in common between what the two new ministers represent and the task ahead of them. Both men are associated with the landmark legislations of the UPA-I, both of which are suffering from implementation problems: the employment guarantee programme in the case of Ramesh and the Forest Rights Act in the case of Deo. The reallocation puts them in charge to fix this.

in this story, we look at the tasks in front of them. i wrote the bit about deo and the tribal ministry. much of this is stuff i should have written a long, long time ago. more precisely, on the day the MoTA rejected the NAC’s reccos on how to better implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA) saying FRA implementation was going super. yet another in the long rich tradition of ministeries/bureaucracies more accountable internally, to superiors and institutional imperatives, than to the country around them.

Deo also needs to increase the relevance of the ministry of tribal affairs. Every central ministry runs its own programmes for tribal welfare, which Deo’s ministry has to monitor. In addition, the ministry has its welfare schemes-like hostels and scholarships for tribal-being implemented by state governments. The ministry has been taking a narrow view of its responsibilities.

In his critique, (NAC member NC Saxena) writes: “…(the approach of the ministry has been to) confine its attention to its own budget and schemes under its control.” The Parliamentary standing committee on social justice and empowerment, in 2010, had said the coordination of the tribal ministry with other ministries “was not at the desired level”…

…another example is the decision to disallow Vedanta’s mining project in Niyamgiri, Orissa. It was the ministry of environment, under Jairam Ramesh, that intervened to check whether the rights of the Dongria Kondh tribe in the proposed mining area had been recognised under the FRA. “The ministry of tribal affairs should have issued that circular,” says Y Giri Rao, executive director, Vasundhara, an NGO implementing the FRA in Orissa.

i had met deo earlier during the glory days of working on the FRA paper and had been impressed back then. am curious to see how the ministry will behave under him. am also wondering if implementing FRA and PeSA will put the ministry on the warpath against the PMO et al. let us see.

The New Committee to Study Vedanta

THE Anil Agarwal promoted Vedanta Aluminas plans for sourcing bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills in the Kalahandi district of Orissa will have to wait.The environment ministry has set up a four-member committee headed by National Advisory Council member NC Saxena.The other three members of the committee are Dr S Parasuraman,director,Tata Institute of Social Sciences;retired IFS officer Promode Kant,and Amita Baviskar,associate professor at Delhis Institute of Economic Growth.

sense and nonsense in the debate over vedanta’s lanjigarh plans

for the longest time, vedanta’s bauxite mining plans in lanjigarh, orissa, have been a lightening rod for criticism. earlier this year, the environment ministry abruptly turned against it. one reason cited for this switch was the congress’ need to hold onto the tribal vote.

but things had been simmering at the ground as well. and so, in april, shortly after a study team sent by the environment ministry submitted a divided report on the project, ET travelled down to lanjigarh and tried to separate facts from opinions. we found that public sentiment had indeed turned against the project. that local politicians — all so adept at reading public sentiment –were opposing it now.

what went wrong? click here.

Vedanta, Niyamgiri and the Congress

Plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite in Niyamgiri in Orissa, already delayed by vehement protests from non-governmental organisations, seem likely to suffer further damage—quite possibly terminal—as the Congress reaches out to India’s tribal population, sections of which have come under the influence of the grand old party’s arch rival BJP while others have fallen under the sway of Maoists.

the whole story, hither.

another day in jarawa life

Some days ago, I posted about the Jarawas. And I said that the local administration in the Andamans is venal, that its public stance about leaving the Jarawas alone is a lie, and that the tribals are in huge trouble. (readthisthis and this). Well, here is a story from the latest issue of “The Light of Andamans” (Issue 22, 20 May 2006) to buttress all that I said. More will follow.

By Staff Reporter
The Andaman Adimjan Jati Vikas Samiti and the Directorate of Tribal Welfare seldom miss a chance to put its foot in its mouth. Jarawas were suffering from measles and getting admitted into the hospital in droves. There was panic all over. The Directorate of Health Services deputed a team of doctors to Middle Strait and Kadamtala for an on the spot investigation, treatment and for taking preventive actions. National and International press was plastered with the Jarawa affliction.

But, for reasons best known to AAJVS and DTW, they were engaged in some other sinister move to shift the Jarawas from Middle Strait to Tirur. Vehicles were engaged, labour hired and trucks carrying 45 of the tribesmen reached Tirur village one evening during the last month end. The villagers however did not swallow the pill. They stopped the truck and did not allow the Jarawas to get down. When asked who had directed them to Tirur, the Jarawas said “Ghoshal”. The villagers asked the incharge to call Mr. Ghoshal. The Pradhan of the Panchayat Mr. Mahadev Majhi too was not in the locality at the time.

By the time Mr. Ghoshal reached there, Mr. Majhi too had arrived. A prolonged discussion ensued between them. The villager itself was suffering from measles and the Pradhan did not want to complicate the matter further. Secondly, the villagers of Temple Myo, Herbertabad and Tirur were fed up with Jarawas intruding their home and hearth every now and then. They did not want another battalion of Jarawas trooping into their gardens, plantations and homes at will.

“There were five people on the roll of AAJVS working at Tirur. But I never saw more than one at any given time. Are they working in your homes?” he had asked Mr. Ghoshal. Mr Ghoshal’s reply was that the workers were paid on the basis of attendance rolls submitted by the Police. The Policeman standing nearby didn’t like it kindly. “You pay them even before we submit the attendance rolls” he retorted. “What about supply of banana to the Jarawas every week?” Mr. Mahadev Majhi fired the next salvo. “I never saw or heard of any banana supply in the past year and a half” he continued. Mr. Ghoshal had nothing better to do than fumble for words.

Talking to The Light of Andamans” Mr. Majhi confided that it was a big racket. The Jarawas were exploited to the hilt by the AAJVS and the Department of Tribal Welfare. Nobody was interested in the welfare of the Jarawas or any other tribe. ‘They appoint people from far off places to work at Tirur. They never turn up and yet get paid. Why not appoint unemployed boys from the same Panchayat? We too can keep a watch in that case” he fumed. “Banana! Why can’t they buy from our people who suffer at the hands of the Jarawas? Because then the racket would be busted” he concluded. Mr. Mahadev Majhi was exploding with fury.

The Overloaded Archipelago

note: in december 2004, while writing for businessworld, i sailed to the andamans to report on the acute water crises these islands in the bay of bengal faced every summer. things had reached a point where the administration, the largest employer in the isles, was granting mass leave to employees every summer, hoping they would return to the mainland leaving more water for those who stayed back. this shortage suggested that population had crossed the archipelago’s carrying capacity. and that the islands had indeed encountered a malthusian future the rest of the planet is still moving towards.

the postscript to this story is that i finished my reporting, set sail again for calcutta, and the tsunami struck the isles three days later. this gives me the inglorious distinction of being the first reporter to return from the isles to the mainland after the tsunami. sigh.

take a look.


Over the past month, reams have been written and miles of footage filmed about the crisis facing the Andaman and Nicobar islands. However, the coverage missed an important point. Even if the tsunami hadn’t lashed it, this sun-soaked, rain-drenched archipelago, recommended by the Lonely Planet for its “unique fauna, lush forests, white sandy beaches and exquisite coral”, would have faced a bleak future.

Unlike the tsunami, this is a man-made catastrophe. Over the past 54 years, the population on the islands has soared. Rising from just 30,000 in 1951 to a staggering 480,000 now. As the population has grown, the island’s water problem has worsened. Today, households in Port Blair get water once every two days, for thirty minutes. Three summers ago, water supplies ran so low that the local administration, the largest employer by far in this Union Territory, took the unprecedented step of granting mass leave to its staff, hoping they would return to the mainland, leaving more water for those who stayed back.

In the middle of December, I spent a week in the Andamans. What I found was that the ills of the islands went beyond a simple water shortage. In this third most bio-diverse region in the country after the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, forests are receding, fish catches are falling, croplands are going barren faster. As for the tribals, the less said, the better. It is simplistic to blame all on overpopulation. Ultimately, the islands are in trouble because of poor development.

In the weeks and months ahead, the local administration will rebuild the islands. This is, perhaps, a second chance. A chance when old mistakes must not be repeated.

The population bomb

The Andamans have historically been sparsely populated. In the beginning, there were only the native aborigines. Even after the British colonised the islands in 1858, the population did not surge immediately. The 1901 Census counted 24,649 people there. By 1941, there were just about 9,000 more. During the Second World War, Japan annexed the islands. After Independence, aware of the islands’ immense strategic value, the Indian government began settling mainlanders in the islands. And the population started expanding fast.

The government gave land to ex-servicemen and emigrants from East Pakistan. To help in administration, it exported bureaucrats and clerks from the mainland. Mind you, it was not easy to lure people to the islands. Tropical paradise or not, even today, the isles are two to four sea-tossed days away from the mainland. The government had to dole out goodies. Transport to the islands was subsidised. Education and healthcare were free. The settlers were promised that in an emergency they would be airlifted to the mainland, gratis. Around the same time, local contractors brought in cheaper migrant labourers. Most of them never went back because it made economic sense for them.

While waiting to board the MV Akbar, one of the ships plying between Kolkata and Port Blair, I chatted with a fellow passenger, an electrician from Behrampore in West Bengal. He had been working in the islands for 10 years. At Blair, he was making Rs 180 a day. Back home, he could scrape in about Rs 70 a day. Once on the islands, many such labourers would get themselves registered as locals and eventually hunker down.

By 1961, the population had reached 63,548. Three decades later, it had increased more than fourfold to 280,661. And then, in the last decade, it moved into overdrive. A senior official at the Planning Commission’s Island Development Authority (IDA) pegs the islands’ population at 480,000 now. In effect, the influx that happened over three decades earlier happened in just one decade. And this overloaded mass is huddled into just 38 of the 500 islands dotting this lazily-curving archipelago.

The local administration says there aren’t as many people on the island. We’ll come to that contradiction later.

The administration has a reason to fret about the number – a lot hinges on it. In the mid-1980s, the IDA, whose recommendations weigh in when the Centre gives out the subsidies, pegged the archipelago’s carrying capacity at 450,000. (The carrying capacity of a land mass estimates the supply of resources like water and cropland, and divides that by the desired per capita consumption to arrive at a sustainable population.) And it suggested that the build-up be gradual. “The islands were supposed to hit that number by 2011,” says the IDA official.

The islands have crossed that mark seven years in advance. And its impact on the land has been jarring.

A development model Jared Diamond wouldn’t like

In 2004, three students, Reshmi Nair from Kolkata’s Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management, and Venkat Ramanujam Ramani and Yachna Srivastava from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) studied the impact of human habitation on Neil, a small island 37 km north-east of Blair.

Till 1967, Neil was uninhabited, covered by virgin forest. That year, the first settlers arrived. Seeing the size of the island, the administration settled just 98 families of about 650 people here. But then, when the settlers were left to themselves, they pulled their relatives from the mainland. The 2001 Census counted 2,868 people on the islands, but the local police outpost estimated the population even higher, at 4,450. Whichever the correct number, they were living on a land no larger than that capable of housing 650.

With most of these people involved in agriculture, the settlers’ villages and cropland grew to cover 1,216 hectares out of the island’s 1,890 hectares, up from 750 in 1967. Continuous cultivation robbed the land of its nutrients. Farming, the students found, was no longer possible without fertilisers. Due to demand for more farmland, forests were cut down. Since it was the forests that recharged the groundwater, the two natural streams and the groundwater in the island dried up. Contractors dredged up from among the most extensive and diverse coral reefs in the country and used it in road construction. “Since fishes are found in the highest density in the shallows, around the corals, their numbers dwindled. So the fishermen’s catch has fallen,” says Sarang Kulkarni, a marine biologist studying corals on the islands.

This story is being repeated on every inhabited island in the archipelago. A couple of years ago, while conducting a survey on the islands’ biodiversity, Samir Acharya, the chain-smoking, cynical convenor of the leading local NGO, SANE (Saving Andaman and Nicobar Ecology), was surprised when he couldn’t find any rice field that was over 25-30 years old. With the soil of their older fields spent, farmers had hacked out new ones from the forest.

Overpopulation isn’t the only thing to be blamed here; other factors are at play. The first is inappropriate development coloured by a continental mindset. The other is the hijacking of development goals by corruption and petty politics.

At first, farmers started growing vegetables and paddy. Both the crops made heavy demands that the tropical soil couldn’t bear. It’s only now that farmers on Neil have started switching to less water-intensive crops like areca nuts and coconuts.

The mainlanders’ mindset also favoured big projects – like dams and the use of building materials better suited for the mainland. Concrete trumped timber as the chief construction material on the islands. Both were terrible calls. The first, because this area lies on a faultline. The second, because concrete needs sand, which in this case, was dug up from the local beaches. And that triggered another unhappy chain reaction.

To see the impact of the sand mining, I travelled one noon to the gateway of the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park in Wandoor, one and a half hours west of Blair. At first glance, the beach here will score high on any parameter. The colours are striking. The sand is an impossible shade of white. The exposed corals are dark enough to pass for rocks. At regular intervals lie tree trunks, bleached white by a long exposure to sun and tide. The sky itself is a rich blue. In the distance, dark green islands float on an azure sea. Wandoor is a rhapsodic vision of a tropical paradise.

But first impressions can mislead. The story this beach in South Andaman had to tell was more cautionary than hymnal to nature. Right till the 1990s, sand was trucked away from here for use in construction. That resulted in unintended effects. The first to go were the trees. Washing higher up the shore, the waves toppled them. When the waves also threatened the beachfront road, the administration erected a wall – using, ironically, sand from the same beach. But this stopped the waves from depositing the sediments they carried, sand particles and the like, at the end of their glide up the beach. These particles drifted down, settled on the corals, and killed them. The fish population fell. Local fishermen are now sailing out for 3-4 hours to net their daily catch; they used to catch all they wanted within 30 minutes earlier.

By the way, this sand should not even be used for construction. Unlike sand from the mainland, the one from these islands is just 45 per cent silica. The rest is crushed coral, seashells and the like. Also, being saline, it corrodes the steel scaffolding of buildings. No wonder buildings in the Andamans die within an average of 30 years of construction.

But the starkest example of mainland thinking is the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR). The ATR’s 340-odd kilometres connect four islands – winding northwards from South Andaman, it links Baratang, Middle Andaman and North Andaman. Before it came up, locals used to rely on steamers. It was an imperfect arrangement, insist the ATR’s supporters. According to them, the road connects the towns regardless of the weather.

Early one morning, I took a bus ride on the most disputed stretch of the ATR – the part connecting Port Blair to Baratang. This is the stretch that cuts through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. The only primary forest in the South Andaman, primeval dense tropical forests that have been never logged, was inside the Jarawa reserve. Till we reached the reserve, signs of mankind were never too far away. We passed farmlands, secondary forests, and new buildings made of cement. A few dozen shacks were selling cigarettes, food and coconuts, a line houses were straggled along the ATR. And then, the road was alone again.

The ATR is where the debate on development gets interesting. At Baratang, thanks to the road, an unorganised tourism industry had cropped up. Tamilian immigrants were running tours to the local beach, a local ‘mud volcano’, and limestone caves. It was a good business, the driver informed. He and his brothers were earning Rs 100 a day.

On the islands, development has involved tradeoffs. The road had been good for these Tamil immigrants, but catastrophic for the Jarawas and their jungle. Jarawa youngsters have begun begging by the roadside for biscuits, alcohol, gutka and other stuff. Eventually, worried about the impact of the road, Acharya and Kalpvriksh, a Pune-based NGO campaigning for the rights of native dwellers, filed a Public Interest Litigation. In May 2002, the Supreme Court instructed the Union Territory government to close down this stretch of the ATR within three months. It’s, of course, still open.

Two years after the ruling, the territory’s government appealed to the court to reconsider the order. V.V. Bhat, chief secretary, Andaman and Nicobar, says: “That petition is yet to come up for hearing. In the meantime, we have set regulations in place to regulate the traffic. Traffic is now allowed to run only between certain times of the day and vehicles run as convoys.”

It’s not clear how the territory’s government avoided implementing the order in the two intervening years. I am not even sure if the road is needed. A couple of years ago, another TISS student, Richa Dhanju, studied the traffic on the ATR. She found two things. One, most of the locals still preferred the steamers, as they were cheaper and faster. Two, nearly 65 per cent of the people using the road were bureaucrats and tourists. During the recent relief operations, supplies were despatched by boats because the road had cracked. Bad weather or not, there haven’t been any accidents with the steamers in all these years, comments Acharya of SANE.

In the bus, a fellow passenger is not convinced of overpopulation in the islands. How can there be overpopulation in an area with so much forest? True, we are too anthropocentric in our outlook, even at the cost of the sustainability of development itself. Having to choose between the livelihood of a family and the extinction of, say, a turtle species, is a no-brainer for some. And that same logic seemingly extends to tug-of-land between the settlers and the so-called uncivilised local tribesmen and the area’s flora and fauna.

Yet, excessive anthorpocentrism might be fatal. As Neil and Wandoor show, islands are very fragile. Given their finite resources, everything exists in a delicate equilibrium. When that is disrupted, the results are quick to show. When the tsunami struck, the islands fringed with intact corals and mangroves were not as severely affected as the ones without. This fragility makes the need for sustainable development all the more important. How does one ensure that the threshold stocks of soil quality, forestland, etc. are maintained even in the face of rising numbers and affluence?

It’s not that the government, which employs 86 per cent of those working in the organised sector, isn’t fighting the perils of unplanned development at its own doorstep. The per capita economic output of this Union Territory has stagnated – what, at Rs 12,901, was twice the national average in 1981-82, was just 20 per cent higher (at Rs 15,703) in 2001-02. A visit to the Employment Exchange revealed that between 3,000 and 4,000 people submit their resumes every year. Of them, just 600-700 land a job.

To address the unemployment problem, the government has identified three industries it wants to boost – tourism, high-value agriculture and fisheries. The first two of these three, ironically, are going to be hobbled by the water shortage.

The water problem, the Andaman Public Works Department told me, would be fixed once the height of the dam on Dhanikari Creek was upped by 5 metres. The forest cover, the administration insisted, was still 86 per cent. Aerial photographs of the islands by the National Remote Sensing Agency, however, show that it’s much lower, at 66 per cent. But to the island authorities, what we see is apparently not what they have.

But the authorities were at their dodgiest when quizzed on the issue of overpopulation.

Development as a incidental outcome

I began to understand why, when, a few days after coming to Blair, I met the former BJP MP from the islands, Bishnu Pada Ray. According to him, there is no need to curb migration yet. He said: “Migrants are not coming to the islands any more; people are leaving.” He added that the islands could easily accommodate another 100,000.

Oddly, the local Census department supports Ray’s claim. The 2001 Census counted 356,152 people living on the islands. That was a shock – the IDA figure was a good third higher. And other data corroborated the IDA view as well. The local office of the Shipping Corporation agreed that their ships were always coming in full, and going out half empty. Numbers from the port authority corroborated this.

To resolve the matter, I called the local civil supplies department. In 2001, how many people had their names on ration cards? About 370,000, the department informed. There, it was clear! Every settler doesn’t have a ration card. Many migrant workers would not have ration cards. The actual population was bound to be higher than 370,000. It was just what the three students had found at Neil. There, too, the Census numbers were lower than what the local police maintained.

Evidently, there is a lot of political opposition to stopping the influx. So much so that it has managed to derail a Supreme Court order. As a part of the same 2002 ruling on the ATR, the Court had ordered the administration to introduce an inner line permit regime. But migration continues unabated to this day.

The reasons aren’t too difficult to fathom. Both Ray and the current MP, Manoranjan Bhakta of the Congress, hail from Bengal. Between them, they account for roughly equal amounts of vote. It is the DMK’s support that decides who becomes the MP. And so, between them, the three parties encourage migration from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

On this overloaded archipelago, development has being repeatedly hijacked by selfish considerations. It’s as if development has been evolving by chance, as the stepchild of decisions made for private gain.

Take the water problem. To resolve it, the APWD plans to increase the Dhanikari dam’s height. By doing that, said G.C. Khattar, chief engineer of the APWD, water needs for the next 10-15 years would be met. On a longer term, the APWD was mulling an ambitious project. It would build a giant wall at Flat Bay, where the Dhanikari Creek meets the sea, to keep seawater out. Over time, this would become an artificial fresh water lake in the sea. The cost for raising the dam’s height: Rs 100 crore; that for the Flat Bay scheme: Rs 350 crore.

There was a cheaper alternative the APWD wasn’t considering. The islands get rainfall around the year – from the south-west and the north-east monsoons. On my way back from Wandoor, I stopped at a diggi, a traditional rainwater harvesting structure. Its water was clean and clear. In contrast, the water being piped by the APWD to my guesthouse was rust brown in colour. And yet, the organisation had not even studied the potential for rainwater harvesting in the islands.

It’s now superfluous to add that given a sufficiently large quake, even the stoutest of sea walls will crumble. In the days after the tsunami, South Andaman was rocked by a series of aftershocks, ranging between 5.5 to 6 on the Richter scale. Ironically, this brought down even more concrete structures, while traditional wood structures stayed up. Hope the administration would heed the wisdom while reconstructing.

Development is for the long term; but the logic driving it in the Andamans has been short-term. The results have been predictable. Musharraf Ahmed, an auto-rickshaw driver, remembers the summer of 2002 vividly. That year, the rains came late. And water levels behind the Dhanikari dam dwindled. For two months that year, Ahmed’s family got 6-8 buckets of water – once every three days.

The isles as a synecdoche

After returning to delhi, I met M.N. Murty, professor at the Institute of Economic Growth. He wasn’t too worried about the water situation. Answers could be found, he said. What concerned him more was the outlook for sustainable development. Was it possible to make the people better off while ensuring that threshold stocks of resources are maintained?

There is nothing unique about what the islands are going through. As population rises, everyone places more demands on the land. Nor are the islands facing anything unique in terms of short-sighted development. The outlook for sustainable development is dim across India.

This hasn’t come about for want of proper regulation. India, said Murthy, has comprehensive legislation encouraging sustainability. And yet, we are unable to make a headway. That’s partly because monitoring and enforcement costs are very high, and partly because of corruption. Tax disincentives push companies towards cleaner technology. They can either pay tax for polluting, or install cleaner technology. But corruption offers another alternative. Formal regulation founders between these two.

One tiny ray of hope comes from the fact that informal regulation is, however, working. Local communities are getting more active – protesting, lobbying, filing PILs. This has also been visible in the islands. Four months ago, a forest department team went to Mannarghat, a village in South Andaman, to harvest wood. The villagers did not let them. This is our water resource, they said, you cannot touch the forest.

But even that can only go so far. The administration needs to act on the orders passed and the wisdom that’s staring them in the face.

I remember the first island I saw as MV Akbar neared the Andamans. Densely forested, they seemed to hang low over the sea. On one side, a flat lick of land, lower than the rest of the island, jutted out. On it grew three palms. It made a striking silhouette. On that darkening evening, as the islands floated by, they seemed small and fragile.

I hope we remember that. And that we don’t always get a second chance.