Fri, Jan 06, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Aid groups raise ire in Andamans

GO HOME Locals want the aid agencies that arrived after the tsunami to leave, saying the high wages they pay for relief work are doing more harm than good

AFP , PORT BLAIR, INDIA

A surge in job-seekers sailing to the Andamans for a slice of the post-tsunami aid pie could alter the archipelago's demography and further squeeze its indigenous peoples, experts warn.

Environmentalists are also urging large relief agencies to leave the palm-fringed Andamans, arguing they are doing more harm than good to the islanders, thousands of whom lost their homes in the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami.

"An even bigger problem is the [presence] of the NGOs [non-government organizations], who are spoiling the work culture," said Samir Achorya, founder of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, a social action forum.

"Aid workers who were paid 4,000 rupees [US$93] a month are now drawing four times more, with washing machines and mobile phones thrown in as perks.

"It'll be difficult for them to scale down their lifestyles once the post-tsunami reconstruction is over," Achorya warned in the capital Port Blair, headquarters to 62 international or large domestic NGOs.

Agencies such as UNICEF, Oxfam, Caritas, Action Aid and Save the Children have hired scores of locals for projects ranging from health to reconstruction and education, while farming projects employ thousands more.

Achorya called for urgent remedial measures in the Andamans, which boasts India's third highest literacy rate after Kerala and Mizoram states.

"The Andamans lost 1,700 hectares of rice fields, and huge land tracts are now under the sea," he said. "If this [immigrant] population grows, the Aborigines will be further marginalized ... they'll run deeper into the forests."

Five Stone Age tribes -- 398 Shompens, 350 Jarawas, 99 Onges, 100 Sentinelese and just 51 Great Andamanese -- live in the archipelago's forests, 8 percent of which has already been encroached on by settlers from the Indian mainland.

The UNICEF, which is working in four of the worst-hit islands, joined the call for NGOs to wind up their projects and leave the emerald-green tropical paradise as quickly as possible.

"The government need not encourage people to come to the Andamans and the NGOs working here should have a very clear-cut exit policy to allow inhabitants to collect their lives together," said Subhash Misra, UNICEF's chief coordinator in the island chain.

Others too echoed demands for the NGOs and their staff members to catch the first boat to mainland India, 1,300km away.

"These laptop-swinging people have grabbed every air-conditioned taxi on the island, cornered the best hotels and are more busy preparing their personal expense accounts than doing any good for the tsunami victims," said Rajeshwar Rao, a budget hotel manager.

British charity Action Aid, which set up an office in Port Blair soon after the tsunami, rejected the complaint.

"I don't think it is true. We have not heard of any resentment against aid workers," Action Aid team leader Harjeet Singh said.

"We are working under tremendous pressure with a lot of constraints as the topography is difficult, and we are some distance from the mainland," he said.

His group employs around 100 people, mainly from the islands. Around a dozen are from outside the Andamans.

India, which governs the archipelago, is reportedly planning to put a cap on the number of mainlanders sailing to the Andamans in search of work in a bid to prevent chaos on its 36 inhabited islands, home to 356,000 people according to a 2001 national census.

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