Many of India’s protected tribal groups live in “beastly” conditions and the government should review long-standing laws that keep them in isolation, Indian Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo said.
His comments were prompted by a scandal involving a video of naked Jarawa tribal women on the tropical Andaman Islands being told to dance for tourists, who had allegedly bribed a policeman to gain access to their reserve.
Contact with several tribes on the islands, set deep in the Indian Ocean, is illegal in a bid to protect their indigenous way of life and shield them from diseases against which they have no protection.
The policy means that while economic development is surging ahead in India’s main cities, there remain pockets of the country where conditions have hardly evolved in centuries and modernity is deliberately kept out.
“As far as my personal view is concerned it will be unfair to leave them like that in a beastly condition forever,” Deo said in an interview. “At the same time I would add that I am certainly not one who would like to expose them to shopping mall and junk culture.”
Not all of India’s vast number of indigenous groups are protected or live in reserves, but they consistently rank bottom in terms of human development alongside “untouchables” at the bottom of India’s caste system.
Deo, who has vowed to visit the Andaman Islands on a special trip within weeks, said that the issue of how to deal with protected tribal groups was highly divisive and the government needed to listen to tribal people.
“We have to start a dialogue,” he said. “A lot of the [Jarawa tribe] youngsters have learnt to speak Hindi, so one has to explain things to them and come to some conclusion. They have traditions, lots of indigenous knowledge and they also have to enjoy the benefits of development that have taken place, but it has to be a gradual process. There has to be a consensus.”
Other groups and campaigners, such as Survival International, say tribes such as the 402-strong Jarawa tribe should be left alone.
The London-based campaigner for tribal rights worldwide says the tribe is threatened by a road that brings traffic, tourists and trade into the heart of their land.
Britain’s Observer newspaper, which first published the video that triggered the controversy, said its journalist saw tourists toss -bananas and biscuits to tribespeople on the roadside.
It also said local traders had openly advised how much to bribe the police to spend a day out with the Jarawa.
Other tribes on the Andamans, such as the Sentinelese, shun all contact with the outside world and are known to be hostile to any encroachers.
Their last remaining territory, North Sentinel Island, is out of bounds even to the Indian navy in a bid to protect its reclusive inhabitants who number only about 150.
Some government officials in the capital of the Andaman Islands, Port Blair, say it is difficult to determine if the tribes want to be left alone or not.
“I communicate with the Jarawas and I see their willingness to contact us is increasing by the day,” the Andamans’ Tribal Welfare Department head Som Naidu said
Naidu said that the government in New Delhi had recently formed an expert panel to investigate the “hands-off” isolation policy, which was first enacted in the 1950s and further strengthened in 2004.