The Indian government’s recent removal of Restricted Area Permit from 29 islands in the Andaman archipelago has given foreigner’s access to North Sentinel, one of the most protected islands in the world and could spell ultimate doom for its indigenous peoples.
The Restricted Area Permit (RAP) was removed from 29 islands in Andaman in the first week of August 2018, the Government of India (GOI), in order to foster tourism in the Andaman & Nicobar (A&N) archipelago. Foreigners will now no longer require the RAP till December 31, 2022, to explore 29 islands in the Union Territory. It was perhaps knowledge of this lifting of the order that prompted the ill-fated American missionary John Chau to attempt to befriend the Sentinelese tribals, leading to his death last week.
The move may seem to be a welcome boost to tourism. But even with the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR 1956) in place, this opening up of the islands by the GOI to promote the Andamans as a tourist destination may well lead to the extinction of an entire rare tribe for fillip to tourism. .
It was the government order which many claim facilitated Chau’s misadventure. The new government rule in June, which said foreigners no longer need a special permit to visit 29 out-of-bound islands in Andaman and Nicobar, has drawn their attention.
The June 29 Union Home Ministry notification, gave foreigners access to North Sentinel, one of the most protected islands in the world where a Restricted Area Permit or RAP is no longer mandatory for a visit.
Anthropologist Vishwajit Pandya, the National Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Commission on July 13 was the first to question the home ministry and the Andaman administration to clarify their stand on RAP. The commission hasn’t received a reply yet.
The SC/ST commission had cautioned the government to be ultra-sensitive to vulnerable tribes and stop tourism development that would create “unwarranted changes”. On August 8, the commission also wrote to Home Minister Rajnath Singh urging the protection of these tribes.
This is one of the most protected islands in the world because the numbers of the Sentinelese are believed to be less than 150 and can be as low as 40. They are an ancient tribe that has resisted contact with the outside world.
Tour operators and the Chambers of Commerce that had pushed for removing the RAP to promote tourism and business in Port Blair confess to being surprised on seeing North Sentinel on the list.
When pointed out , the administration, had said they would write to Home Ministry to rectify the error.
Administrative officers, however, maintain that restrictions are still in place. A tribal pass is mandatory for locals and foreigners to go to islands which have tribal population. A five-km buffer zone is in place around the North Sentinel Island, say officials.
Police officers maintain John Allen Chau was aware of his wrongdoing. “He wrote in his journal that that god sheltered us from the eyes of the navy and the Coast Guard. He meticulously planned his trip to the island. They sailed at night. He rowed to the island in his kayak even before dawn. The fishing boat then moves away into fishing waters so they could avoid suspicion. A misplaced misdirected adventure is what I can call it,” Director General of Police Dependra Pathak told the media over telephone from Port Blair.
A few anthropologists have now written to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes protesting the withdrawal of the Restricted Area Permit. The commission has written to the home ministry to restore the restrictions as well as review other the status of other islands. Even a week after the killing of Chau, there is no official home ministry response. Speaking on conditions of anonymity, a senior officer, said the Home Ministry was hoping it would not have to review the RAP decision after the incident. They are looking at the Andamans as a potential tourist hot spot and revenue earner for India.
(With inputs from Down to Earth online)