ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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A Nicobarese Tribal Leader Who Lived Two Lives

Ajay Saini (writetoajaysaini@gmail.com) is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The premature death of Paul Joora, the former chairman of the Nicobarese tribal council in the Great and Little Nicobar Islands, in 2012 has left a void in the Nicobarese society. This article briefly reflects upon Joora’s vision for the rehabilitation of his community in the aftermath of the tsunami, which hit the Nicobar archipelago in 2004.

 

It was in December 2011 that I met Paul Joora, the chairman of the Nicobarese tribal council in the Great and Little Nicobar Islands, for the first time. I visited him to seek his permission to do an ethnography of his community; a research which sought to study the post-tsunami changes in the Nicobarese socio-cultural milieu. He was pleased to welcome me to his community, and for the rest of my stay in the islands, his house was my second base camp.

While leaving Campbell Bay (Great Nicobar Island) after field work, I had never anticipated that I was bidding him a final adieu. In less than a year, Joora died. He breathed his last at the primary health center in Campbell Bay. The speculated cause of his death was a turtle that he ate, which was allegedly poisonous.  The then Lieutenant Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, retired General Bhopinder Singh condoled his sudden demise on 18 August 2012, and rued the void his death had left in the Nicobarese society.  

The premature death of the chairman was mourned by all  Nicobarese communities of the Nicobar archipelago. The settler (non-Nicobarese) communities of the islands were equally shocked by the sudden demise of  Joora, who was merely in his late fifties. He was popularly viewed both as a prominent tribal activist and a peace emissary among them. John Robert, a  member of the Campbell Bay panchayat samiti, said that Joora’s death was a common loss to both the Nicobarese and the settler communities of the islands.

 

A Visionary Leader

Joora is fondly remembered as a visionary leader who provided political representation to his community through the  Nicobarese tribal council. He lobbied with the island administration, and the first Nicobarese tribal council in the Great and Little Nicobar Islands was formed in 2002-2003.  Joora was its unanimously chosen chairman. Formation of the Nicobarese tribal council marks an important milestone in the  Nicobarese history. It was a platform for the tribal community to represent itself and propose its development agenda to the island administration. While the chairman of the newly formed tribal council was still charting his development plans for the villages in the tribal reserve, the Nicobar archipelago was hit by a tsunami on 26 December 2004. The Great and Little Nicobar Islands, being close to the epicenter of the earthquake, were severely devastated. The Nicobarese lost their community members, livelihood, livestock and settlements.  

 Joora’s post-tsunami role was crucial for the survival of his community. Before the catastrophe, the Nicobarese inhabited numerous isolated pockets of the tribal reserve of the Great and Little Nicobar Islands. They lived in a semi-permeable society with sporadic cross-cultural contacts with the settler population of the Great Nicobar. The community’s relatively isolated way of life  posed numerous challenges before the administration for an effective post-tsunami humanitarian intervention.  Joora proved to be a viable bridge between the island administration and the tribal community. The Nicobarese under his leadership exhibited unparalleled resilience and worked together with the Island administration to normalise their lives. After the tsunami, the tribal council chairman envisioned a unique blend of traditional and modern lifestyle for his community. He not only emphasised on preservation of the harmony and egalitarianism of the Nicobarese traditional society, but also strived to get modern facilities for his people through the post-tsunami humanitarian interventions of the government.  

Joora had a visionary plan for the remote tribal villages of the Great and Little Nicobar ‒Afra Bay, Makachua, Pulo Panja, Pulopatia, Pulobha, Puloulo‒ which he passionately elaborated upon during our discussions at his house. Before his demise, he lobbied with the Nicobar Islands’ administration for the consideration of his agenda for the “five-year plan (2012-2017) for the welfare of tribal council”. Infrastructure development and welfare services in tribal villages were the top priorities of his development agenda. Health and medical services, electricity, communication, transportation, fair price shops, clean water supply, education and livelihood promotion were the felt needs of his community. These demands, as Joora expressed, were simple but pertinent for the survival of the Nicobarese in tribal villages.

        

Fall out of Humanitarian Interventions

The chairman worked closely with the island administration to chart the course of post-tsunami humanitarian interventions in the Great and Little Nicobar Islands. His major contribution, as Barnabas (a tribal leader) communicated, was facilitating the allotment of permanent shelters to the Nicobarese in the tribal reserve by the Island administration. However, Joora was also critical of certain aspects of the interventions of the administration, which, he argued, ushered numerous unprecedented socio-cultural changes within his community. He believed that he had  lived two lives in a single lifetime: pre-tsunami and post-tsunami. The pre-tsunami life of the Nicobarese was characterised by coconut cultivation, pig rearing and hunting. The community was self-sufficient and lived in absolute harmony with its fragile island ecosystem. While in the post-tsunami phase, the Nicobarese experienced dependency, disintegration of the family structure and depression. The community, especially the youth developed apathy for their traditional lifestyle.

Joora reasoned that the post-tsunami evacuation of the Nicobarese from their natural habitats, and an extended stay (six years) in intermediate shelters at Campbell Bay ruptured the socio-cultural fabric of their community. Excess monetary compensation, free rations and lack of livelihood options made the Nicobarese inactive and turned them into consumerists and alcoholics. The death of elderly during the catastrophe created a leadership vacuum, which in turn led to many socio-cultural changes within the community after the tsunami. The appointment of young and inexperienced Nicobarese as the captains (leaders) of tribal villages altered the power relations within the community. It gave excessive control to the island administration over the Nicobarese. The Nicobarese who lived in tuhets (a large joint family) of 25 to 30 members were divided into  nuclear families by administration for the allotment of permanent shelters. It weakened the social support system and adversely affected their livelihood. Copra (smoke dried coconut) production, a highly labour intensive activity, was the chief occupation of the Nicobarese. The community worked together on coconut plantations. Now due to disintegration of tuhets and adoption of highly consumerist behavior by its members, the community finds it difficult to work on coconut plantations and is largely disengaged from its livelihood.    

Post-tsunami, some Nicobarese chose to stay permanently at Campbell Bay, while others returned to their tribal reserve. Joora, who lived in Pulobha (a tribal village of the Little Nicobar islands) before the tsunami, went back to his tribal reserve after things settlled down a little. He argued that without viable livelihood options, the Nicobarese stay at Campbell Bay was unsustainable. He was also of the view that once the compensation money of the Nicobarese resettled at Campbell Bay was exhausted, they would return to their  villages. While stating the reasons why some Nicobarese opted to stay in intermediate shelters (Campbell Bay) even after the allotment of permanent shelters to them in the tribal reserve,  Joora said:

“The Nicobarese overstay in intermediate shelters does not signify their dislike for the tribal villages. Rather, it is the lack of amenities in tribal villages which makes them overstay here (Campbell Bay). Rudimentary facilities in tribal villages like clean water, electricity, medical services are inadequate. After spending six years at Campbell Bay, my people are also changed people now. They find it difficult to live without the amenities that they are accustomed to while staying here”.

 

Livelihood Concerns and Future Challenges

Many of these concerns, which the chairman had discussed with the island administration, still face the tribal community. An adequate infrastructure development and basic welfare services in the Nicobarese villages located in the tribal reserve are crucial for the dignified survival of the community. Easy access to services like health, education, clean water and electricity will remain  prominent concerns of the Nicobarese. Construction of a sea wall, cement concrete (CC) approach roads connecting shelters to the plantations and shore, jetties to berth ferries and inter-island vessel services in tribal villages are the felt needs of the Nicobarese. On top of inadequate medical facilities, infrequent transportation facilities and lack of telecom facilities make it impossible to seek any outside help in case of medical emergencies in tribal villages. The Nicobarese, for instance in  the village of Makachua have been subsisting on rooftop rain water harvesting, or they fetch water from the hills, which is usually contaminated. The main livelihood of the community, which is associated with coconut plantations, could  not be revived after it was destroyed during the tsunami.

There are numerous challenges which the community will face in the near future. For instance, with limited opportunities available for earning a livelihood, what will happen to the Nicobarese once their compensation money is exhausted? The island administration generated employment for the Nicobarese through the implementation of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). However, the community showed negligible interest in the scheme. Joora argued that MGNREGA did not work for the Nicobarese, as wage labour had never been a part of their culture. As a viable alternative to wage labour, the chairman emphasised the promotion of traditional livelihood activities. In his recommendations to the “five-year plan (2012-2017) for the welfare of tribal council” he stressed on the need to establish subcentres of agriculture and fisheries department in tribal villages. These subcentres would promote scientific know-how among the Nicobarese for carrying out profitable and sustainable horticultural and fisheries activities in the islands. Engagement in traditional livelihood activities and availability of modern facilities in the tribal villages, would help the community regain its self-sufficiency, cohesion and sustainability.     

Joora’s recommendations were substantial and culturally sensitive. They addressed the post-tsunami concerns of his community. He was also hopeful that one day his community would subsist with all the modern facilities without compromising the traditional harmony and its principles of egalitarianism. Now that he is no more, young Barnabas, who has long served the tribal council as secretary, has been appointed its new chairman. Only time will tell, if the Nicobarese could lead a life blending modernity and tradition, which its stalwart leader Joora had envisaged. Now, the new chairman has a crucial role to play. However his task will not be easy, as the Nicobarese society is in a phase of transition post-tsunami

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