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Consumerism Among the Nicobarese

The Post-tsunami Phase in Nicobar Islands

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

Government relief and rehabilitation measures, which included generous monetary compensation, for the tsunami affected Nicobarese tribals inhabiting the southern Nicobar Islands has spawned idleness and fuelled consumerism among them, threatening the very fabric of their society. 

The author gladly acknowledges the guidance and support of S Parasuraman, Surinder Jaswal, ANI administration and the inhabitants of the southern Nicobar.  

Relics of Consumerism

During my transect walks at Campbell Bay in the southern Nicobar Islands, I noticed many dilapidated vehicles by the road side, which was an unusual phenomenon there. Sensing my curiosity, my colleagues John Robert and Manasi[1] narrated tales behind these discarded vehicles. A majority of these were owned by the Nicobarese, who used them for a short duration before they crashed them into trees, rendering them unusable. Manasi explained how the Nicobarese tribals were duped by the non-Nicobarese (settlers), who sold their rickety vehicles to them at exorbitant prices and which became useless in a short time.

Later, I interviewed both the Nicobarese and non-Nicobarese people; everyone had something noteworthy to share about these vehicles. During my interactions with them, I learnt about the genesis of consumerism among the Nicobarese in the post-tsunami phase. Electronic gadgets like mobile phones, televisions, washing machines, DVD players and refrigerators are common household gadgets used by Nicobarese now; whereas LCD, tablet, touch screen, iPhone, and laptop are buzzwords among the tribal youth. 

Genesis of Consumerism   

Before the tsunami of 26 December 2004, the Nicobarese of the southern Nicobar Islands inhabited various pockets of the tribal reserve of the Great and Little Nicobar islands. There were 14 Nicobarese villages and two or three single house hamlets in the Great Nicobar Island; the Little Nicobar Islands had 20 villages, which were sparsely populated and were destroyed during the tsunami. Post-tsunami, the Nicobarese were immediately evacuated from their traditional habitats and resettled in the intermediate shelters at Rajiv Nagar and New Chingenh (Campbell Bay, the Great Nicobar Island).They were provided with free rations, monetary compensation and amenities like water, education, health and electricity.

The community spent a little more than six years in these intermediate shelters before some of its members were allotted permanent shelters at Rajiv Nagar and New Chingenh; while others were rehabilitated back in the tribal reserve of the southern Nicobar Islands. The permanent shelters, which were allotted in February 2011, led to a concentration of the Nicobarese in specific areas. Consequently, the number of the Nicobarese villages in the Great Nicobar Island was reduced to four (New Chingenh, 7 km farm, Afra Bay and Rajiv Nagar) from 14 that existed before the tsunami. In the Little Nicobar Islands, the Nicobarese villages were reduced to five (Makachua, Pulopanja, Pulopatia, Puloulo, Pulobha) from 20. Since 2012, the community has also constructed temporary and permanent settlements in various places. For instance the Nicobarese of Rajiv Nagar, who received cultivable land at Gol Tikri (Great Nicobar) also built shelters there (Saini 2012, 2013).

Post-tsunami, a reckless acquisition of material goods began among the Nicobarese as soon as they received monetary compensation from the administration.[2] As rations and other supplies like electricity and water were free for the Nicobarese, they had little worries about their subsistence. The Nicobarese exhausted a major chunk of the monetary compensation on modern material goods during their stay in the intermediate shelters.  

In the post-tsunami phase, alcohol also made inroads in the Nicobarese society and Indian made foreign liquor replaced the indigenous intoxicant toddy. The 2001 and 2011 census reports recorded the total population of southern Nicobar Islands as 8,214 and 8,367 respectively. A senior administrator at Campbell Bay said that the average post-tsunami monthly alcohol sales were above Rs 12 lakhs, even after factoring such a small population size. The population of the Nicobarese in southern Nicobar Islands was 1,181 (Census 2001), which was reduced to 990 (Census 2011) in the aftermath of the tsunami. The rise in alcohol consumption after the tsunami could be attributed to the sudden availability of cash.

Although selling alcohol to the Nicobarese is prohibited by law and they were not sold liquor directly by the government-run liquor outlets, they managed to procure alcohol via the non-Nicobarese by paying some extra money to them. This extra money, which is popularly called “tips” varies as per the need and the bargaining power of the Nicobarese. Usually a tip of Rs 50 to Rs 100 per bottle is paid to a non-Nicobarese. However, during times of scarce availability, the Nicobarese have also paid twice the price of an alcohol bottle. Now almost ten years have passed since the tsunami. In retrospect, the Nicobarese do not have a clear numerical understanding of their expenditure on alcohol, but they agree that they have misspent a large chunk of their compensation money on alcohol.

Reasons Behind Reckless Consumerism

In order to get a holistic understanding of the sudden consumerism among the Nicobarese post-tsunami, it is pertinent to analyse it in the context of spatial changes that the community has experienced after the catastrophe. Before the tsunami, the Nicobarese had little exposure to spaces outside their traditional habitats. After their temporary rehabilitation in the intermediate shelters at Campbell Bay, they came in close proximity with the non-Nicobarese community. The material culture of the non-Nicobarese people attracted the Nicobarese, and they started looking at new technologies with curiosity. They found their traditional lifestyle lacking and started imitating the non-Nicobarese lifestyle.

In the pre-tsunami period, those who possessed maximum number of pigs, coconut plantations, gol ghars (round huts) and contributed generously during communal feasts, especially the pig festival, were deemed affluent and were the most cherished among the Nicobarese. Post-tsunami, the yardstick for judging the status of people shifted from the indigenous value system to the non-Nicobarese value system. Now the Nicobarese, who possessed the maximum number of modern commodities were viewed affluent by the community, and this ushered reckless consumerism within the community.

Though there is nothing wrong in adopting new technologies that make life comfortable, reckless spending on such goods by a community which had done well without them certainly raises some questions on the functional utility of these gadgets in context of these people. For instance mobile phones, which have made the life of the Nicobarese people easy, have given rise to a set of new problems. On top of this, mobile phones are useless as there is no mobile network in these islands.

Even for the Nicobarese who are permanently settled in Rajiv Nagar and New Chingenh, these gadgets serve little purpose. They have limited means and no proper source of livelihood now; free welfare supplies have ceased and the community itself has to pay for its subsistence. Many Nicobarese, who are unable to get their automobiles repaired because of lack of money, have dumped them in their backyard.

The Nicobarese leaders expressed that post-tsunami, their people became alcoholics because of inactivity and the trauma of losing their people and places. Providing free rations to the Nicobarese for a period of four to five years actually harmed the community by making them sedentary and tuning them into consumerists. Even long after the cessation of welfare services, which included free monthly ration, water, electricity, monetary compensations and so on, were withdrawn, the Nicobarese had negligible motivation to work.

While reflecting on the idleness of the Nicobarese in the aftermath of the tsunami, a Nicobarese village captain (leader) posed the question, “What can you expect from the people who did nothing for half a decade and are suddenly asked to work?” The village captain further argued that immediately after the tsunami, the community expressed its desire to go back to its habitat and start a normal life again. However, excessive intervention of the administration in the Nicobarese society undermined the local capacities and self-reliance of its people. The Nicobarese were simply made to sit idle for years without much meaningful engagement, and consequently many of them became alcoholics.

With little or no motivation to work, the Nicobarese are now subsisting on whatever is left of the monetary compensations. Many of the  goods that the Nicobarese purchased in the last decade have now become white elephants for them. Many Nicobarese narrated their experiences that they were sold products at exorbitant rates

Concerned with this profligate behaviour of the Nicobarese, the tribal council of the Great and Little Nicobar islands devised a way to check consumerism among its people. The bank was requested not to release large amount of cash to the Nicobarese without a written permission from the chairman of the tribal council. This created yet another controversy, as some Nicobarese felt that their right to use their own money is at the mercy of the chairman.

Conclusions

The Nicobarese society was a self-sustaining one prior to the tsunami. Coconut plantations and copra (smoke dried coconut) production were their major livelihood activities. Coconut was used both for personal and commercial consumption, whereas jackfruit, banana, malaya potato, pendanus and pineapple were generally used for household consumption. The money procured by selling copra was used to buy necessary commodities. Needs of the community were rudimentary and most of them were fulfilled by natural resources provided by their ecosystem (Saini 2014b). The tsunami destroyed the Nicobarese plantations and their livelihood was jeopardised.

The island administration responded to this crisis situation and put relief and rehabilitation measures in place. Many welfare programmes were initiated in goodwill, but that goodwill and generosity have proved disastrous for the Nicobarese. The post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation works were motivated by a rationale of modernising a traditional indigenous society. The undermining of the Nicobarese agency post-tsunami has had serious ramifications on their socio-cultural fabric; it triggered consumerism and promoted a sedentary lifestyle among the indigenes (Saini 2014a).

The Nicobarese have negligible income, and their post-tsunami consumerist behaviour is swiftly eroding the savings that they have in the form of compensation. Their new plantations have not yet borne fruit, and the production of copra has not been resumed. Fishing and hunting, chief activities for subsistence, have also become sporadic due to spatial changes post-tsunami. Though a percentage of the population is engaged in daily wage labour under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the unemployment rate has increased among the Nicobarese in the post-tsunami period along with a tremendous increase in their needs.

It seems that the Nicobarese community had little idea that all the post-tsunami welfare work, generous supplies and hefty compensation would get exhausted someday. After the withdrawal of relief measures, the Nicobarese are now struggling with the ramifications of their sedentary and consumerist lifestyle, which they have acquired in the recent past. Neither the Nicobarese are able to get rid of this behaviour easily, nor can they subsist with it for long.

Notes

[1]John Robert is a non-Nicobarese and a Panchayat Samiti member at Campbell Bay. Manasi is a Fellow of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Project, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (ANI-TISS), Mumbai.

[2] An ex-gratia of Rs. 2 lakh was given to the next of kin of all dead/missing persons and orphans. Unmarried girls (above 18 years of age) and widows were paid ex-gratia at Rs. 1 lakh. Rs. 90,465 (per hectare) was given for loss of plantation crops and Rs. 22,231 (per hectare) for paddy/vegetable crops.

References

Saini, Ajay (2012):“Thus Spake the Nicobarese” The Indian Journal of Social Work, 73 (2): 287-294.

-- (2013):“Post-Tsunami Socio-cultural Changes among the Nicobarese: An Ethnography of the Nicobarese of the Southern Nicobar Islands.” TISS Working Paper Series No. 1, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, January.

-- (2014a): “A Nicobarese Tribal Leader Who Lived Two Lives”, Economic and Political Weekly, 49(5), 24-6.

-- (2014b): “The Southern Nicobar Islands as Imaginative Geographies”, Unpublished Manuscript.

 

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