ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Decade of Disaster and Aid in Nicobar

In her article, “A Decade of Disaster Risk Management in India” (EPW, 31 January 2015), Malini Nambiar argues that building resilience, vertical synergies and community participation are significant for vulnerability reduction and successful disaster risk management. She also emphasises the need to take “learnings” from past disasters for developing better risk management strategies. This article complements the above-mentioned arguments and elucidates how a culturally insensitive disaster response caused serious long-term disruptions within the recipient communities in the central and southern Nicobar Islands. 
The post-Tsunami Response 
The northern Sumatra earthquake precipitated the Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004, which caused “extensive and significant damage” with an approximate loss of 3,00,000 human lives. Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India were the worst hit countries with a death toll of 2,30,000 (including earthquake), 29,000 and 10,749, respectively (Science Council of Asia 2005). The Nicobar archipelago was the worst tsunami-struck region in India. Except for a few pockets, Nicobar is entirely a tribal reserve inhabited by the Nicobarese and the Shompen communities. Traditionally, both these communities have lived in isolation with limited cross-cultural exposure. Besides their conventional livelihood—horticulture, livestock rearing, hunting and gathering—copra (dry coconut) production helped the semi-permeable Nicobarese community to strike limited trade relations with the outer world.
The tsunami jolted the Nicobarese society. Out of a total population of 42,055 (including the non-Nicobarese) in 2001, 3,449 people were reported dead or missing in the Nicobar Islands, of which 2,955 were the indigenes. People in Nicobar lost 6,115 hectares of agricultural land and 1,26,056 livestock. 
Soon after the catastrophe, people were evacuated from Chowra, Trinket, Little Nicobar, Kondul, Pilomilow and Bambooka and 117 relief camps were set up across Car Nicobar, Teressa, Katchal, Nancowry, Kamorta and the Great Nicobar islands that accommodated 28,812 people. After the tsunami there was substantial infrastructure development in Nicobar with roads, jetties, intermediate shelters, permanent shelters, community halls, schools and hospitals being constructed. A total of 7,001 permanent shelters were allotted to the homeless survivors (Parasuraman and Krishnan 2013; Sekhsaria 2015). In addition to monetary compensation, the community received social amenities, such as clean water, electricity, medical aid and free rations for a period of nearly five years. 
The Fallout 
A decade after the tsunami, the fallout of humanitarian interventions in the central and southern Nicobar Islands is clearly discernible in terms of sociocultural rupture in recipient communities. After spending some weeks in relief camps, the Nicobarese were keen to return to their respective villages. However, the administration cajoled them to wait until the allocation of permanent shelters, which were constructed and allotted in a phased process that got completed in 2011. 
A multitude of factors, such as sudden cross-cultural exposure, disengagement from work, protracted stay in the intermediate shelters, excessive monetary compensations, free rations and modern social amenities introduced the Nicobarese to consumerism and made them laid-back. Restricted mobility, changed food habits and adoption of sedentary lifestyle brought many new diseases to the community. The humanitarian interventions also undermined the livelihood practices, social structure and political organisation of the community; all these have serious ramifications for the Nicobarese people. 
There has been little replenishment of capital loss in terms of coconut plantations and livestock. The only tangible capital that the community has accumulated is in the form of infrastructure assets such as community halls, wells, roads, shelters and so on. However, some of these newly acquired assets have already become redundant due to lack of repair and management. The use of non-indigenous material and sophisticated construction patterns makes it impossible for the Nicobarese to fix these assets on their own. They are particularly dissatisfied with the design and choice of material for the construction of permanent shelters, which become extremely hot in summer and rattle noisily during the rainy season. The cost incurred on each shelter was over Rs 7 lakh of which a large chunk was spent on the transportation of construction material from mainland India. Erected both on ground and on stilts, the shelters were constructed from prefabricated/pre-engineered structures, RCC (reinforced cement concrete)/steel columns, iron pillars, clapboards, CGI (corrugated galvanised iron) sheets and concrete blocks. 
The permanent shelters, besides being inappropriate dwellings for the indigenes, have also disintegrated their society. The Nicobarese extended families lived together in single huts, which the government split up into nuclear families while allotting them permanent shelters. Such acts fragmented the Nicobarese tuhets (extended families). Before the tsunami, the Nicobarese dwelt on the sea coast, where they had ample space for pig domestication. The permanent shelters are far from the sea, on higher altitudes and in close proximity to one another. It has significantly reduced the space required by a family for comfortable dwelling and livestock domestication. All these spatial changes have adversely affected the Nicobarese social organisation and their traditional livelihoods. 
After the tsunami, there have been numerous instances of land encroachment in central Nicobar. The Nicobarese tuhets enjoy traditional ownership over land in the islands. Traditionally, while rendering land to the government the community would record the amount of land offered and also make a note of the use it was put to. However, during the rehabilitation and reconstruction work various private contractors and government departments occupied land in central Nicobar without consulting the community. It stirred discontentment and the tribal leaders appealed to the government departments and private contractors to seek their consent before occupying land for rehabilitation work. The tribal councils also cautioned that non-compliance with the norm would leave the tribal leadership with “no choice but to initiate legal action against the parties concerned.”1 
Non-Nicobarese Encroachment
The Nicobarese had feared encroachment on their land after the tsunami. Their fears have proved true. People from outside the island were deployed for rehabilitation and reconstruction work; this workforce was issued short-term tribal passes. However, due to the negligence of the administration a large number of the labourers have illegally stayed in the islands and encroached upon the Nicobarese land.2 This has complicated the long pending issue of land encroachments in Kamorta. 
The presence of non-Nicobarese in the tribal reserve, besides being a violation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR) 1956, has also posed serious threats to the survival and well-being of the Nicobarese. The non-Nicobarese have come to central Nicobar in search of better livelihood opportunities and their activities have affected the traditional livelihoods of the Nicobarese. They illegally set up booby traps in the forest, hunt wild boar, catch crabs and fish in shallow water (channels and creeks). Commercial fishing by the non-Nicobarese, who use mechanised boats and small eye fishing nets, has depleted the catch for the Nicobarese and jeopardised their traditional livelihood. 
The non-Nicobarese have also cornered the government mazdoor work, pre-empting possibilities of alternative livelihoods for the indigenes. They have monopolised business in the islands, especially in Kamorta and Katchal by setting up grocery shops and tea stalls. Many of them violate the (ANPATR). Alcohol is strictly prohibited in the tribal reserve, but the non-Nicobarese have been found selling it. A huge chunk of the Nicobarese compensation money has gone in buying such hooch and caused conflicts within the community. Many indigenes have become addicts and in the absence of alcohol or lack of money to procure it, they now consume jangali (homemade alcohol) introduced by the non-Nicobarese.
The past decade brought disaster, humanitarian interventions and drastic socio-cultural rupture to central and south Nicobar islands. The Nicobarese believe that after the tsunami their society has moved backwards and has reached a “zero point” from where it must take a U-turn.
There is no denying the fact that the remoteness of the islands posed a major challenge to the disaster response. The islands also lacked adequate systems for effective management of the tsunami, which were built only after the enactment of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. However, the islands had their own strengths to launch an effective disaster response. The Nicobarese was a small, well-organised and a laborious community with strong leadership. With its active participation, the government could have initiated culturally-sensitive humanitarian interventions. 
Nambiar argues that India is “among the world’s most vulnerable areas to natural hazards.” The country’s geographical and cultural diversities make disaster management a complex challenge as a one-size-fits-all approach does not suit its multicultural context. Therefore, Nambiar rightly reasons that learnings from past disasters are important for vulnerability reduction and effective management of calamities. The fallout in the Nicobar Islands proffers significant learnings for future interventions in isolated indigenous societies. As evident in this discussion, culturally insensitive disaster response and excessive control could dent the resilience of the affected communities and encumber disaster vulnerability reduction. Therefore, a successful humanitarian response demands active participation of the affected people, so that the catastrophe could be managed effectively and without undermining the social organisations, structures and distinct cultural identities of the recipient communities.
1 A letter accessed from the office of Nancowry Tribal Council, Ref No ABAVP/ANI2007/01. 
2 The population of Kamorta is 3,557 (Census 2011). As per the tribal leaders 800 (approx) non-Nicobarese live in Kamorta. 
Parasuraman, S and Unni Krishnan (2013): “Disasters in India: An Explorations through Data,” India Disasters Report II: Redefining Disasters, S Parasuraman and Unni Krishnan (eds), New Delhi: Oxford, 205–35. 
Science Council of Asia (2005): “Field Survey of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami Disaster,” viewed on 13 February 2015,
Sekhsaria, Pankaj (2015): “Disaster as a Catalyst for Military Expansionism: The Case of the Nicobar Islands,” Economic & Political Weekly, 50(1), 37–43. 

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