By Zubair Ahmed
On 9th September 2020, as per a news report, the Tribal Affairs Ministry expressed joy as six members of Great Andamanese Tribe recovered from Corona infection. This good news was widely publicized, tweeted and retweeted by official handles. It’s discreet whether the Tribal ministry was also rejoicing over the fact that a member of the Jarawa community, who had contracted Covid had also recovered. The Jarawa who was tested positive on 2nd Sept was tested negative on 7th. He was isolated inside the forest in a hut till he tested negative. Both good news calls for celebration!
However, all is not well at Harminder Bay, a Nicobari Tribal settlement in Little Andaman. There are reports of large number of symptomatic cases of Covid-19 among the Tribals in the Settlement. Though, all measures are taken to ensure that Onges, another PVTG, which resides on Little Andaman Island, are safe and protected from Covid infection, the Nicobari settlement at Harminder Bay has been always a neglected part of the Islands.
Recently, the District Admn took 27 samples from the Settlement for RT-PCR test, the results of which are awaited. What is shocking is the no. of deaths reported from Harminder Bay. There were no deaths in the months of June and July in the Settlement. But, there were 2 and 4 deaths in August and September respectively. All of these were home deaths, as the tribals are indifferent in seeking modern medical care.
Little Andaman, the southernmost Island of South Andaman District, just 100 kms away from the District Headquarter has two PHCs, one at Hut Bay and another at RK Pur. There are only two doctors in the Islands. There was a time in August, when, only one doctor was taking care of both PHCs, when a health professional, Dr Amit also became a victim to Covid. There is intense pressure on the doctor posted at PHC, Hut Bay as he has to attend to regular patients as well as take care of Covid patients.
Though, the total number of tests in an Island with more than 20000 population wouldn’t exceed 500, a majority of the tests were conducted for those availing the ship service to Port Blair last week. The population under RK Pur PHC is slightly higher than PHC, Hut Bay. However, majority of cases as well as deaths reported comes under PHC Hut Bay.
“Even if I have symptoms, and I want to be tested for Covid, there is no provision. Whereas, any asymptomatic person travelling to Port Blair would be tested,” said a settler over phone.
“If I want to be tested, should I book a ship ticket for Port Blair?” He asked.
According to various sources in Little Andaman, most of the villagers were showing symptoms, or many of them had recovered, but there is an obvious increase in the number of deaths in the Island. In the months of June and July, five and four deaths were reported from Little Andaman, whereas the numbers doubled in August and September with eight and nine deaths respectively.
There was sufficient time for the District Administration to put all measures and contain the spread of the pandemic in outward Islands, which are natural containments. It was also timely pointed out from various quarters about the lingering danger in such Islands. Tests should have been increased, and the spread contained. Contact tracing is still restricted to the families of the infected, and with no extra effort put to prepare a travel or contact trail.
Though, senior officials have made several visits including surprise visits to Little Andaman, nothing was surprising for the Islanders. When the Commissioner-cum-Secretary, Health reached Hut Bay on a surprise visit to take stock of readiness and preparedness of the Primary Health Centres, the Pradhan and Sarpanch were already waiting for him at the PHC with a list of obscure demands, surprising the Commissioner himself!
In the Nicobari settlement in Harminder Bay, the situation might worsen, if the protocols of testing, tracing, isolating and treating aren’t followed. The Health Sub-Centre isn’t enough to tackle the challenge, and special focus is required in the Settlement, which is still an isolated zone, where extensive testing can be carried out, and infected cases isolated and treated.
Traditionally, the tribal population avoid availing modern medical facilities. They rely upon their cultural practices for treatment, according to health staff. This has aggravated the situation among the 1300-odd population of the tribe, who are the descendents of 165 Nicobari families trans-migrated from Car Nicobar in 1973. Instead of waiting for the patients to show up, the medical facility needs to reach them and cover the entire population in the Settlement to rule out any catastrophe in waiting.
The Covid situation might have thrown a new challenge. But, the neglect of this Nicobari Tribal Settlement in Little Andaman has both historical and administrative reasons.
The tribals who were trans-migrated from Car Nicobar had been facing various conflicts with rules and regulations as well as sharing resources. Unlike Car Nicobar, where there aren’t any reserve forest, and the whole island is tribal reserve, the tribes in Harminder Bay had confrontations with Forest laws too.
In 2012, when the question regarding the rationale behind uprooting of tribals from Car Nicobar and settling in Little Andaman was posed to Mr Harminder Singh IAS, then Chief Commissioner (1972), who was instrumental in setting up the Settlement, and in whose memory the village was named, he had said that the measure was taken to decongest and reduce the density of population in Car Nicobar. He had also said that, it was the prerogative of the Administration to eventually amend the rules and regulations to suit the tribal settlement. Unfortunately, the apathy continues. The looming issues still remain to be sorted out. The Nicobarese in Little Andaman continue to be second-class tribals without proper land and forest rights.
The neglect is further visible, if one refers to the statistics published by the UT Administration. Quoting the source as Director (Tribal welfare), vide letter no.689 dtd.19.06.2017, the demographic details published in Table 1.24 (Schedule Tribe in A & N Islands) notes that the total no. of Nicobarese in the Islands as per 2011 census is 27168, and inhabited in Car Nicobar, Chowra, Teressa, Bampuka, Katchal, Kamorta, Nancowrie, Trinket, Little Nicobar, Kondul, Pilomilo, and Great Nicobar. There is no mention of Harminder Bay or Little Andaman. Out of sight and out of mind!