The Jarawa Tribals of the Andaman Islands

Living on the Verge of Extinction

Mar 29, 2010 Sharmishta Sarkar
The Jarawas resisted contact with the outside world until 1998. Now with barely 350 individuals left, they struggle to hold on to their way life and to survive.

The Jarawa tribe of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are thought to be the descendants of the first group of people who successfully migrated out of Africa. They are short, dark-skinned and have curly hair, resembling the African bushmen to some extent. Along with the other indigenous peoples of the Indian island chain of the Andamans, the Jarawas have inhabited the islands for several thousand years as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and have managed to to keep to themselves until very recently when the Indian government sanctioned the building of the Andaman Trunk Road. It was only in 1998 that the Jarawas began to come out of the forests to visit nearby villages and towns.

Relationship of Jarawas with Outsiders

Other than the indigenous peoples of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the first known settlements of non-Jarawas was during the British Raj. There are traceable notes on the contact of the tribals of the islands during the colonial age in India's history. Around the mid 1700s, many populations of the Jarawas were wiped out due to disease, alcoholism and British government sponsored attacks after the first British settlement was established on or near their land. The remaining Jarawas settled elsewhere. But with increased migrations from the Indian and Burmese mainland the process of decimation of the tribes accelerated. As the non-indigenous population on the islands increased, the tribals attacked people wandering around and killed many of them, their attempt in keeping their independence and distance from the outside world.
In the 1970s, the Indian government sanctioned the building of the Andaman Trunk Road, allowing the outside world to reach the domain of the Jarawas. Prior to 1997, they managed to stay to themselves. But since then, they have initiated contact with the non-indigenous peoples of the islands. This contact has further reduced their population due to diseases like measles and tuberculosis. Today there are barely 200 to 300 individuals living in the jungles of the Andaman Islands.

Problems Faced by the Jarawa Tribes

The main threat of for the Jarawas comes from the encroachment onto their land enabled by the Andaman Trunk Road. The road has brought settlers looking for agricultural land, poachers and loggers into the forest home of the tribals. The encroachment has brought disease epidemics as well. A few months after the Jarawas initiated contact with the outside world, an epidemic of measles broke out, followed by another in 2006. The tribals have also suffered epidemics of tuberculosis. With no immunity to most of the common diseases plaguing modern society, the Jarawas have had to suffer many disease-related deaths.
Poachers have greatly reduced the game that the tribes depend on for their daily subsistence. There have also been reports of sexual exploitation of the Jarawa women by poachers and tour operators in the area.
It is illegal for tourists to photograph or initiate any contact with the Jarawas, who are found begging by the side of the highways. Despite warnings to tour operators to discourage contact with the indigenous peoples, there has been no action taken against the perpetrators. Although the Indian government has demarcated land for the Jarawas, encroachment has not stopped. When a buffer zone of 5 kilometres was created, many villages and resorts had to be relocated resulting in several cases going to court.
In May 2002, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the road to be closed, the settlements relocated and banned logging. Implementing this law has been difficult and the survival of Jarawas is still a struggle. Many non-profit organizations have tried to take up their cause but have not achieved much. In fact, some of them have been criticized for using the Jarawas as a fund-raising gimmick to ensure profits for themselves.


BBC News. 28 March 2010. Battle over resort 'Threatening Andaman Tribe' Retrieved 29 March 2010
The South February 2003. Jarawa of Andaman Islands Retrieved 29 March 2010