India's Supreme Court has banned tourists from traveling along the Andaman Nicobar Trunk Road, a controversial highway that was used for over a decade to conduct "human safaris" on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territory of India.
The welcomed decision arrives almost exactly one year after Gethin Chamberlin, a reporter working for the Observer, released a shocking video in which a group of Jarawa women and children are being forced to dance for tourists.
Soon after the video was made public, Chamberlain released an equally disturbing audio recording. In that recording, Chamberlain, posing as a tourist, innocently asks a tour operator how much it would cost to go see the Jarawa. Unaware that he was being recorded, the tour operator replies, "For the trip, uh, vehicle and... all like 25 to 30,000 like that. Because the policeman take 10 to 15 like that. And vehicle and some gift to the tribals also.. like fruits, biscuits..."
The public's reaction to both recordings left the government with no choice but to act. As an initial response, Chidambaram Palaniappan, the Union Minister of Home Affairs of the Republic of India, ordered the arrest of both the videographer and the tour operator concerned. Union Tribal Affairs Minister V. Kishore Chandra Deo also assured that he would look into the demand for the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road.
Five months later, the Supreme Court renewed a 2007 order for the the Andaman government to prohibit all commercial and tourism activities within a five kilometre Buffer Zone surrounding the Jarawa's reserve.
The court stated at the time,
“...henceforth no commercial and tourism related activities shall be carried out by the administration or any private individual in violation of the prohibition contained in notification dated 30.10.2007 and order dated 6.11.2007. It shall be the duty of the Principal Secretary (Tribal Welfare) and other officers of the Administration of Andaman and Nicobar to ensure total compliance of the prohibition contained in notification dated 30.10.2007 and this order. Any breach of this order will entail punishment under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.”
The Court further ordered the closure of two major tourist attractions on the island, both of which are located inside the buffer zone: the limestone caves and the mud volcano on Baratang Island. In order to reach either site, tourists must either travel by helicopter or they must go down the Great Andaman Trunk Road. The latter course takes the tourists directly through the Jarawa's reserve.
That could have been the end of the story; however, the Andaman government decided to ignore the ruling and allow the tourist attractions to remain open. This in turn allowed the infamous "human safaris" to continue.
Gethin Chamberlin returned to the Andaman Islands last August to see where the situation was at. In a new report for the Observer, he indicated that as many as 250 vehicles were still passing through the reserve. NDTV also broadcast a documentary, filmed during the first two weeks of September, that showed tourists on their way to the limestone cave. The film contains interviews in which tourists freely admit that their real interest was not the cave but the chance to catch a glimpse of the Jarawa.
In response to this and other evidence, last week, the Supreme Court took things one step further by formally banning all tourists from using the highway--without exception.
"This new interim order is positive," said Stephen Corry, the Director of Survival International. However, Corry continues, "it will be meaningless if the Supreme Court allows the Andaman authorities once again to ride roughshod over its ruling. It's vital that the order is upheld and the human safaris end – the Jarawa themselves must decide if, when, and where outsiders traverse their land."
The Andaman government, meanwhile, continues to defy the court. After the recent ruling, the regional government announced a watered down version of the Buffer Zone that would allow the limestone caves and mud volcano to remain open.
Sadly, there are no Jarawa voices to be heard in this ongoing legal and moral battle.