Wednesday, November 14, 2012

COVER STORY | Little Andaman: Replay 2002?


Little Andaman: Replay 2002?

By Zubair Ahmed

 On the way to Nicobar transporting three Houdies (Nicobari Canoe) made from timber extracted from forests of Little Andaman, a Nicobari tribal from Harmander Bay, is stopped by the Divisional Forest Officer and asked to produce the permit. The houdies are confiscated and detained in their village. The issue flares up. Matter is reported to Tribal Council. The Council gets in touch with Raj Niwas and demands immediate action. The Divisional Forest Officer Mr Yeshurathnam IFS is transferred.
It looks like a plain case of harassment of tribal and the action taken by the Raj Niwas is also seen as a welcome step by everyone. There is not much hue and cry from any quarters. The issue seems to have been dealt in a very professional manner. The message from Raj Niwas is very loud and clear - Anyone harassing tribals will not be spared.
Is the matter as simple as that? From the very outset, a series of questions remain unanswered. By playing the tribal card the lobby behind the whole episode achieved the unattainable task with a splendid finesse.
A decade ago, in May 2002, Supreme Court had come down heavily on the Islanders with its crucial judgment, which turned into a nightmare for them. It had a drastic effect on the usage of forest resources for bona fide purpose of the Islanders. However, unaware of the root cause the Islanders started blaming the groups which had approached Supreme Court. Was it the fault of the environmental groups which landed in Supreme Court?
Pix courtesy: Pankaj Sekhsaria
The Islanders still remains unaware that the Order had something to do with Little Andamans. Uncontrolled exploitation of forest resources by the Forest Development Corporation on the behest of one Administrator had its devastative effect on the Island. Unfortunately, after 10 years of the verdict, the situation in Little Andamans remains unchanged. Players might have changed, but the game continues unhindered.
It would be shocking to find out, the quantity of sawn timber and sand exported from Port Blair to Little Andaman after tsunami for the construction and rehabilitation work. How and where did the Contractors manage the timber and sand for construction of about 1000 permanent shelters in Little Andaman?
Only for eyewash, a little quantity of sand and sawn timber was imported from outside. All the timber required for construction was extracted from the forest and sand mined from the Island itself. If, it has not affected the ecological equilibrium, why can't the Admn go for the Little Andaman model and forget about the hassles concerning scarcity of construction materials?
After tsunami, two DFOs placed in Little Andaman were more concerned about their own welfare and the well-being of their higher ups rather than the forests or wildlife. The contractors had heyday when these Forest Officers ruled the roost. Both of them enjoyed absolute power and protection from Port Blair.
With astute and crawler DFOs placed at the disposal of the insatiable contractors in Little Andaman, and the needs and demands of the higher ups in Secretariat as well as Van Sadan taken care of, who cares a hoot about the forests and the unique biodiversity being disturbed and damaged. Meat of wild boar and even crocodile reached Port Blair with their connivance. And, the contractor mafia had field day during the last six years, which was hindered by Yeshunathan, the DFO who has been transferred recently, when he tried putting an end to the rape of the environment.
However, in the shadow of tribal rights over forests and natural resources, a mafia which played the cards very stupendously could make the vanishing act of a Forest Officer, who had become an eyesore for them. With the recent decision to open up sand mining, Yeshunathan would have become a major obstruction for the lobby, who smoothly removed him from their path.
Yeshurathnam IFS, the Divisional Forest Officer of Little Andaman has been transferred and placed in a very insignificant post somewhere in Chatham or Van Sadan, and nobody questions why he got axed. It was all a blown-up tribal issue, which required the attention of none other than the Lieutenant Governor.
The officer who in a very short span of time had turned the tide and was able to clean the mess that Little Andaman had turned into, however, could not find any support from his own department.  Legally too, Yeshurathnam acted as per the Indian Forest Act, which does not give any exemption to anybody to cut trees from Reserve Forests. But, when Raj Niwas, is more concerned about a phone call from Sonia Gandhi chastising them about the status and rights of tribal, why would they come out to the protection of one officer, who is dispensable.

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