UDC’s first Urban Colloquium of 2016 was held in Pondicherry with a presentation by writer and activist Pankaj Sekhsaria, on his work in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and about his new book The Last Wave, a novel set in the islands. The event was held in collaboration with PondyPHOTO. We thank Kasha ki Aasha for generous use of their space.
Guest contributor Ketaki Chowkhani shares with us her thoughts on Pankaj’s presentation.
The Andaman and Nicobars: An Island Journey
‘When I first surveyed this creek seven years ago,’ David finally spoke, ‘it was full of crocs. It was amazing how many you could see in a single night. It used to be great fun but not anymore. This creek has now been trashed. Completely trashed. Too many people, too much encroachment. Only the first wall of the mangroves now stands. Everything beyond has been converted to paddy fields and plantations. Little left for the crocodiles’ he shook his head vigorously.
‘But it’s not like this in the creeks of the Jarawa Reserve’, he continued, ‘as you will get to see in the next few days.’ (1) ~ The Last Wave: An Island Novel (2014) by Pankaj Sekhsaria
UDC’s Urban Colloquium series kicked off early this year with a presentation on The Andaman and Nicobars: An Island Story, on 29th January 2016 by Pankaj Sekhsaria in Kasha ki Aasha, Pondicherry, in collaboration with Pondy Photo 2016. Like David in the quote above, Pankaj Sekhsaria too traced for us a brief history of activism, environmental degradation and State intervention in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Pankaj started by explaining the geo-political region of the islands. Geo-politically it is not Kanyakumari but the Nicobars which are at the Southern most tip of the Indian subcontinent. He went on to describe the eco system of the islands, the types of forest cover, the endemic birds and flowers and how the presence of papilionanthe teres, a wild orchid, indicates changes in the ecosystem of the islands. He then spoke about the local fauna, the endangered species such as the macaque, and behavioural patterns of the birds. He spoke about the mangroves, the crabs, the snakes and frogs and described the nesting of the large leatherback turtles. Showing us a picture of the trail of the leatherback turtle on the sandy beaches, Pankaj explained how the baby turtles hatched inland and the mothers who come to roost on the shores, walk back to ocean in the dead of the night, followed only by the difference in the light that emanates from the ocean and the trees. He explained how even a candle or small bulb lit inside the forest can disorient the turtles and recounted how often female leatherbacks and their young were found in the middle of the forest rather than the ocean, misguided by the light. Pankaj went on to describe the creatures living in the ocean- the fish the anemone, the clams and showed us all photographs which spoke of the inter-relationships of different species found on the ocean floor.
The topic of the presentation shifted after this to the socio-political and cultural issues of the Islands. Pankaj who has worked as an activist and researcher on these islands for a couple of decades now spoke passionately about the ways in which the State and the capitalist economy have intervened in the lives of the Jarawa tribes and lead to greater ecological damage. He described the ways in which development has taken place among the tribes in the islands, with the influx of modern education, modern ways of living. Pankaj pulled out a report by the Inter-Departmental Team on Accelerated Development Programme for Andaman and Nicobar Islands published in 1965 which had a section of the colonisation of the islands, amongst other heading such as agriculture, animal husbandry, forests, industry, fisheries, water, transportation and so on (emphasis mine). Our attention was drawn to a particular section on the policy report which spoke of a Jarawa infested area (emphasis mine). The irony of this statement seemed clear to everyone, and the State’s neo-colonial gaze on the islands unmistakable. This reminded me of school textbooks which often speak of tribes as the abject Other in the following manner “adivasi yahaan paaye jaate hain” (tribals are found in these regions).
Pankaj continued to describe the invasive and destructive developmental agenda of the State in the islands: the felling down and burning of massive trees, the building of checkpoints, the depletion of mangroves and so on. He then went on to talk about the controversial opening up of the Andaman Trunk Road which was build through a Jarawa community area. Pankaj was intimately involved in the activism with the Central Government to close this road since it exposed and disturbed the livelihoods of the Jarawa community. He showed a poignant picture of a young Jarawa running beside a bus along the Andaman Trunk Road. The story of development does not end there. Pankaj showed us recent reports which view the islands as a “prized piece of mid-ocean real estate” and Modi government’s 10,000 crore plan to develop the Andaman and Nicobar Islands along the lines of the Swiss challenge model.
Pankaj then showed us some of his writing on the islands and spoke about the changes wrought by the 2004 Tsunami. He spoke about the APJ Abdul Kalam’s proposal to build a nuclear power station on the Nicobars and described the disastrous effects that might have on the ecosystem and lives of the people there. The islands, Pankaj maintained, continuously had a series of earthquakes and would be entirely unsuitable for a nuclear power station. Pankaj’s discussions of the islands post-tsunami echoed with my colleague Ajay Saini’s research on the islands post tsunami and the ways in which humanitarian aid, relief work and consumerism have impacted the lives of the Nicobarese.
Pankaj then traced his shift from being an activist to a writer, stating that activism allows for only strict ‘black-white’ positions while literary work like his novel allowed him for more ambivalence. In his activism to shut the Andaman Trunk Road, Pankaj experienced the difficulties of taking sides and how he had to make the tough choice between looking after the interests of a few tribes vs a larger number of residents who had settled in later. Literary works such as these, he said, allowed him to explore these difficulties whereas activism didn’t. Lata Mani (2015) poignantly reflects on this need to bring in the literary to ‘aerate our approach to critique’ and the present: “We need a fresh language—visual, linguistic, analytic—for thinking about the present. We need a language that enables us to pause and reflect on the things we witness, not merely possess facts and figures about them.” (24, 27) It is in this exploration, witnessing and the ambivalences of literary writing of The Last Wave: An Island Novel that can be found Pankaj Sekhsaria’s deep, decades-long engagement with the Andaman and the Nicobars.
Ketaki Chowkhani is a native of Pondicherry and currently pursuing her PhD in Women’s Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She researches on adolescent sexuality and sex education in schools in Mumbai.
 Mani, Lata. (2015). “Writing the Present”. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol L no 49, Dec 05, 2015.