The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Double reclaim on island
- Nicobarese fight threat from outsiders in wake of tsunami

Car Nicobar, Jan. 25: The Tricolour peppers the ruins of Car Nicobar. Maybe because Republic Day is coming up. The Nicobarese are asserting their Indianness.

Scraps of cloth hang from branches planted helter-skelter in the devastated ground. These are signs of assertion of ownership ' of the possessions, homes and lands of the Nicobarese.

The natives of Kar Nikupar, the local name of the island from which Car Nicobar derives its name, are reclaiming their homeland. Not only are they snatching it back from nature that levelled 15 villages bordering the sea by finding higher ground at a safe distance from the shore, the tribals are uniting to keep out strangers to their way of life.

Although this island ' the most populated of the Nicobar group ' is designated and restricted for the Nicobarese, over the years it has seen an influx of settlers of mainland origin. Of the population of over 20,000, a fifth are from outside.

A large number of government employees live on the island, bringing with them contract labour and eventually attracting the attention of businessmen. For the Nicobarese, also the most socialised of the six aboriginal groups of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, threat from the outside has now translated into cohesive opposition.

'There has been growing resentment that mainlanders are usurping the island' Now, most of them have been evacuated and the Nicobarese don't want them to come back,' said Uddipta Ray, newly-appointed deputy commissioner, Nicobar district.

The tribals have learnt that money means power.

'No shop will be allowed to be owned by non-tribal people,' said Thomas Philip, captain of Mus village and secretary of the island tribal council. He tells a story of exploitation, of settlers starting shops years ago when the Nicobarese had no experience with money. They would, explains Thomas, take huge quantities of copra in exchange for small amounts of cloth and other alien provisions.

'They are still taking advantage of us, often charging three times the maximum retail price for basic goods. Now we want to strengthen our own businesses. Apart from running our own stores, we would like to develop fisheries and traditional farming on the island,' adds Martin Luther, a youth leader from Tamaloo village who has taken refuge at a relief camp in Port Blair.

The Protection of Aboriginal Tribals Act supports the hopes of an indigenous resurgence. 'Non-tribals are not allowed on the island (apart from government officials) without a pass, and cannot start a business without a permit from the deputy commissioner,' said Ray.

The tribal council was 'lenient' towards settlers ' like the local administration ' because they were providing important services. But in its own cruel way the tsunami has created a clean slate of sorts, and the tribe is keen to take authorship.

'They can. It is just a question of determination,' Ray added.

The traditional residents of this worst-hit island share his confidence, and are gearing up to face the challenge of shifting from old means of livelihood ' mainly coconut and betel nut cultivation.

John Evans, a government employee who works at the lighthouse off Mus jetty, said: 'Around 30 per cent of the coconut trees have been affected by the tsunami. We are telling our children to concentrate on their studies and look to the future.'

Interference has not been welcome, even in the interest of disaster management. The Nicobarese want only money or material to build their homes, not outside help. 'The social structure ' dependent on joint families and the authority of the village captains ' is very strong and very effective. They are afraid that this will crumble under pressure from outside influences,' Ray said.

A disaster has whipped the Nicobarese into resolving to build a bulwark against threatening waves.

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