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Paradise lost tsunami crushes age-old Indian tribe
« on: May 30, 2005, 09:51:37 PM »
By Simon Denyer
Mon May 30, 2:20 AM ET

CAR NICOBAR, India (Reuters) - For thousands of years India's gentle Nicobarese tended their coconut plantations and reared pigs on the sandy shores of their island paradise.

Today, the tribespeople have turned their backs on the sea, and may be turning their backs on their ancient way of life.

The tsunami that struck their shores five months ago not only killed thousands of Nicobarese, it cracked the very foundations of their economy and their society.

"People have not come out of their shock and trauma," said Samuel Stephen, a 35-year-old a government worker from the flattened village of Mus on the northern tip of Car Nicobar.

"People are scared by the sound of the waves at night. Even the noise of buses and trucks at odd hours gets them up," he said. "But the worst change is in their behavior. They have started drinking too much."

Driving along the eastern coast of Car Nicobar, on a rare visit by a foreign journalist -- even Indians need permits to come here -- the physical wounds feel almost as fresh as ever. The bodies may have been cleared away, but little else seems to have changed since Dec. 26.

The gaping shell of a medical center is surrounded by sand, rubble and fallen coconut palms, all that remains of the bustling village of Lalpathy. A small sign has been erected to "Erstwhile Lalpathy," lest its residents forget where they once lived.

Village after village has been literally wiped off the map.

Officially, at least 850 people died on this Indian Ocean island out of a population of 19,000. Privately, officials admit the toll may have been much higher.


The Nicobarese fled inland to escape the tsunami's wrath. And that is where they remain today, in mosquito-infested relief camps in the forests or, increasingly, in government-built shelters supposed to protect them from the monsoon rains.

They used to fish, diving from dugouts with harpoons and masks, or casting lines in deeper water for the bigger fish. Five months on, scarcely a boat has returned to the sea.

Tens of thousands of coconut trees, the lifeblood of the economy, were toppled by the waves. It will take 10 years for the plantations to grow back, and replanting is only just beginning.

But the profoundest change could come if the tribe is unable to rebuild what was once a close-knit society built around the extended family, or "tuhet," where villagers would help each other without asking for money, in the old days.

"We are lacking identity and we don't want to help each other any more," said tribal youth leader Henry Samuel. "In a war, people run for their own safety."

Gone are the communal huts where family life was focused and the tuhet head lived. Today, government-built shelters have forced the Nicobarese into nuclear families -- and undermined their traditions.


Car Nicobar lies 1,300 km (800 miles) off India's east coast, in the middle of the Andaman and Nicobar chain. Its "Mongoloid" people probably came from China or Southeast Asia 18,000 years ago, and were converted to Christianity under British rule.

Outsiders are forbidden without a permit. But thousands of mainlanders settled here anyway, legally or illegally, running shops and working as labourers.

Hundreds of settlers died on Dec. 26. and the rest were evacuated to the mainland. Nicobarese chiefs say their people were being exploited by the more commercially-savvy mainlanders, and now want their islands to themselves.

"The influx has to be controlled," said Thomas Philip, the secretary of the Car Nicobar tribal council. "These people should be sent away from our place and whatever business they have should be stopped."

The government gave about 15,000 rupees ($350) compensation to tribespeople who lost their homes and is slowly handing out up to 200,000 rupees each to widows and orphans and 4,000 for every 175 coconut trees lost to the waves.

Most Nicobarese are too gentle and too humble to complain.

But gradually they open up to the outsider: government rations -- mostly rice and lentils -- are scarcely enough and the compensation for agricultural losses hopelessly inadequate.

Worse, much of the cash goes on liquor, at inflated costs.

"In the beginning, there was paradise, and Eve plucked the fruit," said Samuel. "In Car Nicobar, the fruit is liquor, and everyone is going to have it."

There are no simple answers for the Nicobars, home to 36,000 tribespeople and an unknown number of settlers before Dec. 26.

Delhi has announced ambitious plans to encourage the islanders to diversify into cashews, spices or commercial fishing. Philip and his tribal council want training so his people work as plumbers, tailors or even run beauty parlours.

Samir Acharya of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology worries the Nicobarese, used to a life of leisure under the palms, are being forced to join the modern world too quickly, and the pressures could destroy their society.

Help them replant, rebuild and then leave them alone, he says: "You can't change a whole society overnight.

But Philip knows it may already be too late. The quiet coconut farmers in this paradise may soon join the modern world.

"There is no other way, sir," he says, with a resigned smile.

"One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. "Which road do I take?" she asked. "Where do you want to go?" was his response. "I don't know," Alice answered. "Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."

- Lewis Carroll