After yrs by the sea, tribal people move inland

Associated Press

Car Nicobar, January 22:

It’s the end of a centuries-old lifestyle: after living by the sea they loved and losing all to it, the Nicobarese tribespeople are giving up, reluctantly designing new villages in the hinterland and finding new ways of earning money.

“We will miss our old homes, our neighborhood, the sea, everything about the old village. The blue waters were always in sight,” said Thomas Philip, chieftain of Mus village on Car Nicobar island, hit worst by the tsunami on the Indian archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar. “But all the villages have vanished, and we are now moving away from the seashore.”

The December 26 tsunami wiped out 12 of the 15 villages along the coral-rich coastline of the remote island, where clear blue waters lap up the white sands. For the first time since the devastation, journalists travelled more than 300 km on a navy vessel on Wednesday to the northern part of the island, not reachable earlier because of blocked roads and a smashed jetty. Those have been repaired now by army engineers, opening up access to relief supplies. Fear of the sea is common in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and other countries struck by the tsunami, although some residents have no plans to leave their shattered villages, saying they have nowhere else to go. The government in the Maldives wants to move people to so-called “safer” islands with higher elevation.

The tsunami killed 1,899 people across the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and 5,554 remain missing. This week, village elders and senior officials of the tribal council inspected the site of their new village, 9 km north of the old Mus village. Similar inspections were carried out by leaders of other villages.

Village heads are designing new homes, which they will build with construction material provided by the government. Fallen coconut trees will be used to build walls and supporting pillars. New schools, grocery shops, community centers and churches are planned. Nicobarese tribal people, numbering more than 30,000, are nearly all Christians. They are the only ones among the archipelago’s tribes who have had access to modern education, the English language, and prosperity. The rest include five aboriginal tribes that have a total of under 1,000 members and are some of the oldest surviving communities in the world.

Planners are changing some traditions due to new circumstances. Traditionally the Nicobarese “death house” — the graveyard — and the “birth house” — the delivery center — are built near the sea, but away from the village as they are considered impure. Now, these building will no longer be by the sea. The tsunami has required many tribe members to seek jobs — something few did earlier because people lived off selling coconuts to a tribal cooperative, which sold them to coconut oil companies.

Life involved little work or physical labour. An average Nicobarese tribal earned some Rs 8,000 a month, the salary of a schoolteacher on mainland India. The tsunamis have battered coconut plantations, hitting at the lifeblood of the Nicobarese people.