Culturally, American Jindal is Being the

Saturday Feature
The Economic Times, New Delhi, Saturday, 31 January 2015
The Reconfiguration of the
Nicobar Islands
First came the tsunami. And then, as the Nicobarese were struggling to cope, came a second onslaught—‘one-sizefits-all’ relief and rehabilitation. M Rajshekhar reports on the fallout
Before the tsunami, the Nicobars
were a laidback place. Both Car
Nicobar and Central Nicobar had very
communitarian societies.
Researchers visiting
the island found rising
There was trade even curiosity about the world
in precolonial times. outside amongst the young.
Influences from outside
deepened with the British
and then under Indian rule.
This was slowly changing
The high death toll, delays in
housing—which forced people to
stay in temporary structures for
almost five years— everything
took a toll.
pegged the
of dead
at 5,000
en years after the tsunami,
life in India’s coral-fringed
Nicobar Islands is settling
into a new pattern. For the
most part, it is an ugly one. In
the tiny island of Car Nicobar—it has a
perimeter of just 45 kms—even 12 year
olds are getting drunk. “There was always some drinking,” comments
Samir Acharya, a local environmentalist. “But what we are seeing now is
binge drinking.” Hard liquor is the
most preferred drink now, not toddy.
There are other changes. The traditional community structure, where
extended families lived together in
homes large enough for all of them, is
being replaced by nuclear families.
The islands are now far more dependent on the world outside for their supplies. With that, the local economy has
changed from a simple one bartering
or selling coconuts to a far more complex and cash-intensive one.
Most of these changes can be traced,
not to the tsunami of December 2004
but to the relief work carried out by
NGOs and the government.
Before the tsunami, the islands had a
very distinctive culture. Central
Nicobar was matrilineal. Both Central
and Car Nicobar—the largest islands
in the archipelago—had a very communitarian ethos. Says Acharya,
“Resources—like coconut trees—were
allocated by the village leader as per a
household’s need.” Their justice system was not adversarial but remedial.
If someone killed, say, the son in a family, he would have to work for them to
compensate for the loss.
Says Rasheed Yusoof, a community
leader in Central Nicobar, “People did
not need a lot of money. The islands’
resources—pig, fish, coconut—gave
enough to eat. There was no need for
money. If people needed money for anything, they would sell coconuts. At the
same time, there were not too many
things to buy. People were very contented with their resources.”
Some of this was changing even before the tsunami. By 2004, says
Acharya, disputes were being taken to
the courts. Local youth were wondering more about life outside the islands.
However, the pace of change was rela-
Simron Singh: “The scramble for relief and exotic goods, the lack of
work, filled with anxiety to construct their temporary shelters, and stress
in the cramped environment of the relief camps triggered new dynamics
among the inmates. Inter-generational conflicts, questions of leadership
(several old leaders had died), the redistribution of land and resources, and
a restructuring of the former joint family system started to take place.”
The change
tively gradual. The tsunami, and its
aftermath, vastly accelerated the pace
of this change.
The quake preceding the tsunami was
so strong the Nicobars slipped as much
as two metres lower (North Andaman
rose higher above the sea, South
Andaman and the Nicobars sank).
Waves flowed right over some islands
and rejoined the sea at the other end.
A community leader of Kamorta island went out fishing the previous
night and, on returning, went to the
place where his village ought to have
been but found nothing. Seven villages
on that island were washed out to sea.
This destruction was repeated on island after island. Official estimates say
5,000 people died. Local estimates peg
fatalities far higher.
A large humanitarian effort was
mounted by NGOs and the administration. The shocked survivors were
brought to Port Blair. Recalls Acharya,
who spent those days working with the
then-Chief Secretary VV Bhat on relief, “The first thing the administration did is evacuate women, children,
the old and then the young men—in
that order—and settle them in different camps as they came in. This broke
up communities at a time when they
most needed each other.”
Even as that mistake was corrected,
others were made. Both the government and NGOs came in with supplydriven than need-driven remedies with
little relevance to the local conditions.
In an economy with limited role for
cash, the government doled out cash
compensation. In communities which
used wooden boats, NGOs and the government gave out fiberglass boats
which couldn’t be maintained locally.
Categorising locals into nuclear families, the government made out cheques
to smaller family units. Instead of rebuilding traditional houses, it foisted
boilerplate templates upon the locals.
Says Yusoof, “After the tsunami, we
said give us tools and we will make our
own houses with our traditional
knowledge. But we did not get the tools.
Instead we were told to take one of
three kinds of houses.”
Bhat told ET that the local administration was in favour of allowing the
Samir Acharya: “The people from Delhi
could not see how 70 people can live together
with one kitchen. Families were given nuclear
houses. We protested about this but we were
told “It has already been decided. This cannot
be changed”.”
The tsunami changed all that.
“There was no need for
money. If people needed money
for anything, they would sell
coconuts. At the same time, there
were not too many things to buy.
People were very contented
with their resources.”
Entire clans would
stay in one house. The
primary livelihood
was derived from
After that came a second assault.
A wave of NGOs and the local administration
came in with supply-driven than need-based
tribals to build their own houses, by
giving them tools, timber and bamboo.
“However, government of India told us
that since it is building houses for the
non-tribals, there should be similar
treatment to all and so, it would build
houses for all.”
Says Yusoof, “The government in
Delhi floated a tender—about Rs 8001,000 crore—where non-tribal contractors who had not even seen the islands
bid. They did not know how dispersed
the islands are, the cost of transporting
the material, etc.” Eventually, they
could make only a few houses. That tender was cancelled. The local adminis-
“After the tsunami,
we said give us tools
and we will make our
own houses. But we
did not get the tools.
Instead, we were told
to take one of three
kinds of houses”
tration gave the work to contractors
from Port Blair. The houses were ready
in 2010, five years after the tsunami. In
this period, the Nicobarese had to live
in camps made of corrugated sheets—
Sheds hot enough to be unbearable.
All this created additional trauma for
an already scarred population. In a paper titled “Humanitarian Aid and
Ecological Consequences: The Nicobar
Islands as a Case of Complex
Disasters”, writes academic Simron Jit
Singh, “The scramble for relief and exotic goods, the lack of work, filled with
anxiety to construct their temporary
shelters, and stress in the cramped environment of the relief camps triggered new dynamics among the inmates. Inter-generational conflicts,
questions of leadership (several old
leaders had died), the redistribution of
land and resources, and a restructur-
ing of the former joint family system
started to take place.”
The decision to pay compensation to
nuclear units, writes Singh, who did
his fieldwork (on the economic ties between the Nicobarese and the rest of
the world) during the late 1990s, “was
the beginning of the disintegration of
the extended family system and of future conflicts.
A re-evaluation of lifestyles—especially by the young—started. In a
November 2014 article in EPW, Tata
Institute of Social Sciences academic
Ajay Saini writes: “After their temporary rehabilitation in the intermediate
shelters... they came in close proximity
with the non-Nicobarese community...
They found their traditional lifestyle
lacking and started imitating the nonNicobarese lifestyle.”
In the pre-tsunami period, he writes,
those with the largest number of pigs,
coconut plantations, gol ghars (round
huts) who contributed generously during communal feasts, especially the pig
festival, were deemed affluent. Posttsunami, those with most the modern
commodities were viewed affluent,
and this ushered reckless consumerism within the community.
There was another puzzling dynamic.
Bhat, who was the chief secretary at
the time, was moved out of the islands
the month after the tsunami—the very
time experienced hands were needed.
Other experienced bureaucrats, he
told ET, too were transferred out shortly after the tsunami.
DS Negi, who took over as the chief
secretary after Bhat, told ET decisions
about the temporary housing and cash
compensation were made after discussions with local leaders. However, it is
unclear if the community was in a position to think much at the time.
The outcome? On an island as small
as Car Nicobar, says Amin Moosa, the
head of a tribal co-operative, there will
be about 1,000 cars right now. “People
are spending on petrol and insurance
for these cars, but there is no permanent source of earning.”
This is a point that Singh also makes.
After four years of incessant aid flow s,
he wrote, the Nicobarese have adopted
a new way of living based on a much
higher consumption than before. “The
issue here is that hardly any of this is
locally produced but must be obtained
from outside as aid, subsidy, or trade.”
As dependency on resources from
outside rises, the traditional economy
cannot support the new lifestyle.
Annual income from coconuts, calculates Moosa, cannot be more
than Rs 1,000 per person. Against
that, agrees Yusoof, “Cash need is
more now. I think, Rs 7,000 a month.”
Says Acharya, “The villagers have
had to go to the new economy. The class
8 passouts took government jobs. They
now make Rs 16,000-17000 as Class-4
workers. Others live through compensation money or daily wage labour.”
If the people of Kamorta, says Singh,
start selling vegetables—“the only
means of livelihood that is readily accessible”—they will have to work eight
hours a day. This, he says, “is equal to
the maximum disposable working
time (leaving no time for festivities and
rituals), and a six to eight times increase in the working time as compared to the pre-tsunami scenario.”
At the same time, forest and grasslands will reduce by 15% and 10%, respectively, over the next 30 years with
impacts on drinking water, soil, forest
produce and some of the endemic fauna and flora. Put it all together and you
see a dramatic restructuring.
The most appropriate way ahead, he
feels, would be to pre pare the
Nicobarese for a new economy. “To
work with local institutions to create
alternatives that are economically feasible, equitable, culturally appropriate
and ecologically sustainable.”
It’s not clear what the local administration is doing about all this. Anand
Prakash, the current chief secretary,
didn’t respond to ET’s questions.
[email protected]
With cash compensation,
people’s lifestyle changed.
The islands, battered from
the tsunami, could not
support the new lifestyles.
With their own resources
unable to take care of them,
the villagers had to go to the
new economy
The class 8 passouts took government jobs. Others lived off
compensation money. As that ran out, they turned to daily
wage labour. The local administration tried to push vegetable
farming. Dependency on the mainland grew.
In Car Nicobar, a drinking problem .
Anand Lauson: “The youth are a
problem. They are not working.
They are drinking. Earlier, there were 1
or2 problem children but now almost
everyone is drinking.”
Today, the Nicobars are a different place. Some
people are trying to return to the old
lifestyle. Others have migrated out to Port Blair
Samir Acharya: “The
traditionality is gone. The
natural cohesiveness of the
village is gone. It was not
intentional but inevitable the
way things were going.”
Culturally, American Jindal is
Being the Quintessential Indian
The American formerly called Piyush aka Bobby Jindal has shown true Indianness by doing exactly
what India has been doing: constantly absorbing, adapting and changing
Silk Stalkings
Reshmi R Dasgupta
Just under 20 years ago when we returned from a posting in the UK, our fouryear-old son not only had rather quaint
occidental manners, he also spouted
what I considered a beautiful British accent. The Ps and Qs remained but the accent was not to last long, sadly.
Within a month or two of school in
India, his phoren tone inevitably began
to fade. “You’re no longer British,” I said
teasingly to him one day. “Mami,” he replied after some consideration, with all
the gravitas a chap his size could manage, “British is not speaking, British is
being.” Out of the mouths of babes
comes truth, goes the old saying and it
inspired me to dash off a ‘middle’ for The
Times of India. I am reminded of it again
now in the light of the Charlie Hebdo
massacre and also Louisiana Governor
Bobby Jindal’s comments on hyphenated
What is being Indian? Or indeed being
American, Australian, and yes, British?
What binds a multi-racial, multi-cultural
nation? Is there a Britishness that transcends the inherent divisions of race and
religion, much like there is an
Americanness or Australianness?
Sadly, in India this debate becomes a
non-starter as the word Indianness has
been needlessly politicized by one camp
appropriating it and another camp vilifying it. Yet, something has undoubtedly
kept this huge subcontinent more or less
cohesive regardless of lines on maps.
History will bear out that India was actually the United States of the ancient
world. Unlike insular China and internally absorbed Europe, it attracted people from all over. So, diverse cultures
flowed into the melting pot that was ancient India and added their unique flavour to it.
The peoples of Europe and China
evolved their identities around distinctive languages and cultural practices.
Neither experienced large scale and continuous influx (at least until fairly recently) even if they did send some of their
own out to explore and bring back things.
It is dangerous to imagine that common
language, clothes, political system and
other superficial elements make for a
composite culture and harmonious identity. The Charlie Hebdo killings are a
warning about the dangerous consequences of not evolving an
But Europeanness should not and cannot mean a stew of all the current cultures milling around there. After all if
the millennia old curry that is India is
deconstructed into its individual ele-
ments by some mad molecular gastronome, it would seem a yucky mix of
strong contrasts.
But when tasted in its complex totality
– arrived at by thousands of years of slow
cooking, mixing, steeping, emulsifying
– there is a compelling cohesion that is
not the mere sum of its parts. The
Indianness of it has been arrived at by
continuous absorption, adaption and
That flexible constant is Indianness.
And it is something that neither side of
the political divide has quite grasped – or
even wanted to, perhaps. And that is
where Bobby Jindal’s dehyphenation
comes in. Shashi Tharoor has criticised
him for being an Indian only in surname;
he’s so wrong.
By doing all the things that Tharoor has
indignantly complained about Jindal in
his book IndiaShastra, the American formerly called Piyush has shown true
Indianness by doing exactly what India
has been doing: constantly absorbing,
adapting and changing.
He is not an Indian in the narrow manner that we usually tend to identify ourselves these days for some reason.
Neither he nor India are defined by or
confined to a name, a religion, geography,
a particular political view or taste. There
is no contradiction in being Bobby and
being Indian.
That is because the essence of
Americanness, in principle, is also the
essence of Indianness, as it is shaped by
the similar way the two countries have
evolved their raison d’etre, albeit in different millennia. To paraphrase my son,
Jindal doesn’t have to speak Indian to be
In fact, by being utterly culturally
American, Bobby Jindal is in fact being
the quintessential Indian. He certainly
does not have to hyphenate the two to
prove anything; nor does he lose anything by refusing to do so. Indians and
today’s anguished Europeans should
take note.
by S Adams