Somewhere in the middle of environment campaigner Pankaj Sekhsaria’s new book on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a chapter that begins with the phrase: “The path to hell, for humans, it is said, is paved with good intentions.” In Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story, the phrase is used to describe how a law to protect the islands’ little bird (the edible-nest swiftlet) from extinction does the opposite. Sadly, that goes for the book too. Despite the author’s good intentions, Islands in Flux fails to take off from its lofty goal of informing policymakers and the public about the mighty social and ecological challenges faced by the islands in order to save them. The book is a compilation of the author’s own articles published in newspapers and magazines over the past two decades. And that is the book’s undoing. Imagine reading a cover story on the fight against AIDS in a popular magazine like Time, followed immediately by a paper on the same subject in an academic journal like The Lancet.
In Sekhsaria’s book, a newspaper article on the tribal communities on the islands follows a long article on logging in the Andamans in an academic journal. Similarly, an academic paper on the endangered edible-nest swiftlet bird precedes a magazine article on biodiversity. Try reading a three-page box in an eight-page article on the aboriginal community of the Jarawas in the book and you would know what I am talking about. Sekhsaria’s articles point to a string of controversial issues that have crucial consequences for the aboriginal communities of the islands and its environment. Among them is the failure to close down the Andaman Trunk Road—passing through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve area—despite of a Supreme Court order. There is also the Jarawa excursion into modern settlements and the aftermath. Another is logging on the islands’ evergreen forests.
The book says there are only 500 members of aboriginal communities left on the islands today in contrast to about 5,000 only 150 years ago. The book goes on to repeat the same statistics four times in the first four chapters. Does mentioning it four times in four chapters make the issue any greater? An appendices section at the end of 201 pages is spread over 50 pages—all this to complement the newspaper and magazine articles. Sekhsaria says in the preface that he is building upon what he wrote in Troubled Islands, his book on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2003. The new book, he says, brings the readers “up to date with the developments in the last two decades in the islands.” “It seeks to lay out the differences, subtleties and complexities of a very fascinating and challenging part of India, a part that is unique and we know very little about,” he continues. Farther from that. Instead, Sekhsaria and his editors are submerged by a flood of the book’s own complexities of composition.
If we know very little about something, the best way perhaps is to keep it simple. But the book begins with a list of tables, boxes and maps followed by a foreword, a separate preface and acknowledgements, an introduction (by activist Harsh Mander) and a profile of the islands. The two articles about the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, offer little insight. A preceding piece on the millennium sunrise in Katchal, located on the Nicobar Islands, is longer than the first article on the tsunami. In another article, the author narrates how he scoured for information after a telephone call from an environmental journalist about the testing of the BrahMos cruise missile off the coast of the Andamans in 2008. Islands in Flux covers challenges related to ecology, environment and the communities that are pitted against development in the islands. On one side is the strategic location of the islands in the Bay of Bengal—following the April launch of China’s second aircraft carrier, an Indian defence analyst termed the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as India’s “unsinkable aircraft carriers”.
On the other is policy interventions by a faraway mainland that are best described as surreal. The tsunami and its effects compound an already difficult situation. More books are needed to understand the sharp divide between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the mainland, and the gap in grasping the issues that need urgent attention. With all his knowledge and experience of the islands, Sekhsaria is the right person to write one or many such books. But he will have to take a hard look at the subtleties and complexities of publishing.