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Thanks But Now Please Leave

Agence France Presse

January 5, 2006

A surge in job-seekers sailing to the Andamans for a slice of the post-tsunami aid pie could alter the archipelago's demography and further squeeze its indigenous peoples, experts warn.

Environmentalists are also urging large relief agencies to pack up and leave the palm-fringed Andamans, arguing they are doing more harm than good to the islanders, thousands of whom lost their homes in the December 26, 2004 tsunami.

"An even bigger problem is the (presence) of the NGOs (non-government organisations), who are spoiling the work culture," said Samir Achorya, founder of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, a social action forum.

"Aid workers who were paid 4,000 rupees (93 dollars) a month are now drawing four times more, with washing machines and mobile phones thrown in as perks.

"It'll be difficult for them to scale down their lifestyles once the post-tsunami reconstruction is over," Achorya warned in the capital Port Blair, headquarters to 62 international or large domestic NGOs.

Agencies such as UNICEF, Oxfam, Caritas, Action Aid and Save the Children have hired scores of locals for projects ranging from health to reconstruction and education, and farming projects employ thousands more.

Achorya called for urgent remedial measures in the Andamans, which boasts India's third highest literacy rate after Kerala and Mizoram states.

"The Andamans lost 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) of rice fields, and huge land tracts are now under the sea," he said. "If this (immigrant) population grows, the aborigines will be further marginalised ... they'll run deeper into the forests."

Five Stone Age tribes -- 398 Shompens, 350 Jarawas, 99 Onges, 100 Sentinelese and just 51 Great Andamanese --- live in the archipelago's forests, eight percent of which has already been encroached upon by settlers from the Indian mainland.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), which is working in four of the worst-hit islands, joined the call for NGOs to wind up their projects and leave the emerald-green tropical paradise as quickly as possible.

"The government need not encourage people to come to the Andamans and the NGOs working here should have a very clear-cut exit policy to allow inhabitants to collect their lives together," said Subhash Misra, UNICEF's chief coordinator in the island chain.

Others too echoed demands that NGOs and their staff catch the first boat to mainland India, 1,300 kilometres (806 miles) away.

"These laptop-swinging people have grabbed every air-conditioned taxi on the island, cornered the best hotels and are more busy preparing their personal expense accounts than doing any good for the tsunami victims," said Rajeshwar Rao, a budget hotel manager.

British charity Action Aid, which set up an office in Port Blair soon after the tsunami, rejected the complaint.

"I don't think it is true. We have not heard of any resentment against aid workers," said Action Aid team leader Harjeet Singh.

"We are working under tremendous pressure with a lot of constraints as the topography is difficult, and we are some distance from the mainland," he said.

His group employs around 100 people, mainly from the islands. Around a dozen are from outside the Andamans.

"All the workers are very passionate about their work," said Singh. "We plan to stay here till December 2007."

India, which governs the archipelago, is reportedly planning to put a cap on the number of mainlanders sailing to the Andamans in search of work in a bid to prevent chaos on its 36 inhabited islands, home to 356,000 people according to a 2001 national census.

Demographers reject the official headcount, saying the chain has been swamped by settlers from the Indian states of Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal and by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

"Our population has crossed 650,000 from an initial 300,000, and this is putting a terrible strain on the Andamans' carrying capacity," said Madhu Krishnan, chairman of the Islanders' Organisation Front, an umbrella forum of local NGOs.

He warned that India's failure to comply with a 2002 Supreme Court directive to evict encroachers from forests reserved for aborigines could spell disaster. "If we do not take steps now, the settlers will swamp the forests as well," he said.

The archipelago's Tribal Welfare department chief Shibbi Awaradi also voiced concern, warning that the islands' indigenous people "must not become victims of unscrupulous people".

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