Tillanchong, an island in the Nicobar archipelago, is 14 kilometres long and no more than two and a half kilometres wide. While precipitous cliffs plummet into the sea along most of the coastline, there are picturesque white coral sand beaches untrampled by humans, for most of the year.
Metallic green Nicobar pigeons fly like bullets between trees, five-foot long water monitor lizards saunter through the undergrowth, and wild pigs root in the soft earth near swamps where huge salt-water crocodiles lurk. Partridge-sized Nicobar megapodes scratch together large mounds of leaf litter in which to lay their eggs.
The uninhabited island was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary by the Indian government, but three family clans living on nearby Trinket and Kamorta Islands have hereditary rights.
In 1903, British zoologist Cecil Boden Kloss wrote in his book, ‘In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ that people from Kamorta owned Tillanchong. The island was uninhabited even as far back as 1708 when a ship ran aground, and Nicobarese from nearby islands rescued the marooned crew.
Ethnographer Manish Chandi was perhaps the first non-Nicobarese to undergo the Tillanchong initiation ceremony in 2010. He narrates that the initiates are taught the peculiar customs that govern how to behave and what to hunt. As long as the men are on the island, they are barefoot, speak a dialect of Nicobarese not used anywhere else, dress only in orange, black, or red loincloths, and cover their heads with strips of tender fronds of the coconut palm.
Once a year, tribesmen visit the Tillanchong island to harvest coconuts and plant saplings. They hunt pigs with traditional spears and harpoon turtles. Fish can be caught with hook and line, but not with nets and spears. While these same people hunt water monitor lizards, megapodes, fruit bats, crocodiles, and pigeons on their home islands of Trinket and Kamorta, they will not touch these animals on Tillanchong. Even the edible nests of swiftlets, exploited on other islands, are unmolested here. White-tailed tropicbirds nest in the rocky crannies along the coast, one of three nesting islands in the Bay of Bengal. The hill slopes are covered in pristine primary forest as felling trees is forbidden.
Until recently, similar customs, which have now mostly vanished, governed how animals and plants were used on other Nicobar Islands. While the reasons for these peculiar rules are lost in time, perhaps their main purpose is to sustain finite forest resources.
The 2004 tsunami devastated the Nicobars, and many families are still on the dole. Many coconut plantations, the mainstay of the local economy, have been wiped out. The few families who have some palms standing cannot get a good price for their copra. Instead of their traditional varied diet of meat, pandanus paste, coconuts, tubers and taro supplemented with rice, the Nicobarese now eat rice garnished with little more than dal and chillies. Despite these difficulties, Tillanchong’s stewards have managed it sensitively.
However, the long history of careful tending of this island and the wonder of its natural wealth are lost on the Indian Navy. All it sees are giant crosshairs slicing across the island, a target. The navy wants to park its submarines offshore and shoot missiles at the island with as much sense and sensitivity as little boys who stone lizards to death.
The navy’s justification is it will shoot at a two metre by two metre temporary structure and its missiles have an error margin of 50 metres. Yet, a generous local forest officer has recommended giving away four square kilometres for target practice in an island that is less than 17 square kilometres. The navy says it’ll blast the island for ten days a year only, and for that duration nobody can be on the island.
While humans have the option of staying out of range of the exploding missiles, what will the island’s creatures do? What are the chances of reptiles and birds, which have never learnt to fear humans, being obliterated? Unless they are deaf, blind, and impervious to the ground trembling under their feet, it’s hard to fathom how ten days of blasting will not affect animals and birds trapped within a tiny island.
Chandi says the northern part of the island is eroding, with entire cliffs sliding into the ocean. Tremors from repeated blasting will obviously accelerate the wearing down of coastal escarpments. If this happens then the impact of missile firing will not be restricted to the 50 metre radius firing zone alone.
When the heads of the three family clans heard of the navy’s proposed plan, they were understandably aghast. If the modern, superpower Indian state violates the customary rules and denigrates the clans’ rights, why would anyone else obey tradition? Now all the island’s pigs, swiftlets, megapodes, pigeons, and other wild creatures are likely to become fair game.
On Aug 31st, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) refused to grant the Coast Guard permission to set up a radar station on another remote island, Narcondam. Despite the enormous pressure the Coast Guard brought to bear through the Ministry of Defence, the MoEF stood its ground saying such an installation would jeopardise the precarious existence of the Narcondam hornbill. Even if the Indian Navy cannot see the destruction its actions will cause on Tillanchong, it’s not too late for the MoEF to use its veto power and demonstrate that the Indian state can act as thoughtfully as the islanders of Trinket and Kamorta.