Not a token in your hands (Poem)

By Meera LalonMay. 09, 2024in Environment and Ecology

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

Not a token in your hands is a poem about the residents of the Great Nicobar Island and the recent headlines surrounding them. Written from the point of the view of the Nicobar Megapode – a threatened bird endemic to the island and the Shompen and the Great Nicobarese – the two indigenous communities, the poem takes the readers through the glossy news pieces about the three that have emerged in the past couple of weeks while revealing the fate that awaits each one of them as the work on the Great Nicobar development project is set to begin in a few months.

Picture of a beach in Great Nicobar with the surrounding coastal forest. The island is a part of the Sundaland Biodiversity Hotspot

I am a Nicobar Megapode,
A flagship of the coastal forest,
An endangered endemic,
And an election mascot for 2024!
Most of my sub-species lives in Great Nicobar,
I get many a birders to this island,
And a few scientists too – none like Sankaran though!
Soon, I will be mist-netted, captured and relocated
To where? My only home is this very coast.
You said you’ll protect me under Schedule – I
But have agreed to destroy half my mounds,
Along with the trees I built them around.

I am a Nicobar Megapode
The coast where I live
Is not a token in your hands!

I am a Shompen
A PVTG is what they call me,
Through colonizers and calamities,
Guardian of this island I have been.
You’ve displaced my tribe in the past,
Now you want to decimate the rest of us?
Stop curating fancy headlines,
And claiming to understand our history in half-an hour’s time!
No 2024 was not when we “voted” for the first time!
I did my duty as a citizen. Now, where are my rights?
“Do not come near our hills” – we had said,
Why didn’t you broadcast that as wide?

I am a Shompen
My identity, my existence,
Is not a token in your hands!

I am a Great Nicobarese
My boat is not a hodi, we call it Reuii
And the Nicobarese of Car Nicobar, call it Aap
The huts we build have many names, and types, too
Which one are you getting GI tagged this time?
Is doing that alone going to preserve our culture?
You didn’t let us rebuild our huts after the tsunami,
And left us sweltering within shelters of tin sheets.
19 years and counting, to return to our villages,
The spirits of our ancestors lay abandoned there.
The folk dance you insist that we welcome you with
Only made sense when we celebrated on our own land.

I am a Great Nicobarese
My centuries old culture
Is not a token in your hands!

Your ignorance towards our lives,
Makes this anything but ‘holistic’
Whose “development” are you going to achieve?
With us the soul of the island also dies.
Come clean with it!
This visibility you have bestowed upon us now,
Is to invisibilize our dwindling numbers – 128, 229, 420.
Come clean with it, already!
The ‘I’ in the island has never mattered to you,
The ‘land’ in our island is what you are after,
Our homeland is what you are after!
This island is not a token in your hands.

Picture taken in the interior forest of the island. Around 9.6 lakh trees are proposed to be chopped off for the project.

The Nicobar Megapode was made the election mascot for the Nicobar district last month even as the project that will destroy a large part of its coastal habitat was green lit. Of 64 active mounds (unique nests built on the ground that are still in use by the breeding pair) of the bird, 51 are located in the areas that are now the sites of the project spanning over 166.10 sqkm and as per MoEFCC’s own committee that recommended the approval of the project, 30 nests will be completely destroyed. Great Nicobar being the largest island among the Nicobar group of islands, is the only one supporting a significant population of the bird. The proposed conservation and monitoring plans for the Nicobar Megapode which have quoted budgets of crores for relocation of the bird but have failed to consider that the preferred habitat of the bird is only limited to the coastal stretches of the island.

Statements about the members of the Shompen tribe voting for the first time have been carried in many newspapers without fact-checking – the Shompen have voted before. Moreover, scholars who have engaged with the community for many years say that the Shompen have chosen to continue living independently as hunter-gatherers inside the forest and therefore have no concept of elections or what it means to vote. Furthermore, top central government officials visiting the island on 2nd May and meeting the Shompen to understand their history and culture drew significant attention but the when the same people had clearly expressed their disagreement over having any kind of development on their land when the project was conceived, this was ignored. Also ignored were multiple letters by anthropologists, ex-bureaucrats, parliamentarians, international genocide scholars and tribal rights organizations regarding the violation of the rights of this Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group in granting approval to the project. 

The Nicobarese of Great Nicobar are a culturally and linguistically distinct sub-group now comprising of merely 420 members. Recently, the island administration has applied for GI tagging among many other “products”, the Nicobari hut, the Nicobari mat and the Nicobari hodi further solidifying the misconception that the Nicobarese are a homogenous tribe. The Nicobarese of different islands speak different languages, practice different rituals and have different ways of constructing huts and canoes. The Great Nicobarese whose settlements were spread across the south eastern and western coast of Great Nicobar were displaced in the aftermath of tsunami in 2004 and were settled in Campbell Bay, closer to the administrative hub of the island. When the time came to construct their houses during the rehabilitation that lasted several years, none of their opinions were considered and instead alien materials were used to make shelters that were suited neither to the local climate nor the way of life of the community. For 19 years, they have been asking the island administration to assist them in returning to their ancestral villages and rebuild their hamlets. Instead, those villages and the forests around them are now a part of the development project despite several appeals made by the community against this decision. 

The Great Nicobar Island is described by many adjectives – a strategic asset, a remote area, a tropical paradise – depending upon who is describing it. What is often ignored is that the island is also a home and in many cases, the only home to many of its residents. And they will soon have nowhere to go. The poem has the web links of the headlines in question as well as some reports and articles that shed light on what is being buried under those headlines. 

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