22November2018

Andaman Chronicle

The Daily Diary of the Islands

Reflections of an engaged anthropologist after the tsunami

My engagement with the Nicobar Islands began some ten years ago. I had little idea when I first set sail that my life would become so inextricably linked with the fate of these islands; a voyage that began with curiosity - traditionally shared among anthropologists - to quench the insatiable thirst of exploring and living with exotic cultures in tune with nature. While still academically inclined, much of the motivation for such research derives itself from the disappointment that comes with modern life and the search for perfect cultures that need to be rescued or studied before they face annihilation. For some, field work also allows for an escape from a life of ‘sick hurry and divided aims’ representative of the industrial (also referred to as modern) lifestyle.  
 
Probably all of it was true in my case. In addition, my literary disposition always drew me towards ‘wild’ nature (having grown up in the Central Himalayas), and of the romantic otherness, on which my soul could thrive on and nourish itself. At the same time, there had been a growing disappointment with modern civilization and the increasing commodification of human relationships for personal gains. As destiny would have it, I sailed into the Nicobar waters crossing the ten degrees channel with unerring accuracy in April 1999. It took several months and a second visit for me to get initiated into the world of the Nicobarese. I must admit, though, in the same period, the Nicobarese knew more about me than I did about them. Their anthropological skills were far more enhanced than mine. Still, I preferred to keep the illusion of being the observer studying objectively a passive community of exotic tropical islanders. Year after year I returned from Europe to live in splendid isolation to share the Nicobarese life; living and eating with them for months at a stretch, experiencing their festivals and rituals, listening to their tales, joys and sorrows.  

I cannot say when the apparent borders between objectivity and subjectivity melted from my consciousness (perhaps it never really existed in a post-modern sense), but I soon found myself befriending some of them and getting engaged in their internal struggles. It was my own little world, a home far from my own. It satisfied my ego to be able to help them with little things, offer a piece of advice every now and then with my increasing knowledge of their life and culture and I revelled in these little victories of everyday life. However, it was a constant effort for me to juxtapose the two incoherent existences - the one in Europe with that of the Nicobars - completely estranged from each other. There was literally no one with whom I could share my inner ambiguities, and it usually took me a couple of months to recover from the depression that gripped me following my return to Europe. Still, I was not obliged to anyone, except to myself and the Nicobarese with whom I shared an intimate relationship both on a scientific and personal level.  
 
The 2004 tsunami changed the order of things. It not only literally washed away my secluded world where I oft took refuge from the aggressions of the modern world, but it revealed many unpleasant facts about humanitarian assistance and of the limits of science. It was under such distress that the sinister hand of power was revealed, and how a catastrophe is an opportunity in disguise (I have discussed this in length elsewhere). It was not only the inappropriate behaviour of humanitarian agencies that distressed me, but also how constraining it is to be a scientist when it comes to action and the confines of scientific knowledge. My own role, no longer a private interplay between a researcher and his subjects, lay bare as a sacrilege to science. While the world watched the spectacle I gathered courage to admit to my superiors that I had not been religious enough in my role of a detached observer true to positivistic science, but had actually engaged with my research subjects beyond permissible levels. Shocking at first, the magnitude of media coverage the tsunami received was enough to tempt any away from the piece of cake. I was allowed to go and help, and I was touched by the generosity of donors who made it possible so.  

My illusion to provide meaningful help as “an expert” soon crumbled. Soon after the tsunami, the Nicobarese were confronted with a multitude of choices they had to make in a short time, much of it that challenged the very foundations of their culture and way of life: location and design of intermediate and permanent shelters, restructuring of family units and land ownership to allow for compensation benefits from the State, decisions on new infrastructure relating to transport, education and health, and to react to the various schemes offered to them by the NGOs. Questions were thrust at me, and I stood facing my own moment of truth. I froze when decisions had to be taken, and realised how little we are trained to take real life decisions. Scientists are prudent at systematic observations, inclined to asking more questions and to reflect over knowledge gaps. 
However, a scientist in the eyes of a Nicobarese is akin to a spiritual superior that has solutions to relieve them of their suffering. They looked at me with high expectations; a social scientist from Europe having spent five years among them should be able to provide answers, shouldn’t he? In their eyes, it would be a scandal to admit how much of the public money is utilized for which little is gained in terms of grounded solutions in times like these. 
 
I observed, mediated, wrote, made presentations, organised material and immaterial help for the Nicobarese through the help of a small fund that was created in Austria. But the situation only kept getting worse. Determined to be self-reliant in the first few months after the tsunami, the Nicobarese were gradually entrenched with aid of all kinds: housing, free food, enormous amounts of cash compensation and a variety of consumables and material goods. They loathed the idea of work, and even those who mentioned it to them. A good leader was one who brought in more aid, and increasingly so. In the Nicobarese (anti-capitalistic) logic, one works when one needs food. At a time when food and cash is abundant, why should one worry. And what could be easier to get than aid. Greed crept in. I witnessed conflicts, corruption among the leaders, break-up of families, jealousies, hatred, taboos, and increasing social stratification, much of which was absent formerly. The Nicobarese wanted to modernise; well, they did. They had now all the symptoms of a modern world. My world was slipping away. It was no longer a place of refuge and of reflexive calmness, but one wrought with responsibilities and several unsuccessful endeavours, and at the same time, desperation to keep my reputation as ‘an expert’ to outsiders and insiders.  

It is debatable what I actually achieved, but the fact remains that it gave me innumerable sleepless nights over the next years. Whatever successes and failures, I increasingly realised that any impact if really intended must not only include scientific knowledge, but also a reasonable amount of common sense, presence of mind to take sound decisions based on whatever available information, social and communicative skills, mediation, lobbying and networking capacities, together with a strong sense of personal integrity for being trusted and relied upon. Mainstream scientific knowledge did help me in greatly in maintaining a wider systemic view to understand challenges, constraints, opportunities, and dynamics of actors and processes. It also helped me to gain acceptance by the various actors on the presumption that scientists are seemingly objective and unbiased. However, only in getting engaged with real life and its challenges, I realised the high relevance of other attributes and of the limits of positivistic science. It is indeed time for rethinking what is effective knowledge, one that is not only generated in universities, but through passionate engagement with life together with a high sense of ethics, responsibility and willingness to take up non-scientific roles such as that of a mediator, advisor and advocate. Only then would science become more meaningful to the world, especially that branch of science that aims to research on global problems of environmental sustainability and human well-being. 
Simron Jit Singh   
Vienna, January 2009