An Onge for the Onges ahead of the New Year

KOLKATA, 26 DEC: Here’s some good news at the advent of the new year! The threatened Onge population in the Andaman and Nicobar islands is in a festive mood with the birth of a healthy male child on 20 December. With this the tribal population stands at 103.
Both the mother and child are healthy and doing well. The child, weighing 2 kg, was born to an Onge couple, Mary and Suresh of Dugong Creek, at the Primary Health Centre, RK Pur, in South Andamans. It is a significant development as the Onge population has been steadily declining in the past century and its number in the recent census in 1991 was 992. This steady decline in the population over the past 100 years had led to a situation where survival of the tribe itself had become extremely doubtful.
The Onge tribe is one of the four Negreto races of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is also one of the oldest tribes on the archipelago and is believed to have migrated from Africa and settled in the islands about 30,000 to 50,000 years ago.
Until the late 1960s, the Onges were the sole inhabitants of Little Andaman Island; a century ago they were barely 672 in number. Although initially the Onges were hostile to outsiders, friendly contact was established with them as early as 1885. Little Andaman was opened to migrants from other islands and mainland India in 1967, and in the early 1970s, Onges were rehabilitated in two settlement areas: one at Dugong Creek and the other at South Bay of the island.
Other than the population enumeration data published at 10-year intervals by the Director of Census operations, no other authentic data on their demographic characteristics or vital indices are available, and the reasons behind the steady decline in their population have not been studied in detail. It is also not clear whether this decline is due to low fertility rates, high mortality rates or both. Earlier, studies carried out amongst Onges had shown that their intake of protein and many micro-nutrients decreased between 1964 and 1989. More recent studies carried out among Great Andamanese ~ another Negreto tribe of Andamans facing a similar problem of continuous decline in population ~ have revealed high child mortality rates and high prevalence of malnutrition and micro-nutrient deficiency disorders among children.
In 1999 and 2006, the Onges and the Jarawas, another primitive tribe, suffered bouts of measles ~ a disease that has wiped out many tribes worldwide following contact with outsiders.
It may be noted that when more than 7,000 islanders perished in the December 2004 tsunami, the ancient tribe saved itself using tribal knowledge to read Nature’s warning signals, fled to high ground before the disaster struck the island.
However, in December 2008 eight members of the Onge tribe died and 15 others were admitted to hospital after drinking from a chemical container that was washed ashore on their island reserve at Dugong Creek.

Soma Basu

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