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Covid-19 hits nine of dwindling Great Andamanese tribe

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BY S VENKAT NARAYAN

Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, August 28:

Nine cases of Covid-19 have been recorded among the Great Andamanese tribe, setting off alarm bells in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration. A Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), the Great Andamanese now number only 59. While five of the coronavirus patients have recovered, the others are doing well, officials said.

What is worrying the authorities is that the four new cases have been discovered in the remote Strait Island, where the tribe is based. On Friday, a special community health officer will be reaching the island to keep a close watch on the tribe, as well as other PVTGs like the Jarawa, Shompen and Onge.

While the Union territory has seen 2,985 Covid cases (676 of which are active) and 41 deaths so far, the Great Andamanese is the first among its vulnerable tribes to be hit by the coronavirus.

Dr Avijit Roy, Joint Secretary, Health, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and the nodal officer for the Union territory’s Covid-19 response, said they had tested all the 59 Great Andamanese members — “34 in Strait Island and 24 in Port Blair” — after five of them living in Port Blair had tested positive.

He said the samples of the four on Strait Island who have tested positive were taken on August 22. “We got the report the next day. They were moved to isolation wards of G B Pant Hospital in Port Blair. They are cooperating well and recovering fast.”

Roy pointed out that unlike the other PVTGs, the Great Andamanese frequent Port Blair and the administration has built a special home for them to stay in the capital.

“The Great Andamanese are a small population but they are in touch with the general population. While no one is allowed to visit Strait Island, they are allowed to come and stay in Port Blair. So, the risk of them getting Covid was high,” Vishvajit Pandya, a renowned anthropologist and director of the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research and Training Institute, said.

Pandya, who has been working in the Union territory since 1983, was present when the Jarawas made first contact with the outside world in 1997. He stressed on the need to keep the tribes isolated.

“The administration should implement what it says. The Great Andaman Trunk Road has still not been shut. If the administration thinks that since the tribal groups are deep in the jungles they will not come in touch with settlers, they are wrong. Even the Jarawas, Shompens are vulnerable to Covid-19 because they engage with settlers in barter to get rice and other items. Even recently settlers were arrested inside the Jarawa reserve,” he said.

Amit Kumar Ghosh, the Superintending Anthropologist at the Anthropological Survey of India, pointed out that in the 1850s, the Great Andamanese numbered between 5,000 and 8,000. “Then a penal colony was set up and diseases like syphilis, gonorrhoea, flu and others spread. By 1901, their population had dropped to 625, and by the 1931 Census, only 90 Great Andamanese were left. By the 1960s, they were down to a mere 19, and were settled on Strait Island,” he said, highlighting the vulnerability of the PVTGs to illnesses.

Ghosh added that the danger is even higher for other tribes. “The Great Andamanese have been in contact with outsiders for the last 50 years. But a disease like this could wipe out the entire population of the Jarawas and Sentinelese.”

Roy said they were aware of the threat, and had taken appropriate measures. “No one is allowed into the areas where the tribal groups are located. All government and health officials who go there are tested for Covid prior to their visits. Only vehicles with essential commodities are moving on the Andaman Trunk Road which cuts through the Jarawa Reserve, and the drivers and others in vehicles are also tested before allowed in,” he said.

An official of the Tribal Welfare Department in-charge specifically of the Jarawas said: “A small team of ANM and department officials is posted near the forest where the tribe lives, keeping a watch while maintaining distance. All of them are housed in an isolation facility and regularly tested.”

The Andamans is home to five PVTGs, the Sentinelese, Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Onge and Shompen. This is besides the Nicobarese, who are Scheduled Tribes. The Sentinelese are the most reclusive of them all, resisting outside contact.

In November 2018, an American national, 27-year-old John Allen Chau, had been killed by the Sentinelese when he tried to illegally approach them. Officials have not managed to recover his body till date.



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About Rs 3 bn paid as OT during past few months

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Overtime gravy train for CPC refinery workers:

By Saman Indrajith

About Rs. 3,000 million had been paid as overtime for the employees of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation oil refinery, during the past few months, Parliament was told yesterday.

Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said that he had asked for a detailed report as to whom and on what grounds the overtime payments had been made and it would be submitted to Parliament.

Fielding a question asked by Chief Opposition Whip, Kandy District SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella, Minister Wijesekera said instructions had been issued to regulate overtime.

MP Kiriella demanded to know why overtime had been paid to employees of an institution that had been shut down. “There are reports that over Rs 4,000 million has been paid as overtime to the workers of the refinery that was not functioning owing to the non-availability of crude oil. This is a crime,” Kiriella said.

Minister Wijesekera: “I made inquiries after I saw newspaper reports on payment of overtime to refinery workers. I inquired from the Finance Manager of the CPC. I was told that a sum between Rs 2.5 billion to Rs 3 billion had been paid as overtime. The refinery was not closed during the months of March and April. It was closed only during the last month. They had issued refined fuel on all seven days of the week continuously. When an institution operates full time in such a manner the employees would have to be paid for their overtime work. However, I admit that could have been done with some level of management in the payment process,” the Minister said.

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Wigneswaran claims RW accepted all his demands

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Head of the Thamil Makkal Thesiya Kuttani (TMTK), C. V. Wigneswaran told the media recently that President Ranil Wickremesinghe had agreed to all demands he had made, including the release of Tamil ‘political prisoners’, to secure his vote during last month’s Parliament election, to elect a President.

He made this statement following a meeting with the President in Colombo to discuss the establishment of an all-party government.

“We have made several requests and if the President is ready to comply with them, we will consider taking part in the all party government,” he said.

“We met him when he was Prime Minister. Before the parliamentary vote to elect the President, I made these demands and he agreed to them. That is why I voted for him. Now, it is for him to keep his promises. I am here to remind him of this,” Wigenswaran said.

Wickremesinghe, as the Prime Minister in the yahapalana government, vehemently denied that there were Tamil ‘political prisoners’ in the country. (RK)

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MPs are not immune from country’s laws – SJB

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By Saman Indrajith

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa told Parliament yesterday that the MPs were not immune from the Penal Code despite the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act.

Premadasa said Cabinet Spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardane had claimed that incidents in Parliament could not be dealt with under the regular law.

“This claim sends the wrong message to people. Aren’t the provisions of the Penal Code or the Offences against Public Property Act applicable to the MPs? There were incidents in this Chamber during the 52-day coup conspiracy; some MPs damaged public property. There were investigations by the CID and also by Parliament.

The Secretary General announced the cost of the damage. When the process was on to prosecute those MPs responsible for the damage, political influence was exerted on the CID not to file cases against the culprits. It is against this background that Minister Gunawardane, in his position as the Cabinet spokesman, makes this false claim. His statement is sending a message saying that there is one law inside the Parliament and another outside it.

“He also claims that the Speaker decides whether these laws are applicable to Parliament or not,” Premadasa said.

Colombo District SJB MP Mujibur Rahuman said that people were already against the MPs and this new wrong message would further exacerbate their anger against elected members. “The Cabinet Spokesman says that the MPs have a different set of laws while the people are dealt with by the country’s laws. That is wrong. We are also liable for criminal offences that we commit,” Rahuman said.

“The CID conducted an investigation and was prepared to file cases, but that was prevented through political influence. The Cabinet Spokesman’s statement is fueling public hatred towards the MPs. Please, request the Cabinet Spokesman to refrain from making such statements,” he said.

Minister Gunawardane said that he was only responding to a question raised by a journalist and the question was about fairness of cracking down on protesters for destroying public property, during anti-government protests, when MPs, who damaged Parliament, property under the former government, are yet to be apprehended.

Minister Gunawardane said as a public representative in Parliament for the last 33 years he had only explained that the law would be implemented against those engaged in violent activities during peaceful protests.

“I said MPs had Parliament privileges and the Parliament law. I also explained that MPs attending Parliament cannot be arrested as they are engaged in legislative activities,” he said.

Chief Opposition Whip, Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella, said that the MPs had no such legal immunity. and Parliament privileges only cover MPs from being arrested while they are on their way to attend and when they leave Parliament. “Therefore, there is no law that says they are exempt from other laws of the country,” Kiriella said.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, agreeing with Chief Opposition Whip Kiriella, said that all other laws in the country applied to the MPs.

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