Vaseem Iqbal became an orphan ten years ago but completed his education courtesy of scholarships and tsunami compensation funds.
One day, a radio station in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands announced that a local boy, Vaseem Iqbal, was now Dr. Vaseem Iqbal. It caused a stir in the village. One of the first persons to call and felicitate with him was his maternal aunt. She asked him if he was going to return to the village to care for sick villagers. One could sense concern in her voice. Iqbal was not a medical doctor, and he explained this to her. Iqbal spent some time explaining to his aunt that he wasn’t a physician but that he was a doctor who was trained to treat sick groundwater and diseased wells. They discussed for some time afterward, but when they were done speaking, she was at a loss and unconvinced.
Iqbal, 29, is of the Nicobarese tribe. He is the first person from the tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to become a Ph.D. holder.
In September 2015, Iqbal submitted his thesis on “Sea Water Intrusion Along East and West Coasts of South Andaman Islands” to the Department of Disaster Management (an affiliate of Pondicherry Central University), Port Blair. In his thesis, Iqbal proposed various strategies to deal with the threat of seawater encroachment in the Islands by adopting geochemical and geophysical methods.
Iqbal was awarded his Ph.D. last October; however, some months later, the district authorities confirmed from the university database that he was undoubtedly the first Nicobarese person in the Bay of Bengal archipelago to become an academic doctor. In December, they broke the news.
The Negrito and Mongoloid tribes inhabit the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Four Negrito tribes call the Andaman Islands their home, same applies to the two Mongoloid tribes who oral tradition say migrated many centuries ago from the Malay-Burma coast to the Nicobar Islands.
Iqbal is a native of Kinyuka, a village in the Car Nicobar area with a population strength of about 30,000 people. His father practiced Islam after his conversion from Christianity.
The Hindus dominate South Andaman, North and Middle Andaman which are the two major districts in the region, while Christians dominate Nicobar, the third major district. The 2011 Census figures show that Muslims make up 8.52% and 3.63% of the population of the Union Territory and Nicobar respectively.
Iqbal is now a research fellow at the Central Agriculture Research Institute, Port Blair. However, in the past few months, a busy Iqbal has been to several reception ceremonies hosted by different district authorities and tribal organizations.
These celebrations were grand because Iqbal was the first person from his village to earn a doctorate even though his many of his kin were engineers and doctors. In Iqbal’s village, the celebration was like a festival. Hundreds of his kin trooped out to welcome him when he visited the village earlier in the year. It was a pleasant surprise.
On the night occurring between December 31, 2007, and January 1, 2008, Iqbal and his two older sisters became orphans in the space of a few hours. Nevertheless, Iqbal finished his education using the compensation the government had given to his family following the 2004 tsunami which destroyed the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Indian Ocean region.
Iqbal, speaking about the tsunami, recalled that although farms in the village were destroyed, no loss of life or injuries was recorded. What saved the residents of Kinyuka from the destruction caused by the tsunami in other parts of the archipelago was its topography – it lies at an elevation though near to the coast.
The compensation came three years after he was orphaned and it was just enough to save the family. Iqbal asserts that the settlement helped to pay my school fees at Car Nicobar.
The geography mistake
When Iqbal had finished his high school education, he was at a loss as to what course he should study. He was at the Jawaharlal Nehru Rajkeeya Mahavidyalaya in Port Blair for his first-degree studies, and he mistakenly chose to read geography. The course was the opposite of what he thought it would be. Iqbal believes the National Geographic Channel influenced his decision. Providing insight into the past, Iqbal revealed that he followed the wildlife channel keenly because of their programs. He had the belief that if he read the course, the things he saw done on the channel, he too would do them.
Continuing, he pointed out that in Nicobar, a person has limited knowledge that could aid him to know that there is a difference between what you watch on your favorite channel which has geography as one of its names, and the courses one must study before he can be a graduate of geography. Nevertheless, when Iqbal was in his final year as an undergraduate, he came across a course (marine biology) that caught his interest like never before. For his postgraduate degree, Iqbal’s professors firmly urged him to study Coastal Disaster Management, a course in the Department of Ocean Studies and Marine Biology. He took their advice and came second in the entrance exams. Since his postgraduate years, he has not erred in the selection of his courses. Iqbal gives credit to his mentors for this: they not only encouraged him to pursue further studies but also directed his attention to some researchable areas.
Iqbal was on a merit-based scholarship of Rs 3,000 per month in his undergraduate days at Port Blair, but that sum constrained him from visiting home regularly. From Port Blair to his home was a journey of 24-hours by water or by helicopter which was quicker anyway (the fare then was Rs 1,300 but is now Rs 2,400). That effectively ruled out homecoming on a frequent basis for Iqbal because of his shoestring budget. However, his lot brightened in his Ph.D. scholar years. As a research fellow, Iqbal, because he enjoyed many scholarships, made almost Rs 30,000 each month. Nowadays, Iqbal is a well-known figure in Nicobar and is often approached by the locals whenever he is on field trips to the Islands. He recalled his last field trip to few villages in Nicobar. The villagers were all over him, and they complained about their contaminated wells of water. He advised them not to overpump the water next time.