The day a radio station in the Andaman and Nicobar islands made an announcement that Vaseem Iqbal, a local boy, had become Dr Vaseem Iqbal, his maternal aunt was among the first people to call and congratulate him. There was concern in her voice when she asked: “Will you not come back to the village to treat unwell villagers now?”

Iqbal had to explain to her that he was not a medical doctor.

“It took me quite some time to convince her that I was not a doctor who treats humans but that I specialised in treating diseased wells and groundwater resources,” said Iqbal. “We had a brief chat following the explanation and by the time she hung up, she was more confused than convinced.”

The 29-year-old, who belongs to the Nicobarese tribe, is the first tribal person from the Andaman and Nicobar islands to have completed a PhD.

In his thesis, Sea Water Intrusion Along East and West Coasts of South Andaman Islands, submitted in September 2015 to the Department of Disaster Management at Port Blair, he suggested several ways to tackle the problem of sea water intrusion in the islands using geophysical and geochemical techniques. The department is affiliated to the Pondicherry Central University.

Though Iqbal was awarded his doctorate last October, it took district authorities a few months to scan through university records and arrive at the conclusion that he was indeed the first tribal person from the Bay of Bengal archipelago to earn a doctorate. They made the announcement in December.

Local star

The Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar islands is inhabited by tribes of both Negrito and Mongoloid origins. While the Andaman islands are home to four Negrito tribes, the Nicobar islands are inhabited by two Mongloid tribes, who are believed to have come from the Malay-Burma coast several centuries ago.

Iqbal comes from a village named Kinyuka in the Car Nicobar region, which has a total population of around 30,000. His father was a Christian who converted to Islam.

While the two major districts South Andaman and North and Middle Andaman are dominated by Hindus, the third, Nicobar, is dominated by Christians. According to the 2011 Census, Muslims comprise 3.63% of the total population in Nicobar, and 8.52% in all three districts of the Union Territory.

Iqbal, who is employed as a researcher at the Central Agriculture Research Institute in Port Blair, has been busy attending felicitation programmes organised by various tribal bodies and district authorities over the past few months.

“My village has produced several doctors and engineers but I am the first person to have completed a PhD,” he said. “When I went home earlier this year, I was surprised to see hundreds of locals gathered to receive me. It looked like a festival.”

Tsunami compensation

Getting here was not easy.

Iqbal and his two older sisters lost their parents within hours of each other on the intervening night of December 31, 2007 and January 1, 2008. However, he managed to complete his education with the help of compensation the family had been given by the government after the 2004 tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean region, including the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

The topography of Kinyuka – which lies at an elevation despite being near the coast – saved its residents from the casualties and damage seen elsewhere in the archipelago during the tsunami. “Our farms were damaged but there were no casualties reported in the village,” said Iqbal.

Three years later, when his parents died, it was the compensation that bailed the family out. “It acted as my major support for schooling at Car Nicobar,” he said.

The geography error

After he completed his schooling, Iqbal was confused about what subject to pick next. He says he made a mistake while choosing to study geography for his undergraduate programme at the Jawaharlal Nehru Rajkeeya Mahavidyalaya in Port Blair.

The BSc in geography was simply not what he expected it to be. Iqbal attributes the choice of subject to the National Geographic channel.

Explaining how that happened, Iqbal said that since he had a keen interest in wildlife thanks to the programmes he watched on National Geographic, he assumed that if he picked geography, he would get to do the kinds of things he saw on that channel.

Said Iqbal: “As a tribal villager in Nicobar, one does not have much exposure to evaluate the differences between what one can see in a popular channel that has geography in its very name, and the subjects one would actually have to deal with to pursue graduation in the discipline.”

However, in the final year of his undergraduate programme, Iqbal finally found a subject that deeply interested him. The subject was marine biology.

“When it came to applying for a postgraduate degree, my professors insisted that I should take up Coastal Disaster Management under the Department of Ocean Studies and Marine Biology,” he said. “I stood second in the entrance [test].”

Post-graduation onwards he did not falter in his choice of subjects. “I found the right mentors who help me focus on certain areas and encouraged me to pursue further studies.”

Water doctor

As an undergraduate student in Port Blair, Iqbal survived on merit-based scholarships. He had a budget of Rs 3,000 a month, which meant that he could not visit home frequently.

“Heading home would mean a 24-hour waterway journey from Port Blair,” he said. “A shorter alternative would be by helicopter, which charges around Rs 2,400 these days, and charged around Rs 1,300 during my college days. This was absolutely impossible for me considering the tight budget I had to manage with.”

But things improved when he became a research scholar. “By the time I was a PhD scholar, I managed to make nearly Rs 30,000 a month through several scholarships,” said Iqbal.

Today, Iqbal is quite a popular face in Nicobar, and people often approach him during the field visits he makes on the islands.

“The last time I went for a field visit to some villages in Nicobar, the locals surrounded me and they just wanted to talk to me about their contaminated wells,” said Iqbal. “I suggested that they should not overpump water.”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Vaseem Iqbal’s thesis was submitted to the Department of Ocean Studies and Marine Biology. The error has been corrected.