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India's tsunami

About the author
Antara Dev Sen is the founder and editor of The Little Magazine, published in Delhi and featuring essays, fiction, poetry, art and criticism.
The Indian government’s refusal of foreign aid to its devastated coastal and island regions reflects its aspiration to sit at the world’s top table. Antara Dev Sen on the national dimensions of a global tragedy.
Over half the world’s population lives within 60 km (40 miles) of a shoreline. Our arts and cultures editors explored this border in its realities and our imagination, in over thirty compelling essays with poems pictures. Everything begins… and ends… on the beach. For subscribers only but take a look .

After the deluge came the dogs. Left to fend for themselves as their world collapsed in the tsunami of 26 December 2004, surviving on rotting corpses and human flesh often dug out of shallow graves, man’s best friend now looked upon him as prey. These domestic or community pets in Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam, the worst-hit district in India, have turned into violent, wild creatures that hunt in packs, attack relief workers and survivors and howl like wolves outside relief shelters.

Elsewhere in Nagapattinam, low-caste Dalit (formerly known as “untouchables”) have been herded out of relief centres or banished to the far corners, and prevented from touching food or water or other relief material by upper-caste victims of the same tsunami that devastated all their lives. They are not even allowed to use the makeshift toilets around the shelters. Traditional prejudice — that Dalit “pollute” anything they touch and render it unsuitable for the use of those higher on the caste ladder — comes in handy in an emergency when there is limited relief for large numbers.

Also in openDemocracy, Caspar Henderson relates the “seaquake’s” terrible cost to the environmental damage caused by human, social and economic development, and Graham Wood criticises western responses to the disaster

The tsunami is estimated to have killed almost 14,500 people in India, mostly in the south and east of the country. Hardest hit are the Andaman & Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal, and the mainland states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Pondicherry. As survivors huddle in relief camps in a country where health infrastructure is inadequate and clean water scarce, close to 5 million people are in danger of contracting infectious diseases like diarrhoea, typhoid, hepatitis and cholera.

But India’s great losses represent just a fraction of the devastation across the entire region, as the Indian Ocean, shaken awake by the earthquake in Indonesia, lashed out and swept away villages and towns from Thailand to Somalia. Around 150,000 lives have been claimed by this dance of death — more than the immediate toll at Hiroshima.

And it caught its victims unawares. Inexplicably, although India knows the geophysical vulnerabilities of the Indian Ocean, it had not joined the Tsunami Society or warning group, or put in place any warning system. “We have never had tsunamis here, so we did not have a warning system,” said Kapil Sibal, the science & technology minister whose brief includes ocean development.

True, since independence India has had no history of tsunamis. But at least three tsunamis have hit India in the past, the most recent in 1945, when India was still ruled by the British. The one before that, in 1883, also spread from Indonesia to devastate Tamil Nadu and the Andaman & Nicobar islands. And since 1967, scientists like Tad Murty of the Tsunami Society have offered to assist India in setting up a warning system for the Indian Ocean. Smug in its belief that tsunamis happened elsewhere, India brushed the idea aside. More bizarrely, it seems to have also ignored the relatively recent warning by its own National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organisation, which charted the course of a tsunami like this seven years ago.

India’s disaster management

The first early-morning alert from a bewildered meteorological department, ninety minutes before the tsunami struck the Indian mainland, went incorrectly to the former science minister — who has been out of office since May 2004. After several such enigmatic acts in various wings of government, the Crisis Management Group finally met in the afternoon — several hours after the calamity.

openDemocracy’s editor chose Antara Dev Sen’s article about the Indian election surprise as one of his 2004 highlights. See:

  • “India’s benign earthquake” (May 2004)
  • Anthony Barnett, “The editor’s pick of the year” (December 2004)
If you find these contributions valuable, please consider subscribing to openDemocracy for just £25 / $40 / €40. You’ll gain access to easy-to-read PDFs of all our material

Like in January 2001, when an earthquake struck Gujarat early in the morning, and the Crisis Management Group convened in the afternoon, after 20,000 had died. A Disaster Management System was promised at the time, and millions of rupees spent on it. In fact, every time there is a natural disaster — like the Orissa cyclone of 1999 (10,000 dead) or the Latur earthquake of 1993 (almost 8,000 dead) — there is talk of putting emergency systems in place. Years later, the system is still being promised.

Within hours of the tsunami, the Indian government launched its biggest military operation in peacetime, Operation Seawave, with 32 warships, 82 aircraft and 17,500 troopers spreading across the coasts of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives. For India’s approach to natural calamities is that of crisis management; it emphasises relief, not disaster preparedness or reduction.

Which is unfortunate, since the impact of most of India’s natural disasters can be reduced by proper development planning — like having sturdy cyclone shelters, earthquake-resistant housing in seismic zones, planned drainage in the flood plains and an efficient distribution system to counter droughts. And, of course, a proper health-care system that can deal with disasters and prevent escalation through disease.

As high-profile calamities that merit immediate damage-control measures get primetime media coverage, as Indians, we often overlook the even greater disaster in India. The fact that this sovereign democratic nation has millions dying a slow death due to malnourishment and disease, that infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are still high, that women are still killed for dowry, that the lower castes are denied basic humanity, that minorities are killed for political gain, that millions still do not have the fundamental freedoms that they deserve as citizens.

It is also these underprivileged groups whom natural disasters hit hardest. As people’s income, status and political influence declines, the scale of damage to their lives, homes and livelihoods markedly increases. The Indian poor — forced to live in unsafe shacks in congested clusters and often in dangerous areas, with almost no access to health care or communication networks — have borne the brunt of every natural catastrophe the country has faced. And while the disaster itself may be “God’s will”, the devastation that follows is largely caused by man.

Take this tsunami. Those hit hardest have been fishing communities which have been forced into unsafe coastal territory as beaches went commercial and hotels and resorts sprouted in the safer areas. At the same time, natural barriers have been demolished — mangrove forests lost to timber trade, sand dunes to building constructors. (See Caspar Henderson’s article) And once struck by disaster, the less privileged — mainly the poor, the low caste, the women — get comparatively less relief, less access to healthcare, fewer opportunities to rebuild their shattered lives.

Tribes and tribulation

Thankfully, five of the world’s oldest tribes — dating back to 60,000 years ago — have survived the tsunami in the Andaman & Nicobar islands. Close to Indonesia in the Bay of Bengal these took the first wave of assault. As India mourned the loss of its oldest cultures in these remote “emerald isles”, and aerial rescue teams searched for survivors, a naked man in North Sentinel island looked up at the sky, raised his bow and shot an arrow at the helicopter. Others threw stones. The Sentinelese were alive and kicking.

The Sentinelese, estimates of whose numbers vary between under 40 and around 100, are extremely hostile to outsiders. So were the 240-strong Jarawa. Dressed only in body-paint, they fiercely protected their privacy with poison-tipped arrows until the 1990s. But soon after the tsunami, they were reported to have reached the village of a tribal welfare officer, their only contact with civilisation. The Onge, a tribe with 98 members, also seem to have approached a village in search of help. But help is not easy to deliver in flooded areas where devastated people struggling to cope with their own tragedies suddenly face the “uncivilised” other. Barely a few villagers tried to overcome their terror of the hostile tribes and offer them food and water.

Several days later, all 50 of the Great Andamanese were found gathered around their elderly king and queen on a hillock. Now in hospital, the king has expressed a dislike for the cotton pants and loose shirts they have been hurriedly dressed in, and announced an interest in going back to their homeland and making their own grass skirts. And the mongoloid Shompens, the only tribe in this area that does not trace its origin to Paleolithic Africa, are also believed to be safe, after days of uncertainty.

From whatever information can be gathered from some of these isolated tribes scattered over different islands, it appears that they were saved by their traditional wisdom and indigenous early-warning system, developed through generations. They read the sound of the sea, the touch of the wind, the cries of birds, the shift of the fish and the ways of the animals. And they ran into forests, climbed trees with their children held close to their chests, and waited for the sea to go back.

But such understanding does not protect these hunter-gatherers from other dangers. Their food is stolen by Indian and Burmese fishermen and poachers. And contact with civilisation has led to new diseases that they have no traditional wisdom about. They can handle enormous natural disasters, it’s civilised man that poses a threat to their limited numbers. Thankfully, the Indian government has now decided to minimise contact with these tribes, and stay entirely away from the isolated Sentinelese.

The art of self-reliance

India’s economic loss from the tsunami is estimated at over 600 billion rupees (around $14 billion). Yet India has declined foreign aid in coping with the world’s worst natural disaster in living memory, choosing instead to work with richer and greater powers as an aid-giver. And it has given away almost $24 million in relief to its sisters in sorrow, including the less devastated Thailand. It would be incongruous to accept aid when we ourselves are giving aid to our neighbours, say Indian government officials.

The wisdom of this stand is not entirely clear. Not accepting foreign aid in the form of humanitarian assistance for an unprecedented natural calamity by a country that still has starvation deaths in peacetime seems curious. Especially since India accepts considerable foreign aid for development projects, while it is a donor to poorer countries. True, foreign relief material and volunteers are sometimes a hindrance in culturally alien disaster-struck areas, but why keep hi-tech foreign rescue and relief machinery out?

“We have enough relief material for the immediate rescue, relief and rehabilitation,” explains Sanjaya Baru of the prime minister’s office. “Later, for the reconstruction, more funds would be necessary. At that stage external aid could be accepted.” United Nations agencies and NGOs operating in India are also being welcomed in relief work, but only to assist their own activities in the country.

The Indian government has released 50 billion rupees to the affected state governments, in addition to the money it spends directly for relief and rehabilitation. It has also announced a compensation of 100,000 rupees each to the next of kin of the deceased.

But nationalistic arrogance in the face of nature’s unfathomable fury that swept away all boundaries devouring islands, beaches, villages and towns from Thailand to Somalia may not be the whole story. For years India has been trying to portray itself as a regional power, capable of assisting neighbours in any crisis. Now the fourth largest economy in the world, it needs to prove that it is self-reliant. And by working with greater powers as an aid-giver and not a feeble victim and building new military confidence with China, with whom India has a historically uneasy relationship, India may be graduating to a different class. Which is important for this country campaigning for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

But as India snatches an opportunity for global diplomacy in this hour of crisis, it needs to change not just its image, but its embarrassing realities. Between 2002 and 2003 it slid three notches down the human development rankings, and has not recovered from the upset. The process of compensating victims of the Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal twenty years ago, is still not complete. And there is endemic hunger in this sovereign democracy that has stacks of surplus food.

India needs to pay attention to its failure in implementation, the appalling distribution system, the corruption that eats away even the best-planned structure. In a country where half the children are malnourished, it could be argued that diverting development funds to cope with humanitarian relief is hardly the best response. Bringing in transparency, widening access to information and allowing the people themselves to be part of their relief and rehabilitation process would be more useful.

For we should grant to the tsunami survivors what we seek for the nation as a whole — independence, dignity and control over their own future. The affected need to be part of the rehabilitation process, and not be thrust into a structure that creates long-term dependencies. While we rave about being self-reliant and switch from being a recipient to a donor country, we need to remember that every Indian is our nation in a microcosm. As we celebrate each Indian’s victory in the global arena with a burst of nationalistic pride — whether in sports or academics or business — we need to feel each Indian’s misfortune as our own, and act accordingly.

Over half the world’s population lives within 60 km (40 miles) of a shoreline. Our arts and cultures editors explored this border in its realities and our imagination, in over thirty compelling essays with poems pictures. Everything begins… and ends… on the beach. For subscribers only but take a look .

The power of humanity

This is what Mohammed Younus, president of the United Islamic Jamaat, did. On the morning of 26 December, he heard of the fisherfolk running inland, chased by a furious sea. He immediately got his fellow Muslims in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, to drop everything and plunge into rescue work. Within an hour of the tsunami’s attack, local members of the Jamaat — mostly traders and other middle-class townspeople — had left home, shut shop, and were racing towards the seashore in cars, vans, motorbikes or bicycles. They rushed the injured to hospital, set up makeshift relief camps in and around the mosque and started a community kitchen. By the evening, 3,000 local Muslims were looking after the 10,000 Hindu and Christian survivors of the killer waves.

They were also identifying dead bodies and carrying them on their shoulders for the last rites — cremating Hindus, burying Christians, even marking each Christian burial with a makeshift cross. “They should not feel offended in death”, explained Mohammed Younus. It was hard to imagine that the last big disaster India had faced was the sectarian violence of Gujarat in February 2002, when 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered by Hindus and hundreds of thousands affected by the deliberate fury of man.

But that is where the strength of India lies — not in symbolic global glory, but in our ability to forgive, to move on, to bond as humans in a centuries-old pluralistic culture that allows us to look death in the eye and reach for eternity.


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