Coping with the tsunami crisis

Print edition : January 28, 2005

India's relief operation is marked by design flaws, lack of a sense of urgency and a preoccupation with geopolitics and image-building which could prove counterproductive.

IT is a sour irony that even as Europe observed three minutes' silence on January 5 to mourn the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, official India did not make such a gesture of solidarity. This despite the fact that this country has lost nearly 10,000 of its citizens to the calamity. The relative apathy of the government and a good chunk of the media, which have begun to drop tsunami stories from the front pages, stands in marked contrast to civil society, which has rallied itself in unprecedented ways in response to the epic disaster.

U.S. sailors from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln load a truck with supplies to be distributed in tsunami-hit islands off the coast of Indonesia.-REUTERS

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's absence from the Jakarta summit for coordinating aid for the victims did not help. He should have accorded a lower priority to engagements like inaugurating a Non-Resident Indian conference in Mumbai and joined the summit. If the Prime Ministers of China or Japan - neither was affected by the tsunami - could turn up, so could have the Indian Prime Minister.

That is only one, minor, complaint that might be legitimately made of the government's handling of the crisis. Logistically, this is a definite improvement over past performance. On the day the tsunami struck, India started moving relief to affected areas. By the following day, Indian ships and aircraft were on their way to Galle, Colombo and Male. Within 10 days, 12,000 defence personnel were deployed, some 50 camps set up in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and 50 tonnes of relief material was being flown every day. The Indian Air Force evacuated around 10,000 people and airlifted 1,000 tonnes of supplies.

Even so, the number of missing persons continued to climb upwards and now exceeds 6,000. There are well-documented reports of the right kind of relief not reaching people. Medical assistance, in particular, has been paltry and quacks have filled the vacuum to pump cocktails of irrational drugs into the survivors.

The true deficiencies in the handling of the disaster lies less in "hard" logistics than in non-technical "soft" areas, including access to information, design and conception of what relief means, a week rehabilitation component, and lack of compassionate concern for the health, including mental health, of the survivors. No less important is the priority attached to power projection in the neighbourhood, especially in collaboration with the United States, and through the establishment of the now-disbanded 4-country "core group".

Contrary to the official claim that "the lessons that we learnt from the Orissa cyclone of 2000, the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 and other disasters have helped us effect a paradigm shift in our approach to disaster management", the government failed to put in place an early warning system, activate the central Disaster Management Cell (DMC) in time, and act upon the information that it received about the earthquake which triggered the tsunami.

On available evidence, both the IAF and the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had definite information by 7-30 a.m. of the earthquake's occurrence and intensity. That was about 90 minutes before the tidal wave hit the mainland. But the IAF did not alert its own Nicobar Islands base in time. And the IMD faxed the information to former Science and Technology Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, who lost that office seven months ago! Neither Joshi nor anyone in the government sounded an alarm. No warning was issued. That could have saved hundreds of lives.

The DMC stirred itself into action well after the tsunami strike ended - as happened with the Orissa and Gujarat episodes too. Four days later, the DMC created panic by issuing a false alert. This does not speak well of the government's principal crisis management agency.

Soon, the public debate focus shifted to science and technology issues, about whether earthquakes and tsunamis are predictable and why India had not joined the 26-member Pacific Tsunami Early Warning System (PTEWS). One commentator blithely attributed this to the policy of non-alignment and the resultant autarky in our S&T programme! The reason is far more complex. India was guilty of a degree of complacency: tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean, unlike in the Pacific (which has witnessed 800 of them in the past century). India was recently battered by tsunamis three times - in 1881, 1941 and 1945. The last episode, on the West Coast, produced two-metre high waves in Mumbai, 11-metre high tides in Kutch, and wiped out the city of Pasni off Baluchistan's coast.

India's membership of the PTEWS could not have prevented the loss of hundreds of lives. Processing of data is a function as much of social factors as calculation capabilities. Many Third World countries have as much information as (equally vulnerable) First World societies of impending disasters like cyclones or viral epidemics. But the effects of disasters are dissimilar and socially determined.

Thus, the average natural disaster kills 63 people in Japan. But in Peru, the average toll is 2,900 - 46 times higher. When Hurricane Elena hit the U.S. in 1985, only five people died. But when a cyclone slammed Bangladesh in 1991, half a million perished. Earthquakes killing more than 10,000 people have only occurred in the Third World.

There is a lesson in this: coping well with disasters demands regulating society for safety, protecting vulnerable people from excessively hazardous conditions, empowering people's organisations, transparency in decision-making, early warnings, disseminating accurate information about rescue and relief services, stocking of provisions, including medicines, and the ability to evacuate large numbers to safety and to reach effective medical relief.

However, we now hear new techno-babble - for example Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting Systems and Bottom Pressure Recorders. President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has added his bit to this technological obsession by appealing to the conscience of scientists - he made no such appeal while celebrating the nuclear bomb - by exhorting them to promote science for worthy causes like earthquake prediction. In his January 5 address to the Indian Science Congress, he set a five-year "deadline" for inventing such technology. One does not know what expertise he has in seismology. But this suggestion militates against the general consensus in the field that earthquakes cannot be predicted in the short run, although long-term forecasts spanning decades are feasible.

Similarly, in the design and provision of relief, there seem to be many lacunae. Provisions like bleaching power and chlorine tablets essential for sanitation, lamps, kerosene, and above all, safe drinking water, have received low priority. Mountains of clothes reportedly piled up in many affected areas. Scarcity of food and cooking vessels remains widespread.

Equally negligent has been provision of medical facilities, especially psychiatric help and counselling. Tens of thousands have experienced multiple traumas owing to the loss of loved ones, homes, livelihoods and control over their lives. Yet, only 100 psychiatrists have been sent.

Even more reprehensible is the government's exercise in power projection and its claim to have graduated from the status of an aid-recipient to a donor. The first was in evidence in India's decision to join the U.S.-sponsored "core group", as well as in the claims made in unofficial briefings about India's pre-eminent status in its "zone of influence" from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca. India's decision was a big mistake, involving a departure from its traditional stand favouring multilateralism and emphasis on the United Nations (U.N.) system. It also sits ill with the government's promise to work for a multi-polar globe.

BASICALLY, many parochial considerations guided India's decision and continue to influence official thinking in some measure. India wants a "strategic partnership" with the U.S. even in its neighbourhood. This is reflected in repeated joint exercises with the U.S. off the Malabar Coast and in the Indian Navy escorting U.S. warships to Malacca. "Partnership" means accepting U.S. hegemony in the Indian Ocean and jettisoning not just the old - and valid - notion of the "Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace", but an independent role for India itself.

"Partnership" has entailed giving legitimacy to the U.S.' claims to selfless philanthropy and its militarisation of the notion of relief. The U.S. has deployed 13,000 military personnel, 21 naval ships, and 75 airplanes in the Indian Ocean. It is using the disaster as a geopolitical opportunity disguised as a humanitarian one. The U.S.' record as an aid-giver is poor. It ranks last among the world's 30 wealthiest countries. It only allocates 0.14 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to aid. The average American spends four times more on soft drinks. Washington bristled at the remark that its tsunami aid offer is "stingy". But as an U.S. Agency for International Development official puts it: "The U.S. is not a charitable organisation where we provide assistance without regards to (its) purpose... It's part of our foreign policy."

Washington, mired in Iraq, and politically isolated globally, has found a chance to assert "leadership". Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis says Bush's initiative "represents an opportunity to try to move beyond the frustration of Iraq... and tensions with the Islamic world. It is an... area where the U.S... can work in a cause that no one can argue with."

The U.S.-sponsored "core group" was disbanded largely because it raised eyebrows the world over, and especially in Europe. The French press denounced it as an effort to sideline the U.N. In Britain, former International Development Secretary Clare Short said: "I think this initiative from America... sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the U.N. when it is the best system we have got and the one that needs building up."

By joining the "core group", India wanted to counter the possibility of China acquiring a larger role in the Indian Ocean. This would entail collaborating with Western powers, including loyal U.S. ally, Australia, and Japan, which has 134 U.S. bases on its soil.

As Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Ronen Sen told The Times of India: "The reason why India was approached to join the team of core nations was because it is a country with major capabilities. There are good reasons why it is called the Indian Ocean... it has always been in the Indian sphere of influence." Sen tried to impress two former U.S. Presidents that India has a great strategic range, reach and ambition, reflected in the fact that the southernmost tip of the Nicobar Islands is "almost 1,000 miles from the Indian coast and just 60 nautical miles from the epicentre of the earthquake".

This is part of New Delhi's effort at inventing a Great Power image for itself and its bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. The new buzz in South Block is: How can we claim a Council seat with a begging bowl in hand? This was the rationale for the National Democratic Alliance declaring in 2003 that India won't accept aid from any sources other than six major sources.

Although independence from foreign aid seems a worthy objective, this position is ethically questionable. So long as the Indian government cannot provide basic amenities of survival to its people, it has no business to deny them such help as the international community might offer. So long as 47 per cent of Indian children grow up malnourished, and enormous disparities exist between the elite and the people, New Delhi must not indulge in such sanctimonious posturing. The Manmohan Singh government rightly revised the NDA's no-aid-but-from-six-sources policy (which was a peevish response to the European Union's criticism of the Gujarat pogrom). It must not return to that same logic.

None of this argues against providing relief to India's neighbours, particularly Sri Lanka. It raises questions, however, about intentions. If the operation's primary purpose is not humanitarian aid, but to assert India's pre-eminence, that will be resented by the neighbours. Reports from Sri Lanka say the media there are highlighting Pakistan's Rs.10-crore aid, rather than India's Rs.100-crore grant.

Indian policy-makers should not forget the lesson of the mid-1980s, when India sent troops to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The result was a disaster. The Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) took hundreds of casualties, yet produced all-round resentment. India first trained and armed the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), then took up arms against it, but could not disarm or defeat it. Then, it foolishly backed the EPRLF vis-a-vis the LTTE in the North and East and R. Premadasa against Chandrika Kumaratunga. These cynically Machiavellian manoeuvres cost India its credibility and goodwill.

It would be tragic if New Delhi shows its military muscle at the time of a disaster of such epic dimensions. It will not do to say the U.S. and Australia are doing the same. Australia's aid is directed primarily at Indonesia, out of a parochial calculation. It wants a better image in Indonesia, where it is seen as having played an overbearing role during the 1999 East Timor crisis. Australia, the most pro-U.S. Oceanic state since the Vietnam War days, is hardly a worthy example. India should cherish the values of independence, a multi-polar, just and equal world order, and moral clarity in a grave crisis like the tsunami disaster. That is the way to true leadership.

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