A battered archipelago

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the giant waves cause not only death and destruction but changes in the geography.

recently in Port Blair

AS a tribe, the Nicobarese are used to the vagaries of nature and in the best of times lead a difficult life on a thin piece of coastline wedged between thick forests and the deep sea, in the Nicobar Group of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. But until December 26, the day of the most devastating of all tsunamis, they did not have to live in fear of sudden death. On that day, their self-sufficient world came crashing down.

More than 7,000 are dead or presumed dead in the Nicobar group, the southernmost point of which is close to the epicentre of the earthquake that triggered the huge waves. Although the tsunami was at its ferocious worst in Campbell Bay of Great Nicobar, the hilly terrain limited the damage there. But the flat and fertile Car Nicobar island, 10 km in diameter and having a circumference of 45 km, offered little resistance to the killer waves. The headquarters of Nicobar district, its entire population of about 20,000 was affected - either dead or displaced - as was the Indian Air Force (IAF) base there. Katchal, with more than 8,000 people, and Chowra, Camorta, Campbell Bay, Teressa and Trinket also lost many people to the fury of the sea. Hut Bay in Little Andaman too suffered as the waves slammed in.

Unlike mainland India, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands did not have sufficient breathing time between the earthquake and the tsunami. The islands that could be approached directly through the southeastern side bore the brunt of the waves. Huge walls of water brought down buildings and trees and washed away people who had moved to the open beach seeking safety from the tremors. The response time was so short that those who tried to get on to their two-wheelers never made it, while many of those who just ran survived.

The IAF base in Car Nicobar was flattened. Buildings already shaken by the quake crumbled under the weight of the rushing water and the sea-facing residential quarters of officers never stood a chance. Not surprisingly, more officers than men were killed by the tsunami. Teachers working in the Kendriya Vidyalaya were also among the victims.

The Nicobarese villages of Malacca and Kakana on the southeastern side suffered heavy casualties, while on the northwestern side, people in the villages of Sawai, Arong and Tea Top moved deeper into the forests and formed new settlements.

Sandbands holding together islands such as Katchal and Pillow Millow gave way and two islands appeared in the place of one. Tiny Trinket, with a population of 222, was flooded entirely and the survivors had to be evacuated.

The defence services were quick to react, with the Coast Guard beginning search-and-rescue operations and the Navy sending its biggest ships to the farthest islands in the Nicobar group following the first reports of casualties. The IAF sent its transport planes for restoration work and the Army took charge of rebuilding infrastructure and restoring communications. The seriously injured were brought to Port Blair by aircraft.

The distance from the mainland and the hostile terrain hampered relief work, and damage to the jetties meant that ships could not approach the affected islands. Small boats were used to ferry relief materials. Shortened airstrips in Port Blair and Car Nicobar added to the difficulties. In the first few days, food, clothes and medicines piled up in Port Blair as the authorities could not reach them to people in the affected islands. A delivery mechanism was eventually put in place and the people on the islands were organised to handle the relief supplies. However, with the tsunami taking its toll on the civil administration and given the demands on the relief front, rehabilitation took a back seat.

AFTER the initial hiccups, the Centre set up an Integrated Relief Command (IRC) to speed up relief and rehabilitation. The situation demanded close coordination between the civil administration and the Unified Command of the Armed Forces. Accordingly, the IRC had Lieutenant Governor Ram Kapse as chairman and the Commander-in-Chief, Andaman and Nicobar Unified Command, B.S. Thakur, as vice-chairman, operational head, and spokesperson. An Integrated Logistics Committee, too, was formed to coordinate the relief efforts of the Defence, Civil Aviation and Shipping Ministries in Andaman and Nicobar.

The fact that Ram Kapse was a former Member of Parliament belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party and had been appointed to the post during the period of the National Democratic Alliance government apparently increased the discomfort of the Centre. In this Centrally administered Union Territory, which does not have an elected government, the Lieutenant-Governor is the executive head. Not surprisingly, Union Minister of State for Home Shriprakash Jaiswal was deputed to oversee the relief work.

As days go by, there are reports of people returning from their refuge in the forests. Many of the Nicobarese as also the Shompens in Great Nicobar, both of Mongoloid origin, had moved deep into the forests and onto high ground when the tsunami hit the coast. Some of them are finding their way back, forcing the authorities to hold back estimates of the number of missing people.

The tsunami, however, appears to have largely left untouched the Negrito tribes, who inhabit the Andaman islands. The Great Andamanese in Strait Island, who have made peace with the mainlanders, were found to be safe, so also the Onges in Little Andaman, for whom the Coast Guard airdropped relief materials. The Jarawas are hostile but do approach the mainlanders when they are starving or sick. As the authorities have not heard anything to the contrary, and contact has been established with some of the Jarawas, the assumption is that all of them are safe. Moreover, as they live in the jungle, the Jarawas would have been well protected from the tsunami. Only the Sentinalese, who shoot arrows at any outsider, are totally cut off, but the Coast Guard spotted them during an aerial survey.

Animals in the southern group of islands, famed for its biodiversity, seem to have anticipated the disaster and moved on to higher ground. Relief teams did not find carcasses of wild animals in any of the affected areas.

The Nicobarese, who form the largest tribe in the Union Territory, were badly hit. The majority of them are cultivators or agricultural labourers and household industry workers. With most of the survivors having lost their semi-pucca homes, it will take them a long time to rebuild their lives.

But even this depressing situation has been punctuated with individual initiatives that spelt success. A Coast Guard pilot, R. Makwana, carried letters written on odd bits of paper to the relatives of people stranded on Hut Bay. A homoeopathy doctor, Bindu Kumar, established a video satellite link with Port Blair and provided telemedicine treatment to the affected people in Car Nicobar through hospitals in Port Blair and Chennai. Pilots of the IAF, who barely managed to escape the tsunami, straight away immersed themselves in rescue operations.

The current situation in these far-flung islands is such that efforts at long-term rehabilitation will cut into work towards short-term relief. Irrespective of the availability of resources and manpower, the mounting pressure on the relief centres and makeshift settlements will require all the attention of the authorities.

For a group of islands whose mainstay is tourism, the disaster holds long-term consequences. The long stretches of white sand beaches might no longer be a great attraction. The profile of several islands has also changed. In some cases, the beaches have disappeared, leaving no land between the forests and the sea, thus leaving no room for human habitation.

The Nicobar islands were never open to tourists, for conservation as well as security reasons. Now, even if the waters recede, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will for a long time be associated with the death and destruction brought by the killer waves. The archipelago of 572 islands, islets and rocks will now be more isolated than ever before. But this time it is not the isolation promised by holiday destinations.

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