A friend in need...

Print edition : January 28, 2005

FOR the second time in as many years, the Indian armed forces responded to a call by Sri Lanka to render humanitarian assistance. As the first country to rush to the aid of the island-nation in the wake of the disaster, India can justifiably claim to be the leader of the international relief efforts in its neighbourhood.

A doctor at work in a field hospital that the Indian Navy set up in Galle, on January 4.-YVES HERMAN/REUTERS

Along the devastated eastern Sri Lankan coastline, Operation Rainbow East is in full swing far away from the glare of the media. At a makeshift relief camp in southern Sri Lanka, naval doctors are at work. At Galle, hydrographers of the Indian Navy have cleared the entry channels to make the port operational. Across the shattered coastline, the Indian operations have been received with considerable goodwill.

"We are not counting pennies, but just providing relief assistance in response to a call," the Indian Defence Adviser for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Suraj Berry, told Frontline.

When Surgeon Lt. Commander Gopalan Parthasarathy of the Indian Navy set foot on Sri Lankan soil as the first foreign medical relief officer, his house in Tamil Nadu's Chengalpattu district was under water. Parthasarathy's is a lion-hearted response to the call of duty, and his arrival in Sri Lanka is symbolic of a tsunami-lashed India's readiness to help a neighbour in distress.

Deployed at Hambantota, the second worst affected area, Parthasarathy said: "Since I came, I encountered nothing but the best side of humanity, mostly from the Sri Lankan armed forces, civilians and administrators." During his first experience in overseas relief operations, Parthasarathy performed various tasks, including "hygienically disposing of bodies that were piling up in hospitals at an alarming rate", and "conducting medical camps at various locations".

On his thoughts at being involved in a relief operation outside the country when his own house was under water, he said: "I had full faith in my country and the government, that if I came to Sri Lanka there would be someone in uniform to look after my family for me. This is what happened ultimately."

"Without them we would have been nowhere," Wilson De Silva, a veteran southerner, told Frontline. Not just in words, but through simple deeds as well, the goodwill earned by the Indian relief workers is considerable. "One patient came carrying coconuts to us and said `please take these, these are all we can give,' recalls Surgeon Lt. Commander Rajeev Shivshankar, of the Navy.

Nearly 1,000 Indians - both armed forces personnel and civil servants - worked round the clock since December 26 to bring some sense of order into the chaos and disorder that prevailed. "When I saw this from the air, it was complete devastation," Surgeon Lt. Commander Shivshankar said. "Even a thousand bombs would not have caused such damage," Surgeon Lt. Nayak added. Between them and five other colleagues, they rendered first aid to over 1,500 people in the first few days before matters came under the complete control of the Sri Lankan authorities. In addition, teams from the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force were deployed in the affected regions to provide immediate relief and assistance.

On the day of the disaster, Indian officials in Colombo swung into action organising logistics for what was to become a major operation, and looking out for missing Indians. "The greatest thing in the Indian assistance was that they did it in the midst of their own disaster," said Kumar, the owner of a hotel near Galle port who threw open his premises for an Indian medical camp. Surgeon Lt. Commander Rajesh Panicker, a gynaecologist, recalls the most touching cases he treated. He particularly remembers several children who were orphaned by the tsunami. "They did not know what hit them. They were speechless and did not even realise they had been orphaned."

According to Indian High Commissioner Nirupama Rao, a total of 25 medical teams, comprising 80 medical personnel, were deployed in the affected parts of the island. In addition, nearly 90 persons were on board a hospital ship with eight doctors. "We are constantly replenishing our medical supplies," and "specialised medicines such as paediatric medicines for respiratory problems are being brought in," she added. On the eastern coast, Operation Rainbow East is providing assistance in various ways to the affected people. Since the disaster, 11 Indian ships have been operating in Sri Lankan waters off the southern and eastern coasts. In eastern Sri Lanka's Trincomalee port, Indian relief brought 30 tonnes of drinking water, besides several tonnes of medical supplies and dry rations, to meet the urgent requirements.

Nirupama Rao visited the tsunami-affected eastern districts of Batticaloa and Trincomalee to assess the requirements and meet Indian personnel involved in the relief work. A total of six medical teams have been deployed across the southern and eastern coasts.

The Sri Lankan forces are providing security to the Indian relief workers. Significantly, a northern segment of the eastern coast is under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In addition, to the 11 Indian ships, several naval helicopters are involved in ferrying teams from India to carry out relief operations.

Several Indian private companies based in Sri Lanka also extended a helping hand. Lanka IOC, the premier oil company, contributed Rs.20 million to the relief effort. Apollo Hospitals conducted more than 10 medical camps in the affected areas. The five-star hotel Taj Samudra donated Rs.1 million and also provided rations and medical supplies and helped in evacuation. Jet Airways, Gujarat Ambuja, Ashok Leyland, L&T Ceylinco, Ceat-Kelani and Tata Motors are among the companies that added to the contribution and kept the Indian flag flying high.

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