Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

The coasts of South and South-East Asia, devastated by the December 26 tsunami, have begun to come out of the shock and rebuild life, aided by unprecedented rescue and relief efforts in which India plays a major part.

in Chennai

THERE is a well-known Japanese short story of an old man who saves the residents of his coastal village from a tsunami. Sitting on a hilltop that overlooks his village on an evening after the village autumn harvest celebrations are over, the old man looks out at the sea and notices a gathering white line on the horizon. He feels the shake of the earth, and sees the sea being sucked back in a powerful undertow. Reading the signals of an impending tsunami, the old man realises he has to get the village residents to move away from the coastline - and fast. He sets fire to the entire wheat harvest that the village has carefully stacked on the hilltop. Seeing their precious harvest burning, the entire village rushes up the hill to put out the flames. Soon after, a gigantic tsunami breaks over the coast, swallowing the village. Its residents are saved by the presence of mind of the wise old man.

For the millions of people living on the Indian Ocean rim, however, there was no foreknowledge of the waves of mass destruction hurtling in their direction on the morning of December 26, 2004. Unlike the lucky people in the story, no sage counsel saved them. Although the massive undersea earthquake of Richter 9 off the coast of Sumatra early that morning was registered in seismic laboratories in different parts of the world, warnings were not passed on to those who were going to be the victims of its deadly impact, as The New York Times writer Andrew C. Revkin's article, reprinted in this issue of Frontline, establishes. This failure of human accountability, with all its tragic consequences, must surely be investigated if the lessons of the biggest natural disaster in living memory are to be learnt.

The human cost of this lapse is brought into even sharper focus as stories get reported of isolated incidents where foreknowledge and a little lead time saved precious lives. The phone call, for example, made to a knowledge centre in a village in Pondicherry, by a volunteer of the centre who happened to be in Singapore, and who heard of the tsunami warning. His call led to an immediate announcement over the village loudspeaker system to clear the beaches. All the 3,600 residents of that village were saved. Frontline correspondent T.S. Subramanian reports on this remarkable story.

In Veerampattinam village, Pondicherry, village elders saw the sea level changing and broke open the booth which housed the village public address system and called for the beaches to be cleared. As a result, there were no deaths amongst the 6,200 residents of the village.

Ten-year-old Tilly Smith, who was with her family at a beach in Phuket, Thailand, put the knowledge on tsunamis learned in her geography class to use when she saw the sea receding. She alerted her mother to the danger before them, and in minutes the beach was deserted, with tourists safely in their hotels. It was one of the only places along Phuket's shores where no one was killed or seriously injured.

A Japanese woman journalist who was looking out from her second floor hotel room in a beachside resort in Sri Lanka noticed the sea receding and knew what was coming. She ran downstairs and raised an alarm, getting swimmers out of the hotel pool, and occupants of the hotel to move behind the hotel or to the upper floors, just minutes before the wave crashed in.

TWO weeks after the event, the contours of the disaster have emerged with some clarity, although new dimensions of its impact and outcome continue to appear. In this issue of Frontline, our correspondents provide a snapshot of the situation in different parts of the Indian Ocean rim, but with the focus on India: not only the enormous destruction that the forces of nature wrought, but also, and more importantly, the beginnings of the process of reconstruction, the heroism of ordinary people caught in the calamity, the tsunami-like surge of humanitarianism and aid that the disaster has generated globally, and the hope that is beginning to emerge from the rubble of devastation.

"The universe [of destruction] you see around you is the tsunami's handiwork in just eight minutes," Prakasan, a fisherman from Kerala's Alappuzha district, told Frontline correspondent R. Krishnakumar. The tsunamis, rising up to 15 metres (50 ft), devastated the coastlines of Sumatra, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and the Maldives, and have changed life irrevocably in these regions. The total death toll stands at 1,59,260 with 17,958 still missing, according to figures compiled by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Frontline's science correspondent R. Ramachandran has analysed the scientific aspects of the tsunami phenomenon.

In areas close to the epicentre of the earthquake, like Sumatra and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, landmasses changed shape. Towns, villages and human settlements were pounded by the waves, and in western Sumatra, where the impact was the greatest, virtually flattened. In Indonesia alone, the death toll stands at 1,04,055, and continues to rise. More than 70 per cent of the inhabitants of some coastal villages have reportedly died. Ten days after the disaster many areas were still not accessed because of the destruction of roads and infrastructure; local administration was paralysed as a large number of government officials were themselves dead or missing.

"Where are the people?" Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, is reported to have asked when he flew over the affected areas of Sumatra almost ten days after the event. All infrastructure has been wiped out in the worst-hit regions, leaving the survivors without food, water or shelter. Frontline's World Affairs correspondent John Cherian provides an account of the United States' geopolitical manoeuvres in Indonesia in the guise of providing relief in this region, where a separatist political movement has established its presence. On the west coast of Thailand, one of the leading tourists destinations in Asia, tourists bore the brunt of the disaster. Of the 5,200 confirmed dead according to official Thai figures, more than half are foreign tourists from a total of 36 countries, holidaying in the beach resort of Phuket and outlying islands. From Sweden, 60 deaths of its nationals holidaying in Thailand have been confirmed, and 2,300 nationals are still missing. In Thailand too, the death count is rising as bodies continue to be found in the rubble of collapsed hotels.

After Indonesia, it is the island nation of Sri Lanka that suffered the greatest losses in life and property. The death toll here stands at 30,500, and thousands more are missing. The number of the homeless has been put between 800,000 and one million people. Frontline correspondent V.S. Sambandan traversed the length of the teardrop island, reporting from Galle, a humming city on the southern coast, that it was "reduced to nothing", and from Point Pedro, the northernmost tip of the island in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-controlled Mullaitivu district. He offers a descriptive assessment of the huge challenge of reconstruction faced by a nation that is politically divided along ethnic lines. The immediate humanitarian assistance extended by India to its southern neighbour in its time of trial, despite the enormity of India's own problems, has set a splendid example in neighbourly solidarity.

The Maldives, Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and the Seychelles have, although to a lesser extent, suffered losses owing to the tsunami. Although the death count in these countries are much lower than in the worst-hit countries, there has been widespread destruction of homes, businesses and the tourism sector.

India's eastern shores - the port town of Nagapattinam in particular - and the Andaman and Nicobar islands bore the brunt of the devastation, described in this issue by our correspondents who toured these areas. Tsunami waves diffracted around the peninsula, hitting Kerala on the west coast on the afternoon of December 26. The death toll in India has been put at 9,682, according to Home Ministry figures put out on January 6, 2005. Of those killed, 901 are from the Andaman and Nicobar islands (in Car Nicobar alone 336 persons died); 105 from Andhra Pradesh; 170 from Kerala; 7,923 from Tamil Nadu (Nagapattinam alone accounts for 6,023 deaths); and 583 from Pondicherry. There are 5,914 persons still in the `missing' category, almost all of them from the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Relief officials initially attributed this high figure to the difficulty in getting an accurate head count in scattered islands that were difficult to access in the days immediately after the disaster. However, with no substantial change in this count even two weeks after the disaster, relief officials now concede that these persons may have to be considered dead. In other affected parts of the country, there are fewer than 100 `missing' persons, suggesting that the phase of body recovery is more or less over.

The response in India to the tsunami disaster was immediate and grew with each day, even as the horrors of destruction unfolded in relentless and heart-stopping television and print images of the dead and the living, images that captured the despair of loss, the guilt of survival, and, beginning from the day after the tragedy, the trickle of relief penetrating into the worst-hit areas. Since then, a huge relief and rehabilitation effort has been mounted, led by the governments of Manmohan Singh at the centre and those of the affected States.

The relief effort has not been without its problems and lapses that have been highlighted by a vigilant, on-the-spot media constantly monitoring relief. These include an initial delay in getting the relief operation off the ground, delays in bringing interior villages into the relief network, cases of official corruption resulting in the leakage of foodgrains meant for tsunami victims into the open market, relief not reaching the needy, and so on. The Central government's panicky reaction to a spurious email from a scientifically dubious source even resulted in its issuing a fresh tsunami warning, which resulted in enormous confusion in the early stages of the relief operations.

These lapses, however, appear to be relatively small and transient glitches in what has emerged as a stupendous relief effort on the part of the Centre and State governments, an organisational endeavour that has been widely commended - by political parties, including the Opposition; the media; organizations of fisherpersons (the hardest hit economic segment); and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector, which has been a major player in the ongoing relief and rehabilitation effort.

"This is the largest relief and rehabilitation effort mounted by the government since Independence," Navin Chawla, Secretary, Information and Broadcasting, and spokesperson for the government on the relief effort, told Frontline. The Central government set up the Disaster Management Group, comprising the secretaries of the Ministries concerned, and this was followed by the constitution of the Integrated Relief Command (IRC) under the charge of the Lieutenant-Governor of the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The IRC is mandated to oversee the relief effort for the islands and to coordinate the activities of the civilian administration and the armed forces.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh politely but firmly declined offers of external aid in the early days of the relief effort, saying that India had plenty of relief capabilities and did not require assistance at this stage. In fact, India announced a Rs.100-crore assistance package to Sri Lanka, and another Rs.5 crores to the Maldives, and sent its ships to Sri Lanka and Indonesia with medical relief and other supplies. Indian representatives reiterated the Prime Minister's stand at the emergency international summit organised by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta on January 6, an event reported by P.S. Suryanarayana in this issue. Since then, however, the government has clarified its position. It has said that it will only refuse aid from foreign governments, and not from aid agencies like the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

"The first ten days were devoted to crisis management, saving human lives, providing food and water, and reacting to the immediate human crisis," said Chawla. The southernmost point of the island cluster comprising the Andaman and Nicobar islands is close to the epicentre of the earthquake. Here the destruction to life and property was the maximum, and Frontline correspondent Suresh Nambath describes the impact of the tusnami on this archipelago of 572 islands, some of them inhabited by tribes who have no contact with outside civilisation. Supplies of cooked food and water had to be airdropped over the islands, as jetties, roads and other infrastructure had been destroyed. There are at present a little over 40,000 persons in 111 relief camps, including six in Nicobar and two in the Andamans. In six islands, with populations of between 100 and 200, all persons were evacuated. The jetties in Port Blair and Car Nicobar were restored within days of the tragedy. Naval and Coast Guard ships, and passenger vessels from Kolkata, Visakhapatnam and Chennai have resumed. Doctors and paramedics were flown to the islands to prevent the outbreak of disease.

In the affected areas of Tamil Nadu, the relief effort has reached an intermediate stage, with the focus now on rebuilding infrastructure, creating temporary shelters and restoring livelihoods. The victims are still in shelters, and the fishing communities, which have been the hardest hit, want conditions to be created for them to return to sea, their only source of livelihood. Frontline correspondent S. Viswanathan has captured the complex situation on the ground in Nagapattinam and nearby areas - the incredible destruction wrought by the tsunami on the lives and livelihoods of fisherpersons and the response by the State, in the form of relief and assistance, as also by NGOs and ordinary citizens, who rushed in from all parts of the country to help in whatever way they could. Also washed away by the tsunami, he notes, were the "man-made barriers" of religious differentiation. The Velankanni church in Nagapattinam, the Muslim dargah at Nagore, and the famous Kundrakudi Mutt near Sivaganga, situated nearly 150 km away, joined forces in a remarkable show of humanitarianism and social responsibility in providing relief.

The government of Tamil Nadu has played a major role in these regions in providing relief and rehabilitation. The first phase saw a massive search, rescue and evacuation operation, with the organisation of relief camps and the burial/cremation of the dead. The government has begun the distribution of a package consisting of clothes, rice, kerosene and Rs.400 in cash (for food, utensils and the building of temporary structures), along with a separate cash package to each family to restore fishing boats. It has requested the Central government for an assistance of Rs.4,800 crores and 54,000 tonnes of rice. For the rehabilitation programme for fishing families, it has asked the Centre for another Rs.750 crores. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has announced her government's intent to construct protective sea walls and groynes along 40 km of the coastline, for which she has asked the Central government for another Rs.4,800 crores as assistance. The Prime Minister has suggested that this work be taken up with World Bank aid.

The tsunami strike has highlighted the issue of violations of the coastal regulation zone, the 500-metre strip along the coastline that is by law to be kept free for reasons of environmental protection and to allow fisherpersons unfettered access to the sea.

WHEN schools reopened in tsunami-hit areas after the winter vacation, there were several unoccupied desks and benches in each classroom, a poignant reminder of the number of children who had lost their lives. Indeed, the tragedy of the disaster is the tragedy of children lost, their small and unresisting bodies becoming the first casualties when the giant sweep of water submerged beaches, homes and playgrounds where children normally spend their Sunday. In some regions, children account for nearly 60 per cent of those who died. For the children who survived, the "tsunami generation", as the United Nations International Children's Fund (UNICEF) has called them, the trauma is harrowing. Frontline correspondent Asha Krishnakumar reports on this aspect of the disaster and takes a critical look at the many options that governments, child rights organisations and aid agencies have been advancing to secure the future of these children.

WHY do natural disasters - drought, floods, earthquakes, cyclones, and now the tsunami - strike India so hard? Why have successive governments been unable to mitigate the impact of disasters?

As in cases of past disasters - the Orissa super cyclone in 1999 and the Bhuj earthquake in 2001 - this time too the government's response was a reactive one. Yet again, the state machinery was caught unprepared and response structures were set in place only after the event. The decision to set up of a Disaster Management Agency, announced by the Central government on January 9, 2005, is long overdue.

In strengthening its disaster management capacities, India can learn from a strong international track record. While advanced countries like Japan and the United States have very effective disaster management systems in place, even small and less developed countries like Bangladesh, Cuba and Mongolia have established successful disaster management institutions. The loss of lives to cyclones used to be a recurrent feature in Bangladesh. In 1970, 300,000 people were killed in a cyclone. The late 1980s saw devastating floods in the country. The country now has a Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, which has an Emergency Operations Centre. The organisational structure reaches down to the districts and local level committees. In Cuba, an effective disaster response system kept the casualties to a minimum during a cyclone in 2004, which claimed a large number of lives in neighbouring Florida.

The decision to set up a dedicated, centralised inter-ministerial disaster management agency was taken in principle by the Central government in August 2005, yet another example of good intentions that were not acted upon until it was too late. Disaster Management - A Status Report (August 2004) is a document prepared by the government in the light of the experience of the Bhuj earthquake. Its recommendations unfortunately remained just where they were - on paper. It recommends the establishment of a National Disaster Management Authority under the Ministry of Home Affairs. A disaster management system, the report says, must have a "modern, permanent national command centre" with communications and data links to all State capitals. Such a system requires unified legislation and linkages down to the State, district and taluk levels as well as to external disaster management agencies. The Report also sets out the mechanism by which relief and rehabilitation are to be financed.

As this immense disaster plays itself out in different parts of the tsunami-hit world, a stage will come when the worst is over, when new opportunities emerge and regeneration begins. India appears to be a little closer to that turning point than many of the other affected countries.

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