Tsunami hits India’s tribal wealth

Anand K Sahay:

Taking a long-term and purely national approach to the great damage caused by nature’s fury of Boxing Day, 2004, it can be said that the most disturbing effect has been on the country’s tribal wealth. A great proportion of the Nicobarese tribe in the southerly regions of the Andaman and Nicobar islands has been lost. The tsunami tragedy in the Nicobar group would in the end be remembered for the extremely high percentage of the population that may now be given up for dead, or thrown at the mercy of relief. Short-term aid is being administered reasonably efficiently in the camps inhabited by tsunami victims, but the challenge will be long-term reconstruction.

The strike of fate on December 26 is unlikely to have many parallels. Mercifully, these Bay of Bengal islands are sparsely populated, with a count of only slightly over 40 thousand, going by official statistics. The real bad news is that the percentage of the dead and those feared dead, taken together, is as high as 16 per cent of the population of these islands.

An idea of the extent of havoc caused can be gained from the fact that something like one fourth of the total population of the Nicobar group has had to be evacuated to camps across the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar. It is remarkable that many senior officials, on the civilian as well as military side, express a degree of amazement about the number of those feared dead that has been put out. They believe that the actual figures of those feared lost are likely to be something like double of what has been officially acknowledged. The possible reasons for this are speculative.

Data suppression is an inadequate response for a democracy. But where is democracy in Andaman and Nicobar? The islands, being a centrally administered unit, do not have a legislative assembly and there is an absence of effective democratic institutions. A ground for hope in the otherwise grim situation is the relatively smooth and reasonably adequate dispersal of aid, all things considered. Certainly, the dozen camps in the city of Port Blair, the capital city of Andamans are testimony. A shortcoming of aid delivery has been the lack of disaggregating figures of categories of recipients in order to streamline the system. The arrival of the Delhi NGO Prayas on the scene, with its high-profile architect Amod Kanth, the senior police officer, forcing the pace has helped address this to an extent.

Since about 40 per cent of all victims are thought to be children, the helpline established by Prayas is expected to become a channel for targeted aid. This is in line with Prayas’ experience following the Gujarat earthquake. The scale and nature of the overall aid effort reflects the national mood and response to the disaster. For instance, about 200 doctors from all parts of the country are already in relief camps as volunteers.

But going beyond relief, real rehabilitation is expected to be a long-drawn and very costly affair. Almost all structures, including homes, in the Nicobar group have been destroyed. Just the re-building of jetties for civilian vessels, will cost Rs 500 crore, senior officials estimate. Without the arrival of these vessels, the day-to-day quantum of supplies cannot be reached to the islands from the mainland. The infrastructure has been badly hit as the sea devastated everything in its way for upward of a kilometre beyond the shoreline, knocking down nearly all concrete structures and carrying them into its scary depths.

Sahay, a journalist, writes for THT from New Delhi