Vol 20. No. 3, March 2007
Moving on from a cataclysm
Text and Photographs by Pankaj Sekhsaria
If there is a single day for which the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will be forever remembered, it is undoubtedly 26 December 2004. For the small chain of islands located far from mainland India, this was a tryst with a cataclysm, as huge waves engulfed the coasts with unforgiving power and ferocity.
Official estimates suggest that nearly 3500 people were washed away on that day, while about 8000 hectares of horticultural and agricultural land were permanently submerged. Two years later, there are no clear answers as to how the recovery process is proceeding. Part of the reason for this is because the islands are an extremely complex place – geographically, logistically, demographically and culturally. Not only are the Nicobars distinctly unique from the Andamans, but there are substantial differences even between the islands that make up each group. The earthquake and tsunami of 2004 also meted out different treatments to the various islands – to their respective ecologies and to the human communities, if any, that inhabit them.
Less than 10 percent of the over 500 islands constituting the Andaman and Nicobar group have human communities. The rest are uninhabited. In more ways than one, then, the impact of December 2004 can only be considered a natural phenomenon. Indeed, it has been argued that this is precisely the type of event that could, over a geological timescale, have been responsible for creating the islands in the first place.
Due to a host of complex phenomena, it was the Nicobars that were the worst hit by the tsunami. Each and every member of the indigenous Nicobari community of nearly 40,000 was affected. And yes, the process of rehabilitation is far from over. It has, in fact, barely begun.
One of the least-known aspects of the disaster of December 2004 is the fact that the earthquake that catalysed the tsunami also caused a permanent and vast transformation to the coastline of the islands, particularly in the Nicobars. With a pivot located roughly around Port Blair, the Andaman Islands were thrust upwards by five feet in the extreme north, whereas the Nicobars subsided by anywhere from five to 15 feet. This is a permanent change, the likes of which are rarely, if ever, seen.