Friday, March 27, 2015

Revisiting the tsunami of Dec 2004; a post on dated Jan 3, 2005

Jan 3, 2005

The following letter was sent as a signed fax to the President's office and the PMO yesterday

Madhusree Mukerjee
To Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam
The President of India
Rashtrapati Bhavan
New Delhi

Dear Sir,
Half the population of the Nicobar Islands is swept away, and many smaller islands and shores remain inaccessible to this day. Bodies are yet to be disposed of. Thousands of people are living in daily contact with decomposing bodies, with little food, water or fuel, or access to news of their loved ones. Relief materials are piling up in Port Blair and at Chennai and Kolkata, but utter confusion prevails in their distribution. Ships cannot dock on any of the Nicobar Islands, so that dinghys are being used to approach the islands through rough waters, leading to woefully inadequate aid.

Even on Little Andaman, a few hours from Port Blair, where 25,000 people are living on very limited amounts of water, food and fuel, no relief materials reached for at least five days. The armed forces are doing their best, but they are not equipped to deal with a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude. A dire need prevails for doctors, experts in body disposal, water desalination, and other emergency relief providers. Injured, hungry, cold and thirsty people stranded on the Nicobars are no doubt dying by the hour. Crocodiles are feeding on corpses in Little Andaman and attacking the living. Added to this is the fact that a cholera epidemic hit the Nicobars in 2002; the bacillus exists on the islands, and for all we know is already taking hold.

Ships from Chennai or Kolkata typically take five days to reach Port Blair. Once there, materials need to be sorted and channeled onto ships and aircraft for ferrying to the Nicobar Islands. A command center has been set up, but will take days or weeks to overcome the bottleneck caused by overwhelming need and bureaucratic apathy, if it ever does. The aftermath of other disasters such as Bhopal generates little confidence that the administrators have the organizational and logistical capacity to discharge the enormous burdens they have assumed.

Mainland volunteers eager to help with expertise and materials are not being permitted to provide relief at the Nicobar Islands. They must be immediately allowed into Port Blair and also given the means to get to affected areas. We also urge you to reconsider the decision of Indian authorities not to allow foreign aid. International aid agencies are already ministering to survivors in Sumatra and Thailand, and even in Aceh the situation is coming under control. A US desalination ship is providing clean water in the Maldives; such a ship could be saving lives in the Nicobars. Materials and experts are daily flying from Thailand onto a US aircraft carrier off Sumatra for the relief effort onshore. From Thailand it would have taken-would take-no more than a few hours for international aid agencies, which are experienced in dealing with disasters, to airdrop supplies such as drinking water onto the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and to send medical help and experts for cleaning up the islands and making them habitable again.

India presumably does not want foreigners in this region because of defence concerns. But what is the point of defence if not to protect citizens? What security concern can possibly outweigh the need to save the lives of thousands?

In 1942, when a massive cyclone hit southern Bengal, killing more than 10,000, the British authorities did not send aid for weeks, and also prevented private agencies from functioning there. Their concern was security. Later, during the Bengal famine, they refused offers of grain from other countries, saying they had the situation under control; in truth, more than 2 million people died.

Today we are appalled at such callousness. Why should Indians in turn be handed the burden of similar guilt? The Nicobar catastrophe has the potential to double in magnitude. The government of India does not have the resources to deal with this crisis, and needs to put aside its pride and accept help if thousands of more lives are not to be lost.

Yours most sincerely,
Mahasweta Devi
Rupa Ganguly
Dr. Sita Venkateswar
Author, Development and Ethnocide: Colonial Practices in the Andaman Islands
Dr. Madhusree Mukerjee
Author, The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders

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