By R. Balashankar in Chennai
The tsunami tragedy was unprecedented. It came as a shock, a huge hammer blow on our national psyche. It made a graveyard of the coastal belt along Kerala, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and engulfed almost half of the islands of the Andamans. The death toll is estimated at over ten thousand only in India and the loss of property unimaginable, beyond words.
But the response to the tragedy has been less than helpful. Aid and relief material have been pouring in. But there is no coordination in distributing them. The blame game is already on. The latest and most serious is the irresponsible manner in which the Home Ministry on December 30 issued a warning of a fresh tsumani attack in the coastal region, thereby forcing the survivors to scurry for cover, disrupting the relief operations beyond repair. What followed was a tug of war between the Home Minister, Shivraj Patil and Minister of State for Science and Technology, Kapil Sibal. They can score points, but what of the twin tragedy the hapless victims had to undergo?
The Minister of State for Environ-ment, A. Raja, made a survey of the affected areas, and as expected, he, belonging to the DMK combine in Tamil Nadu, met the Governor and blamed the AIADMK state government of total failure on the relief front. The state Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, who was the first to make an aerial survey of the havoc-stricken areas within two hours of the tsunami strike, is blaming the Centre of inadequate response. The Centre of course, is in total disarray, in response, policy perspective and co-ordination within. They are behaving as if they have no idea as to what struck them. In the melee, the focus is entirely on Chennai and surrounding areas, with Pondicherry, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and even Andamans pushed to the background.
The local administration is bogged down by the task of clearing the area and recovering the buried decomposing bodies. Co-ordination is required at the national level, with a great local and regional content. The politicians sitting in Delhi have no clue about handling disasters and thus can be of no help. By now, the network could have been in place, organising and directing the relief material to be sent to appropriate places. There is no point in sending money to people who have no means for a meal and change of clothes. They cannot be expected to fetch these from the market. Every conceivable organisation?be it the media or the NGO?is engaged in the task of collecting money. Where and how it is being delivered is not monitored or even co-ordinated.
Orphaned children, especially girls, need physical protection. A few hundred rupees in their hands only make them more vulnerable. Almost a week after the disaster, the national and state agencies have not addressed these questions. There is no organised registration centre where people can report about their missing, presumably dead, kith and kin. This would help in finding those who are alive. In an age when the information technology is supposed to rule the world, computerising such information, along with photographs, should have been possible by now. Agreed that the disaster is unprecedented?that'sprecisely why it calls for unprecedented thought and action.
The Swayamsevaks of the RSS were one of the first to reach the affected areas with relief, in terms of food packets and water. The Central ministers have visited those affected in a queue, one trying to outdo the other. There was a procession indeed?Pranab Mukherjee, Shivraj Patil, Dayanidhi Maran, Mani Shankar Iyer and P. Chidambaram. Making things worse, they were all giving different numbers of the victims. There was the reported and later denied statement of Pranab Mukherjee that India did not need aid from outside.
The Prime Minister'svisit was announced for December 28 and arrangements were made accordingly. But Sonia Gandhi was in Chennai on December 28. The Prime Minister rescheduled his visit for December 30, putting the state machinery, especially the police, into the same drill twice within a week. This, at a time when every available hand is required for relief work. One should specify what exactly all these visits accomplish. It was not as though they were camping in the area and working. They all arrived, viewed and left. The proof of their visit was recorded by the sound-bites in the TV camera and the airport press conference. It was all a classic case of disaster tourism.
A number of tourists had really walked into the death-trap of the tsunami. In Nagapattinam, there is a famous church called Velankanni. It is on the seashore, but beyond the clutches of the tsunami. When the roaring waves struck, prayers were on and the church was filled to capacity. They were all Keralites as the mass was being conducted in Malayalam. Had the disaster struck 10 minutes earlier, almost all of them would have been on the beaches, when the mass in Tamil was on. Instead, the Tamils and Malayalis changed places, with the result that most of the Tamilians who had come to the beaches after the Christmas mass were swallowed by the hungry waters. Nearly a thousand pilgrims were on the beach-front then.
The scientists have given it a name; the seismologists are looking for explanations; the governments are grappling with the numbers. But for the victims of tsunami, none of these matter. Those who survived the huge disaster from the seas are wondering how to pick up the threads of life; where to begin from. A majority of the victims in India are people who live by the sea and its beaches. For them, this has been the only succour till now. Will they go back to it; if not, then where else?
There was no hint of the enormity of the calamity for the people in Chennai the moment the tsunami hit. There were mild tremors, early in the morning, which everyone took in their stride. As the day wore on, the tragedy unfolded, revealing flattened settlements along the beaches, the ocean swallowing vast humanities who happened to be along its waters?walking, playing, sleeping, or just watching the sunrise. People living on the beaches did not think that anything was amiss when they saw unusually huge waves, as it was the full moon day and the tide might have been rising. But as the waves rolled in, crossing the lines, there was no time for escape.
The ocean is always cited as an example of self-control. Though it is huge and powerful, it never crosses its lines, they say. But this one did, and with what consequences! Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu is a routine victim of sea-storm twice a year?March and September?puyal, as we call it in Tamil. The low pressure in the ocean builds up; it rains incessantly for two-three days in the coastal areas. The storm either passes off quietly or blows up a few things here and there. Because of sufficient early warning, the fishermen are advised against venturing into the ocean and people are moved to safer areas. But the tsunami came without any warning, when it was least suspected. It literally crept in, with its dark footsteps, well-concealed. This time, Nagapattinam suffered unspeakable damage. Probably two generations of men and women have been wiped out. There are orphaned children and orphaned parents.
The ocean lashed with ferocity at the meeting land, retching from its bottom the dirt and the muck settled on it for years. Plastic, thermocol and slime were spewed with water. The boats that once swung on it were broken and tossed beyond. The unsuspecting children were pulled into the waters, to be given back as dead bodies later. The state governments stopped counting the bodies, because there were too many and the sea kept laying fresh ones on the shore daily. A number of people missing may never be found as their bodies might have surfaced elsewhere or simply been eaten up by the sea creatures.
This is not the time to score political points. Nor is it the time to air the blame game. The misery that has befallen thousands of people needs the support of the state, the fellow human beings and help from all over the globe. If the ruling parties in the Centre and the states set aside their political immediacy and work with all available hands, it would be paying the right homage to those who have perished. It would mean taking care of those who have luckily survived.