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Social Concerns


Tsunami: India could have minimised casualty

In India, very few people have heard the word Tsunami, let alone even remotely understand what these harbour waves could do. Till that Sunday morning – December 26 2004 – hardly anybody had the vaguest of inclination of the destructive ability of the sea. Of course, one has read about the angry earth in geographic and other nature magazines. But beyond this, there was little knowledge of what a tsunami could do on India’s long coasts. 

I had been to the beach that Sunday morning, had seen a bright sun, clear blue skies and a deceptively calm ocean. The Bay of Bengal, on whose shores lie the southern Indian city of Madras, seemed so serenely calm that I could not imagine that a quarter of an hour later, waves would roar in anger and rush inland in a dance of death and destruction.

 I came away before the tsunami struck. Just 15 minutes before. But not many others, who lingered on feeling the sand and the breeze. After all, it was a Sunday morning and there was no pressure to get home and to get to work.

Among these many others, there were children, and I distinctly remember a group of boys playing cricket on the sand. These little boys, I am told, were swallowed by the giant waves that threatened to even ravage some of the historic buildings on Madras’ sea front.

There were others, elderly couples, food vendors and fishermen, who died in Madras, adding up to the 15,000 mostly women and children who were killed in India that black Sunday. We still have about many people missing in a tragedy that has but few parallels in history.

The question that now disturbs and angers the common man in India is whether at all the toll could have been minimised. Experts believe it could have been.

Environmentalists aver that the devastation could have been far less had the various State governments and the Central government paid heed to the many warnings about the destruction of coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes along India’s coast. They are the natural barriers against oceanic turbulence.

The specialists refer to the Maldives as an excellent example of what they are trying to say. This is small nation of nearly 2000 islands, and each is situated about three feet above the sea level. But, here the coral reefs absorbed the impact of the killer waves and restricted human death toll to just 85. And, mind you, the Maldives has no high ground to offer refuge.

In India, despite its far greater land mass and high ground, the casualty was frighteningly high. The reason: the natural buffers are no longer in place. Debi Goenka of the Bombay Environmental Action Group says: “Unsustainable development, including deliberate land reclamation for urban and industrial use, and widespread shrimp farming have led to the wiping out of mangrove forests”. Nick Nuttall of United Nations Environment Program agrees:  “Mangrove swamps have disappeared rapidly in recent decades in tropical areas such as India…For low-lying coastal regions and small islands, a lot of protection comes from coral reefs, beaches and mangrove swamps. The last decade has seen such swamps being cleared for promoting tourism”.

In India, there were some zones that suffered surprisingly little in comparison. Pichavaram and Muthupet in the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu – which was the worst hit State in the country -- escaped with far fewer deaths and minimal loss to property.

In 1999, a terrifying cyclone hit the eastern Indian State of Orissa, but the coastal villages adjoining large mangrove formations, were left unscathed while the rest of the State lay battered.

Although India has strict rules governing its coastal zones, where no construction is allowed within 500 metres of the high tide line, the ecosystems in these areas are still sadly neglected. What is worse, they are being systematically and rampantly destroyed.

Some of the worst offenders are hotels: since the government notification on coastal area regulation came into effect in 1991, some 75 hotel projects have come up in Goa, on the western Indian coast, in violation of the Act. This is only one example. There are several more.

The noted agriculturist and environmentalist, M.S. Swaminathan, based in Madras and who heads a panel to review the coastal regulation scheme, assured the media recently that  “our intention is to strengthen the ecological security of India’s coasts”.

But, often, the Indian administration chooses to ignore expert advice. We now have updates on how the government chose to ignore recommendations and stayed out of tsunami warning systems. The Director of the National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organisation in Calcutta, Dr G.N. Saha, said that his institute had tracked seven years ago the possible epicenter of the December 26, 2004, tsunami and the probable paths the killer waves would take. He said that his team had mapped the “route” of the tsunami in the wake of the earthquake in Indonesia. “We had traced the road of the waves as they would travel to hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as well as the southern Indian coast”, he remarked the recently.

Yet, the Indian administration turned a blind eye to this prediction of sorts. Also, India decided to stay out of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, which could have given adequate notice of the impending disaster.  What was the reason for this? It was not technical. It was not even financial, but part of a larger ideology of self-reliance that India began to follow in the 1970s that later led to “scientific isolation”.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of internationalism and global cooperation disappeared after the country’s first Prime Minister died in the early 1960s. New Delhi adopted a rather inward-looking approach that bordered on self-denial. Added to this was the bogey that politicians of that day raised, the bogey of  “foreign hand”, which resulted in deep suspicion of anything foreign. This prevented useful collaboration in important areas such as science and technology.

Thus, India did not become a member of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System. Even China, despite its problems with the world community, the U.S. in particular, was quick to join this System.

Well, India paid for this foolishness with such a frightening figure of casualty.

(This story was posted on this website on January 26 2005) 

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