M A I N   N E W S

Living with fear, trauma in Emerald Isles
Sridhar K Chari
Tribune News Service

Portland, December 30
Queues of water buckets and bins line the street-side during daytime, as anxious residents wait for water tanks to reach them. In the night, while the more hardy and less fearful don’t mind being within buildings, many sleep out in the open. In the relief camps, the only smiles are on the faces of small children, too young to understand the magnitude of the tragedy that has hit their communities.

And fear is in everyone’s eyes. It erupts into panic on occasions, like today, when the Home Ministry’s warning was beamed out, and rumours of the sea coming in triggers chaos on the streets — people run, vehicles charge up narrow roads, and the sounds of people shouting intermingles with that of blaring horns and screeching brakes.

A woman on a two-wheeler is sobbing. “My children, where are my children…No, no they are not there, the building is locked.” Two young men assure her that they will look around and get the kids back.

Dr Poonam Arora has moved out of her home with her entire family into a government run resort, which is on slightly higher ground. Says her husband, Girish Arora, a major trader in the region: “This way I feel that my family is safe. They can at least run out to safety. We are all out, working for relief efforts. The administration’s response has been totally inadequate.” Red tape is a problem. “Some medicines have arrived in an Air Force plane, and they just sat there. I offered our trucks, but they wouldn’t clear it without papers etc.”

He adds: “I am the exclusive distributor for 35 FMCG companies, and I need to unload containers of supplies. People are simply buying and hoarding stuff like mineral water. We should try and ensure that there is no shortage,” says Girish. Two lakh tablets of chlorine for water purification are arriving tomorrow.

Medical facilities are poor, says Dr Poonam. “I actually flew to Calcutta to attend to a burn. The only hospital here is unable to cope. As it is, doctors here are isolated from our peer communities, and we are unable to keep ourselves updated. Things are a mess.”

The relief camps are functioning more because of locals efforts, than the administration, says Girish.

Administration bashing is to be expected in times like this, when the system finds itself struggling to cope. While officials, to their credit, are pulling out all stops, dissatisfaction seems widespread.

Mohamed Jadwet, President of the Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industry, talks about the huge economic losses, and blames the administration for inadequate reponse. As does his colleague Mehrzad Akhtarkhavari, who, like Girish, say the death toll is likely to be much higher than the administration admits. That again, is a widespread assertion. The Aroras run several hotels in the area, and Dr Poonam is also worried about the impact on tourism — something that the islands rely on to a large extent. Even in her fear (when will the quake strike again, can’t there be some warnings?!) she pleads: “Please don’t hype up what has happened here. We need tourism.”

Many prominent locals are pleading for international aid. “If this administration admits the magnitude of what has happened, we might get it,” says trader Girish Arora, as do the officials of the local Chamber of Commerce.

But the Government of India has indicated that local resources are sufficient, and the local administration is pulling the same line. 



When radio amateurs came to rescue of victims
Ramesh Ramachandran
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 30
Call it providence but the timely help rendered by a team of amateur radio operators, who happened to be in Port Blair on an expedition, was godsend for the local administration after the tidal waves hit the islands early Sunday morning.

With no telecommunication links or electricity in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, it was this team of radio amateurs led by Ms Bharathi Prasad that bridged the communication gap and helped relay messages to the mainland and back. A chief coordinator of the National Institute of Amateur Radio based in New Delhi, Ms Bharathi Prasad had led a team of five — her husband D.N. Prasad, son Varun Sastry, Ram Mohan and Sarath Babu, all licensed HAM operators — to the Andamans on a month-long expedition.

Called DXpedition (DX stands for distant contacts, in amateur radio parlance), the team set up three stations in Port Blair. Their mission: To make contact from the island with as many HAMs across the world as would be possible in 30 days’ time. Mr Prasad, a senior government official, and his 15-year-old son Varun, a student of DPS, R.K. Puram, reached Port Blair on December 1. While Mr Prasad and his son returned to New Delhi, Bharathi, Sarath Babu and Ram Mohan stayed on. As fate would have it, the tsunamis struck Sunday morning.

“Immediately after the tidal waves struck the islands, the team suspended DXpedition and shifted quickly to emergency mode,” Mr Prasad and Varun told The Tribune this afternoon. Immediately, the team contacted the Deputy Commissioner’s office at Port Blair. “By early afternoon, they set up the terminal outside the hotel where they were staying and began relaying messages of people wanting to tell their relatives back home about their safety,” Mr Prasad said.

That was how Dr Karan Singh Chauhan, who teaches in a college in Delhi, and Mr Deepak Singh Shekhawat got in touch with their homes in New Delhi and Rajasthan, respectively. Bharathi was also able to relay a message to a foreigner’s wife in Thailand that he was all right.

In Dr Chauhan’s case, Bharathi (VU4RBI is her call sign) established contact with Sandeep Baruah (VU2NCT), an amateur radio enthusiast who works in a government organisation in New Delhi, who called up Dr Chauhan’s home and conveyed the news about his well-being.

They are not alone. With the help of Mr Baruah in Delhi, Bharathi’s team managed to communicate to Rafi’s family in Kerala and T. Sreekumar’s relatives in Kerala and Saudi Arabia about their whereabouts in Port Blair and elsewhere.

“It was sheer coincidence that Ms Bharathi and her team were there when the tsunami struck. She had been seeking permission from the government for a long time but it was granted only recently,” recalled Master Varun, sitting at the Prasads’ residence in R.K. Puram.

“Providentially, the hotel where they were all putting up had generator sets to power the radio equipment. That proved crucial for emergency communication activities,” Mr Prasad added. “They were to return tomorrow but they might stay on for some more time.”

Both Mr Prasad and Mr Baruah agree that it was fortuitous that the VU4RBI DXpedition was under way when the disaster struck. “If one takes a positive look at the turn of events, it could be said that the government has realised the utility of amateur radio in difficult times,” they said.


Tribal populations safe, says Coast Guard D-G
Sridhar K. Chari
Tribune News Service

Port Blair, December 30
Even as uncertainty continues to prevail over the fate of the large population in the Southern Nicobar islands, including Car Nicobar, the worst affected, the Coast Guard Director-General Vice-Admiral Arun Kumar Singh stated today that the tribal populations were safe, and reports of them having been made extinct were “rubbish.”

The Director-General, who came here today in the morning, conducted a survey of all islands. “I landed on some of them, and others did low over-flights. Ships and aeroplanes of all services are there in full strength, and on the basis of my assessment, tribals in the northern islands are safe, and no casualties have been reported from the Greater Nicobar tribes in the south.”

The Jarawas, who live in the Middle Andamans have not been affected, he said. As for the hostile Sentinelese who live on the North and South Sentinel islands, he said groups of them had been spotted from aircraft. “They don’t allow outsiders to come in. They, in fact threw stones at the helicopter.”

As for the Ongis who live in Little Andaman, he said: “This island, especially around the Hut Bay area, has taken casualties, but there are no Ongis among the dead.” As for the Shompens and the Holchus who live in Great Nicobar, way down south, he said: “Our people are there now, and no casualties have been reported. I can say that the aboriginals overall are safe.”

With regard to the Nicobarese, who have taken huge casualties, especially in Car Nicobar, he said they could no longer be considered an indigenous and homogenous tribe, as they had intermixed with settlers from the mainland.

He declined to make an estimation of the number of people dead but he admitted that it was likely to be higher than the current numbers being put out. “This place is as badly or even more affected than Tamil Nadu.”

Apart from Car Nicobar, the islands of Katchal, Teressa, Chowra, Kondul and Camorta in the Southern Nicobar islands, had been severely affected, he said. Katchal alone has a population of 5072, while Teressa has 1779, and Chowra 1225, as per the 2001 census. Relief efforts have reached these islands only yesterday. The Coast Guard alone has evacuated more than 669 persons from all over the Andaman and Nicobar islands.


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