The 26 December earthquake occurred at the junction of the India, Burma, and Australia continental plates. The main movement was of the Indian plate pushing under the Burma plate—the two plates form a rough north-south junction and India’s Andaman & Nicobar Island chain lies along this junction
For this reason the massive energy released by the 9.0 magnitude quake spread up and outward in an east-west direction, first lashing the A&N Islands and the Aceh province of Indonesia. Due to the east-west direction, the waves lashed Sri Lanka and went on to cause damage as far west as the African coastline. But closer regions in the north, like the Indian states of Orissa and West Bengal, and the neighboring country of Bangladesh, barely felt any ripples.
Due to a technical snag in their computers, India’s meteorological department, which had detected the quake on time, could not properly analyze its data. But even if they had analyzed and transmitted this data through the bureaucratic chain, it would not have made any difference due to the lack of understanding about Tsunamis, which had been practically non-existent in the Indian Ocean.
Report of the quake first came from the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at the A&N Islands and was relayed to the government by the IAF chief at 7:30 a.m. While the unified Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) engaged in search and rescue, no one either in the armed forces or the government expected the quake to generate giant tidal waves. According to one government official, “The word Tsunami just did not exist in our vocabulary.”
So both the government machinery and the people living in the coastal districts were blissfully unaware of the destructive force hurtling towards them.
- Response Mechanism: the National Disaster Management Group, which comes under the Home Ministry and works with a network of relief commissioners in the states, is the agency tasked with the distribution of relief material. The National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC), comprising various department heads and the three defence chiefs, meets to face the challenges of a nationwide disaster or fallout, and plan an emergency response. The Crisis Management Group, comprising secretaries from six strategic ministries (power, telecom, home, defence, shipping, and rural development) and headed by the Cabinet Secretary, converts this plan into action. This unwieldy structure is normally geared to respond to natural calamities on land that are limited to one state. Add to this the general ignorance about Tsunamis and the destruction of communication links, and we had an unforgivable delay in the dispatch of rescue mission and relief material, which could have saved countless lives in the crucial first day of the Tsunami disaster.
- Policy: the vast Indian landmass experiences a variety of natural calamities——earthquakes, floods, and cyclones. And yet there is no defined policy or organization to deal with these disasters. This is not entirely due to apathy but also because of sensitivities in center-state relations, legal issues, and lack of implementation. After the terrible Gujarat earthquake of 2001, the NDA government had set up the Sharad Pawar Committee to formulate a disaster management plan. The committee presented its recommendations, accepted in full by the government, in June 2003——the unstated premise under which it worked was that disasters would be limited to one state. This has been the case in the past for each disaster and, in any case, most Indian states are as large as south-east Asian and European countries. The implementation of the committee recommendations were thus left to the states, most of whom did not even respond to the center’s directions. On other points, like the raising of 144 battalions paramilitary dedicated purely to search and rescue, only six states had trained and raised a mere 8 battalions! Even on the question of setting up state-level Disaster Management Authorities there was no implementation. And it was only in 2005 that the recommended National Disaster Management Act was put in place by the center.
- Decision Making: but even this committee failed to recommend a National Emergency Response Authority, which has still not come about to date even after the experience of the Tsunami. Its members would be dedicated purely to the task tackling national emergencies; unlike the present members of the NCMC whose members (bureaucrats and military officers) are already burdened with their existing jobs. The contrast with the unified command of the armed forces shows clearly in the prompt damage assessment, search and rescue, and provision of relief.
- Early Warning System: the 26-nation Tsunami Warning System has been in place in the Pacific Ocean since 1965, due to the frequent Tsunamis in that region. The two isolated Tsunamis in a century were so distant from public, and even scientific, memory that the word itself was absent from the lexicon of countries in the Indian Ocean region. With an advance warning of two or three hours, people from the coastal districts in countries like India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, could have been evacuated to safety. The UNESCO finally set up a Tsunami Warning System in 2005, of which India is also a part. But India has also chosen to upgrade its own warning systems, communication links, and infrastructure——speaking in the Rajya Sabha the Minister for Science and Technology, Kapil Sibal, declared that the early warning system would only be operational in September 2007. The tide measuring gauges and bottom pressure recorders would transmit data via satellite in real time with the efforts of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
Conclusion: some of the other lessons emerging from the response to the crisis are: the construction of homes built with RCC; the protection and creation of coastal swamps, mangroves, and embankments to absorb the force of the tides; facility for localized electricity supply (through biomass or solar power); subsidies to private hospitals (which had to turn away excess patients while the armed forces set up temporary hospital facilities from their own resources); relief sensitivities (the clothing and food delivered to fishermen was discarded because these self-reliant people wished to first restore their homes and boats). A telling remark on how officialdom does not keep pace with the times was the website for the Prime Minister’s Tsunami Relief Fund, which did not have a facility for online payment for the first three days (!) of the Tsunami crisis——after complaints this was finally set up in conjunction with Citibank and the online web portal Sify.
2. Interestingly the state of Andhra Pradesh was prompt in delivering aid to people in its coastal districts in the Tsunami crisis, precisely due to this fact. Since these coastal districts suffer annually from cyclones, there is already a disaster response mechanism in place, and the officials are practiced in the provision of aid and rehabilitation.