Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

World Judging Wealthy Nations By How They Respond To Catastrophe

by Ranjit Devraj

How Bush Can Show America's Not Stingy

(IPS) NEW DELHI, -- Last Sunday's undersea earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter triggered off killer waves, jolted the earth off its axis and permanently altered the map of Asia, say geologists. But it still found the wealthier nations of this shared planet reluctant to loosen their purse strings and help millions of fellow travellers get back on an even keel.

After five days and accusations of "stinginess," U.S. President George W. Bush, sometimes referred to as the president of the planet, got round to announcing a ten-fold increase in the original offer of a paltry $35 million (he started off with a $15 million offer) in relief for survivors of one of the worst natural disasters to visit mankind.

In contrast, India though itself stricken by the tsunami, lost no time in pledging $25 million in financial aid to Sri Lanka (which has reported close to 30,000 deaths) and dispatching aircraft and warships laden with essential supplies and helicopters to its stricken South Asian neighbor. Indian help was also sent to the Maldives and to the worst-hit Indonesia.

"I want to thank the government of India for the magnificent support they have given us very early even when India itself was struggling with the same problem as us," Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga told the New Delhi-based television channel NDTV24x7 in an interview in Colombo on Saturday.

Kumaratunga said during the interview that when she asked Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh if he could spare the funds when southern India was badly devastated, the response from the former World Bank economist and champion of globalization was: "We have to share this tragedy."

That vision of sharing was missing in the $350 million pledged by Washington which critics point out looks like small change compared to the more than $150 billion spent, so far, on the proclaimed aim of bringing democracy to Iraq.

U.S. Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy, said he "went through the roof when I heard them bragging about $35 million. We spend $35 million before breakfast in Iraq."

And if there is more money forthcoming than the $2 billion already pledged by the 'coalition of the willing' it would undoubtedly have to do with cynical calculations that here was an opportunity to win favor with Indonesia, where close to 100,000 people died and which happens to have the world's largest Muslim population -- and where the CIA played a grisly role in the bloody overthrow of Sukarno in 1965.

Yet western reluctance to part with money for relief is only part of the story considering that India is equally reluctant to accept aid and has stuck to traditional policy, that can be traced to previous Cold War suspicions of refusing international support for badly needed disaster relief.

Before the finger pointing starts on why there was no adequate warning to India, a stark fact has to be borne in mind.

Political rather than geological fault lines is what separates the Bay of Bengal from the Pacific Ocean. This has been responsible for India and Sri Lanka staying so disastrously out of the Pacific tsunami warning system that is led by the U.S. and Japan.

For too many decades, India has been on a self-reliant trip which has resulted in the ossification of its scientific structures and overdependence of its military on technology and hardware sourced from the former Soviet Union.

"There is a little doubt that after the Dec. 26 tsunami, India will have to enter an international collaborative program against a similar event in the future," said H.N. Srivastava, one of India's leading disaster management experts.

Eddie Bernard, director of the Seattle-based Pacfic Marine Environmental Laboratory, has been quoted by the 'Indian Express' as saying that it is possible to take advantage of U.S. expertise and construct a system to monitor the Indian Ocean quickly.

"To share costs among agencies, the equipment can be used for several scientific purposes -- the two agencies must agree how to coordinate," he said.

For now, activists and volunteers are complaining that India has not been doing a particularly good job of getting relief to southern Tamil Nadu state or to its far-flung Andaman and Nicobar islands, close to the epicenter of the quake. These Indian territories accounted for 10,000 of the dead.

"The tsunamis proves once again our pathetic national record of emergency unpreparedness. Almost a week after the disaster bloated human bodies and animal carcasses are rotting on the open beaches and posing a health hazard," said S.P. Udayakumar, convenor of the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) that is located in Nagercoil town close to the southern tip of the peninsula.

Udayakumar is angry that officials of the Kalpakkam nuclear power station on the coast close to Chennai city first bragged about how they had shut down the plant on hearing of the earthquake near Sumatra and then retracted after people started asking them why they had not then passed on the information to other government agencies and the public.

It took two hours for the tsunami to travel the 1,200 kilometers from the epicenter of the undersea quake off the northern tip Sumatra island in Indonesia and reach the Sri Lankan and Indian shores -- precious time which could have been used to activate cyclone warning systems that are already in place.

"When the sea suddenly retreated poor people actually ran out to collect fish and crabs and were totally unprepared for the wall of water that came back swallowing not only them but entire villages and even people living in the posh residential complexes built for the engineers and staff of the Kalpakkam nuclear complex," Udayakumar told IPS.

Udayakumar said people are now demanding to know how a Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) that is unable to protect its own men and machines from a natural disaster is ever going to protect, evacuate and rehabilitate local populations in the event of accidents or even an armed attack on one of the several nuclear plants sited on the Tamil Nadu coast.

But even more uncomfortable questions are being raized about the Andaman and Nicobar islands, an archipelago some 12,000 kilometers from the mainland. Many fear an anthropological disaster there and indicate that a number of unique tribes could have been wiped out, because the islands had no high ground to which the aboriginals could have escaped the tsunami.

As it is, most of the territory is out of bounds for foreigners and even Indian citizens unless on special permits.

"It is important for international agencies to work closely and coordinate with the government of India," said Steve Hollingworth, head of the international aid group CARE, hitting out at the reluctance of Indian authorities to grant permission for groups such as his to begin relief work on the islands.

Nonetheless, there are signs of changing mindsets.

On Dec. 30, India agreed to be part of a core group along with Japan, Canada and Australia to help coordinate efforts with the UN and "avoid duplication of efforts, identify gaps in the relief process and find ways and means to address deficiencies."

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor December 30, 2004 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.