Remembering the tsunami; revisiting the Andaman and Nicobar Islands one year later
It’s hard to believe but a year has gone by since the terrible devastation wreaked by the tsunami on December 26 last year. It certainly does not seem to be that long since I made my first trip to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, islands I knew next to nothing about but now know better than most parts of the world. Personally, the past twelve months have in many ways defined what relief and rehabilitation work entails for an Indian citizen committed to helping in the process.
Contrary to popular belief, the little recognition that an Indie actor enjoys worked not to my advantage but to my disadvantage when I first arrived in Port Blair. To say I was not made to feel welcome by some officers in the government administration would be an understatement. For some reason, the reaction of government officials involved in the thick of emergency relief operations to my presence there was clearly a negative, cynical one.
Any notions that I was being a little paranoid or giving myself too much importance were swiftly erased when one civil servant, who I shall not name, came right out and said it. "Why are you here?" he asked belligerently over the phone when I finally managed to get through to his understandably busy mobile number. Before I could answer, he continued. "What do you think you can achieve here? You think you can do more than the government? How much money will you bring here? You know we are going to get sanctions worth hundreds of crores from the government? Why don’t you write down a list of things you will undertake to carry out, sign it and send it to me so I can place it on record."
I gently tried to make him understand that I had no idea what I could offer to do as I had no idea what was needed. The answer was prompt. "No problem, ask me and I will tell you everything that is needed, then you make your list and submit it." "But," I continued as patiently as before, "I will need to travel to the other islands, make a first-hand appraisal of what the islanders need and then prepare a proposal to collect funds from prospective donors on the mainland. When one is making an appeal for money, funders are most interested in what you have seen on the ground…" "What is the need for that? I have seen it on the ground," (which he clearly had not – it would have been humanly and logistically impossible for him to have done that in a week, let alone in the two days that had transpired after the tsunami), "I will tell you all you need to know."
I hung up and stood in silence, shocked. Amitav Ghosh, the writer and friend who had travelled with me (and has since written a lucid, poignant piece on the aftermath of the tragedy) said, "You are going to find it very difficult here. Why don’t you go to South India and work there?"
To appreciate the true meaning behind Amitav’s words you need to understand how things operate in the union territory. Historically, the islands have been heavily controlled by the government to safeguard tribal and defence interests. And though the present administration under the lieutenant governor, Ram Kapse, is taking steps to promote tourism, the tribal laws of the land stand strictly and justifiably in place. So, unlike any other part of mainland India, even something as basic as travel to the Nicobar Islands (largely tribal) is only possible if the government issues you a (time-bound) tribal pass for a few days. If you factor in the distances (by ship to Car Nicobar? – anything up to two days; by helicopter? – an hour and a quarter) and the attendant expenses (it takes three flights totalling almost seven hours – a flight to London takes eight – to get to Camorta in the Nancowrie group of islands; the difference is that a flight to London costs less), then you understand that while there were once over a hundred NGOs operating on the ground in Nagapattinam, it has never gone beyond twenty in the Andamans. Hence Amitav’s words.
But that’s the beauty of India. When the odds seem stacked against you, you can use the almost-friendly chaos that is inherent in this country to go ahead and do your thing. You just have to do it quietly. The gentler you cast the stone into the pond, the larger the stone you can throw in. And you have to do it insistently. Refuse to stop turning up, refuse to stop offering your services, refuse to be shamed and sooner or later the most cynical civil servant will throw his or her hands up in defeat. Which is exactly what happened. Gradually, friendships were struck, travel permits were issued, official accommodation (where there was no other) was made available.
Today the scenario is vastly different. I will not go into the hard details of the various rehabilitation efforts made by both government and NGOs in the past twelve months in this piece but I assure you I will shed light on some extremely dedicated initiatives I have seen on those islands in articles to follow. Suffice to say that the present civil administration under the active, idea-rich and accessible chief secretary, DS Negi, has been unfussily cooperative. And although the work the group of NGOs that I work with and I have done is really negligible in the larger scheme of things, it is work done with stubbornness and dedication. So this month when I return to the islands on December 25, I will stand at the same spot where I put the phone down after speaking to the hubris-filled civil servant and smile. He has since been transferred. And I am still there.