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'For us it's enough you come. Again and again'

Though compensation efforts have been painstaking, everybody wishes things moved faster on every front

india Updated: Dec 25, 2005 03:56 IST

As I stand here on the balcony of the Bay Island Hotel in Port Blair, my mind goes back to almost a year ago, to a conversation I had with a civil servant in the Andaman & Nicobar administration. It was December 29, 2004. I had landed the morning before with writer Amitav Ghosh, who had been commissioned by The Hindu to write a piece on the tsunami, and I, well I was there just to help. Or so I thought.

Because here I was on the phone with one of the most arrogant human beings I had ever spoken to. “Why are you here?” this civil servant asked belligerently over the phone. Before I could answer, he continued. “What do you think you can achieve here? You think you can do more than the administration? How much money will you bring here? 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 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, I will tell you everything that is needed. Then you make your list and submit it.”

“But,” I continued patiently, “I will need to travel to other islands. 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). I will tell you all you need to know”. I hung up and stood in silence, shocked. Amitav, who 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 and work in south India?” Not so much as a reaction to the taunting from the IAS officer, but because something told me this was going to be a real challenge to my rush of idealism and concern, I didn’t. Today, after a year of extremely modest contributions in the form of relief and rehabilitation efforts (which continue), I am profoundly happy to have stuck it out, and not in the least unhappy that that offensive civil servant has since been transferred.

The question I get asked all the time is: What is the situation today? Like all things in India, there is no simple answer. Though the relief and compensation efforts of the government were initially reported as being chaotic, the truth is, after the first few weeks of logistical madness, compensation efforts have been painstaking. While the erection of temporary housing was speedy, its design was appalling, showing absolutely no understanding of the climatic and cultural conditions on the islands. On the other hand, the administration has shown more empathy when it comes to the design of the permanent shelters. Yet everybody wishes things moved faster on that front. Indeed, on every front.

To appreciate the enormity of the meaning of these words you need to understand how things operate here. Historically the islands have been heavily controlled by the government to safeguard tribal and defence interests. Though the present administration is taking steps to promote tourism, tribal laws of the land stand strictly and justifiably in place. So, unlike in 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, helicopter…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 a flight to London costs less), then you understand that while there were once over a hundred NGOs operating on the ground in south India, 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 up 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 size of the stone you can throw in. Ask any NGO working in the Andamans and they will echo this sentiment. Suffice to say that the present civil administration under the active and accessible Chief Secretary DS Negi, has been unfussily co-operative.

And this trip, (my tenth, an airport officer reminded me), is going to be special. I can feel it already. Not because all is hunky dory on the islands. Not because every trace of the emotional devastation has been erased. But because I have made friends on these islands. Friends like Justin Simon, the tribal captain of Hatoi village in the Camorta group of islands, who generally speaks a language I do not understand, but one day, in broken Hindi said to me, “It is good that you have sent us a Tata 206. We did not have one till now. But it is not necessary. For us it is enough that you come. Again and again.”

First Published: Dec 25, 2005 02:17 IST