At 6.29 am, on the morning of December 26, 2004 an undersea earthquake erupts in Sumatra, triggering off tidal waves called tsunami. A minute later, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) gets the news. In 15 minutes, IMD tracks the tsunami to the Indonesian coastline. But they make no attempt to issue warnings to people on the Indian coast for, by rule, the tsunami has occurred beyond Indian waters. At 7.50 am, the tsunami hits Car Nicobar. The island is almost wiped out. Then the tidal waves head for the southern coast of India. At 8.50 am, Tamil Nadu is hit.
It is only at 8.31 am that IMD informs the Crisis Management Group (CMG). For two hours, information crawls. In these crucial hours, fishermen out on their boats, fishing communities in their villages, morning walkers on Chennai’s Marina beach, tourists and pilgrims, all go under as wave after giant wave hits them and flings them into the sea. In a single morning, over 14, 000 people die, many go missing and and a million lose their means to livelihood. Warned in time, they could have lived.
The tribal communities of the Andaman islands, with no access to modern warning systems, did better. They saw the disturbed marine life, listened to the cries of the sea birds and interpreted that some great danger was coming. A natural methodolgy, perfected over centuries of kinship with the elements. So they got off the beaches and retreated into the woods. And survived the tsunami, intact.
The severe impact of the tsunami was worsened by the state of the coastal environment. Over the years, the natural protectors along the coast, like sand dunes and mangrove forests, have been consistently disturbed and in some places, even destroyed. Regulations have been flouted everywhere; habitation allowed even in the first 200 metres, from hotels with a sea view to an air force base almost on the water to the many settlements, homes to hundreds who drowned.
Following the unparalled tragedy that has killed over 150,000 across the world, particularly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, tsunami is the new word on the world’s mind. But something worse could happen. What is the state of our disaster preparedness? At one end is the scientific establishment, at the other, the administration on the ground.
How prepared are they and how can we ensure that they act on time and do the needful? Are our systems up to it? Do we need to be part of a global combat network? With 22 states and union territories on the official list of disaster-prone areas, who’s next? India cannot afford to take any more chances. We must be battle ready now.