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February - March 2005
Nature at its worst; humanity at its best
In cosmic terms, the earthquake in the Indian Ocean near Sumatra was of little significance –merely a small adjustment of the Indian tectonic plate with the Burma plate. About 1,200km of the edge of the Burma plate snapped, thus forcing a massive displacement of water in the Indian Ocean. The Indian plate, according to scientists, moves northeast about 6cm a year. When the stress builds up there is that inevitable collision. This time the slide between the two plates was no less than 15m.
The intensity of the earthquake was among the highest ever recorded, measuring nine on the Richter scale. The Indian Ocean plunged and then grew creating a tsunami of immense energy that engulfed people in places thousands of miles away from the epicentre north of Sumatra. Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives and Somalia were all affected. Moving at a speed of 600 to 800 km per hour, the highly energised waves destroyed all that lay in their path. The Japanese word tsunami, meaning ‘harbour wave’, became synonymous with sea demons destroying mortals.
All of a sudden benign nature turned malignant, testifying to the frailty of human life on earth. Man in his ignorance considers himself the master of this earth. Rarely he realises that little accidents of geophysics can crush him like an insect or toss him around like a straw in a gale. How helpless! Human beings, nevertheless, know how to survive such trauma. Man’s benevolent inner nature, his spirit, comes out strongest when faced with the adversity of a catastrophe.
In every community where the tsunami struck, from Thailand to the Maldives, there were instances of human stoicism, selfless support and sympathy for those who perished. It was as if the world had suddenly been awakened to the frailty of human existence on earth. The planet seemed so small. The rich countries of the West responded as if the destruction was not far away in the Indian Ocean, but in their very own back garden. Western governments, slower to respond than their citizens, nevertheless realised that the destructive forces of nature make little distinction between rich and poor.
This coming together of humanity is an opportunity which may bring closer the day when the rich and the poor nations of the world bring, in a concerted effort, the elimination of poverty from the face of this earth. On an international level, the rich nations, under the auspices of the UNO, can generate funds which will help in breaking the cycles of poverty, famine, malnutrition, disease, and ignorance. The partnership between the rich and the poor should not be based on the dominance of one over the other. It has to be a bondage of friendship based on mutual respect and equal partnership in sharing the scarce resources of the planet earth, our motherland.
The government of India, it is sad to comment, has come out worst in this sad hour for humanity. It was in India’s backyard that nature struck a severe blow, as it had done a few years ago in Gujarat. Despite fifty-seven years of independence from the foreign rule, the government of India lacked the will to establish any sort of warning system in the Indian Ocean to minimise the impact of such a disaster. Even after the calamity had struck, the ministers and bureaucrats in New Delhi were at a loss as to the future course of their policy. Democracy should not lead to apathy or incompetence. Unfortunately in India, the democratic system has degenerated into a sluggish bureaucracy led by selfish and short-sighted politicians who thrive on the ignorance and poverty of their voters.
There was a time in the history of India when, in the countries around the Indian Ocean leading up to Thailand and Japan in the East, Indian civilisation had, through trade, spread its benign cultural influence and blessed these lands with peace and prosperity. In the last fifty years India could have generated a genuine partnership with the countries around the Indian Ocean for the development of the natural resources the ocean provides, supporting each other in the event of a calamity by putting in place a technically foolproof early warning system. Such visionary ideas seemed to be beyond the ken of post-independent leadership leadership in India.
At present, there is the immediate need of medical help, shelter and food before the monsoon season sets in. There should be proper co-ordination of help from all sources. The government should help not only Indian states but find resources to help Sri Lanka and Indonesia, whose losses are far worse than those of India. An international body of Indian Ocean states should be formed to regulate trade, defend sea routes against pirates and terrorists and to provide early warning systems against natural disasters in the region. It is never too late.