Tuesday, January 11, 2005

When the earth goes out of balance

Cyber Age/ND Batra/From The Statesman

A few days ago my neighbor Cindy called to say hello and asked if my family in India was doing okay. And the next day the school principal phoned to inquire about a little girl Medha Gopal in our neighborhood who had gone to India with her parents and had not reported back to the school. I was deeply touched; but if you multiply these small gestures by the millions of unheard voices, you would know how ordinary Americans feel about the massive tragedy. And they give generously. I explained to them what parts of India were ravaged by the tsunami and how the people were coping with it.

But the only way I could feel the pain and suffering of those who lost their children and other loved ones in the tsunami that struck death and destruction in the Indian Ocean communities was to ask myself, What if my family were there? In fact only last May my son and his friends were vacationing in one of the island holiday resorts in Thailand. The hypothetical question and the thought-experiment simply horrified me. I get creeps whenever I think about it. The tragedy became all the more made shocking by the daily flow of television images of floating corpses being hauled out from the ocean and carted away; grief-stricken parents holding their dead children in their arms; orphaned children lost in a sea of hopelessness, nowhere to go. Nature red in tooth and claw, no, sometime you cannot pour pain and suffering into a metaphor.

Distanced from the huge tragedy and yet feeling its pain vicariously, the only deed I could think of doing was to send a handful of dollars to the prime minister’s national relief fund, hoping that it would reach the needy. Someone would buy a boat or raise a new roof over her surviving family. And millions of people like me have been doing the same, out of compassion or just being thankful that we were not there. It could happen to us, the thought struck again and again. We are all in it together, as we were on 9/11, the man-made horrific event which in caparison, though spectacular, was puny in magnitude.

When the earth goes out of balance, as it happened on 26 December, boundaries disappear, fences collapse and sovereignties become meaningless. Everything is reduced to the least denominator, the survival by chance and of the fittest. The ocean that sustained life for millennia has done its terrible job of killing more than 150,000 people: in a heartbeat. Now the question is, Can we reach and lift someone from the rubbles and make him stand up and walk again? The nightmare for survivors has only just begun. Hundreds and hundreds of people who were injured while escaping the tsunami desperately need urgent medical care. Many need to be on the operating table to have their infected limbs amputated to save their lives. Malaria, dysentery, diarrhea, cholera and other infectious diseases that thrive on putrid water would in the long term be no less dangerous than the tsunami.

It requires more than writing a check from the comfort of one’s living room, so no one should underestimate the problem of logistics, of actually delivering help to the needy, keeping in mind the damaged or non-existent infrastructure, shortages of hospital equipments and medical instruments for performing life saving surgeries, and inadequate supply of clean drinking water and amenities for daily hygiene. International response in financial terms has been so quick and amazing, with most coming from Australia, Germany, Japan; and Uncle Sam, in spite of all the commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, offering a decent sum of $350 million and that’s apart from the sea and airborne infrastructure and manpower support for delivering help to the stricken people.

India has courageously stood up to manage the disaster and help Sri Lanka too, while politely declining to accept international aid. India’s self-help has diverted the international resources to the most stricken areas of Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The question is how far the international community would help the tsunami victims. Would they be abandoned once television cameras are not on them? I hope not.

Major powers are paying special attention to Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, in order to wean it away Arab-Islamic militants’ grip and establish a beachhead of political influence there. There is nothing morally wrong with combining humanitarian aid with diplomatic goals. The United States, EU and other major powers in the region including India, China, Japan and Australia have a genuine interest in the stability of Indonesia to fight Islamic terrorism. But other people who have suffered the tsunami devastation, particularly, Sri Lanka, should not be forgotten simply because they are not a terrorist threat to major powers as Islamic terrorist are.

Natural calamities of this magnitude require well-organized pre-emptive efforts on an international scale so that their adverse effect on human life is minimized. A substantial portion of the $ 4 billion pledged aid should be spent on extending the Pacific Ocean tsunami early warning system to the Indian Ocean. Although India has refused to accept international aid, it cannot afford to forget its responsibilities in the Indian Ocean and must take an aggressive lead in establishing not only the early warning system but also pre-emptive measures to minimize the impact of a natural disaster of this magnitude when the next time the Indian Ocean hiccups.


  1. Thank you, Professor Batra, for your very balanced appreciation of India's polite rejection of international aid for tsunami victims. I wish some local politicians who have been making uncharitable remarks about Manmohan Singh's correct decision would read your article.

  2. The column was published in The Statesman, a daily newspaper published from Calcutta and New Delhi. The column, Cyber Age, appears every Wednesday. Dr. Manmohan Singh is the best thing that happened to India after Nehru.
    Dr. Batra