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India Takes Major Role In Sri Lanka Relief Effort

Aid Is Sign of Nation's Emergence as Regional Power

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A20

GALLE, Sri Lanka -- Earlier this month, the USS Bonhomme Richard, a Navy helicopter carrier, was steaming toward Sri Lanka to augment U.S. forces helping survivors of the Dec. 26 tsunami when it suddenly changed course for Indonesia. Additional U.S. troops were no longer needed in Sri Lanka, because the Indian military had been dispatched to help.

Over the last three weeks, India has deployed 14 ships, nearly 1,000 military personnel and several dozen helicopters and airplanes to its devastated island neighbor, where more than 30,000 people died in the waves that followed the undersea earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Indian officials describe the relief mission as the largest outside their borders since independence from Britain in 1947.

Indian navy Cmdr. G. Prakash on the deck of the Taragiri, an anti-submarine frigate in Sri Lanka aiding relief efforts. "You finally feel like you're burning diesel for a cause," he said. (John Lancaster -- The Washington Post)

"It's fantastic," said Indian navy Cmdr. G. Prakash, captain of the anti-submarine frigate Taragiri, berthed at this historic port city on Sri Lanka's heavily damaged southwestern coast. "You finally feel like you're burning diesel for a cause."

In the view of many analysts, India's generous response to the tsunami -- not just on its own damaged coastline but beyond -- has underscored the country's emergence in recent years as an increasingly potent diplomatic and economic power.

It also has highlighted the growing capability of the Indian military as well as its improving ties to other major powers with interests in the region, particularly the United States.

"This is a huge shift," C. Raja Mohan, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said in a telephone interview. "What you're seeing is the Indian ability to constitute collective regional security arrangements. The attitude has shifted from being a lone ranger to . . . engagement with all the major powers."

During the first decades after independence, which coincided with the Cold War, India pursued a policy of diplomatic nonalignment that often was perceived as isolationism. The country had testy relations with the United States and resented U.S. influence in the Indian Ocean region. At the same time, India lacked the resources to assert itself militarily, was preoccupied by its rivalry with Pakistan and was forced by the poverty of its vast population to accept aid from foreign donors.

During the 1990s, however, India liberalized its economy and has begun to reap benefits from globalization, especially in services such as software development and other forms of outsourcing. It also has pursued closer diplomatic and military ties with the United States, with which it held the first of several military exercises in May 2002.

Although India still accepts some foreign aid, such help is declining in importance with the country's rapid economic growth. In the last few years, India has begun to transform itself into a donor nation, offering lines of credit to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere.

Those trends converged in shaping India's response to the tsunami. Although the waves caused immense damage to coastal areas in India, where more than 10,000 people died, the Indian government not only turned down offers of outside assistance but also dispatched ships and aid to Sri Lanka and the nearby Maldives, as well as to Indonesia. In addition, it has pledged $23 million for reconstruction in Sri Lanka.

"There was a spontaneous desire on the part of India to help," said Nirupama Rao, the Indian ambassador to Sri Lanka, who had been vacationing in India when she received a telephoned plea for assistance from Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse within hours of the disaster. Moreover, Rao added, "We had the resources and the capability to effect that kind of response."

The Indian government's response to the disaster on its own soil, by most accounts, was reasonably effective, particularly in Tamil Nadu state, which suffered the largest number of Indian casualties. By the second day of the disaster, the army was busy collecting bodies, running medical camps and building shelters. The military also has played a big role in the heavily damaged -- and strategically sensitive -- Andaman and Nicobar Islands, although Indian authorities have been criticized for barring foreign relief organizations from the area on security grounds.

In Sri Lanka, an Indian navy medical team arrived in Colombo within hours of the tsunami, and four ships docked at several ports around the country by the end of the following day, according to navy Capt. Suraj Berry, the Indian defense attaché in Colombo. A team of Indian divers, meanwhile, arrived in Galle to begin raising sunken vessels that were preventing relief ships from entering the port; with help from the Sri Lankan navy, the job was completed in eight days, said navy Lt. Ali Naqvi, who supervised the Indian divers.

"Initially we came for relief but we found most of the job was salvage," he said. "We had to do this thing fast."

Nearby, two Indian military doctors worked at a temporary clinic set up on the veranda of a colonial-era hotel, while Indian soldiers wielded shovels to build a latrine at a camp for displaced families. The army engineering unit had already completed a number of projects in the area, including restoring electricity to several government buildings that were inundated by the ocean surges, Maj. Girish Kumar said.

In a reflection of India's warming relations with the United States, both governments agreed after high-level contacts -- including a Dec. 29 conversation between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh -- to pool their military assets with those of Australia and Japan in response to the disaster.

Although coordination of relief efforts was subsequently ceded to the United Nations, India and its partners in the aid operation have continued to coordinate closely. Berry, the Indian defense attaché, has been holding daily meetings with his American counterpart as well as defense attaches from other countries involved in the relief effort, including, on occasion, Pakistan, which has sent medical specialists and other forms of assistance to Sri Lanka.

Although the USS Bonhomme Richard was diverted to Indonesia, about 1,400 U.S. military personnel are now involved in the relief operation in Sri Lanka. About half of them are aboard the USS Duluth, an amphibious ship now off Sri Lanka's east coast, said 2nd Lt. Eric Tausch, a Marine spokesman.

"We should avoid duplication," said Berry. "There was no point in doing the same thing."

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