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Envoy Defends India's Going It Alone

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; Page A17

India's ambassador to Washington, Ronen Sen, said yesterday that his country was able to handle its relief effort on its own following last month's tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which hit his country and 11 others, killing more than 150,000 people.

He defended his government's decision to decline international relief aid, which he said was neither an "insensitive response, nor was it snooty or arrogant, but a matter of capability, timely reaction and pride."

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.

"It is a fact" that the Indian navy has the largest presence in the Indian Ocean and could respond within an hour in some cases, the ambassador said. "Our job was not to compete with anyone or make political points at a critical time, but to mount search-and-rescue operations," he said. "Our first and foremost thought, our immediate motivation was to rescue people. When someone is sinking in the water, you rush to help, you think later."

Focusing on foreign assistance in the initial stages would have diverted attention from pressing concerns and distracted the national effort, he said. "You forget, it was all a matter of hours. Of course we wanted to get relief to everyone, but we were not alerted by all those affected. In some of the remote islands that have maintained their lifestyle for thousands of years, when we finally dropped relief supplies, they began shooting at the helicopters with bows and arrows," he said.

India deployed three hospital ships and 38 naval and coast guard vessels, a large number of helicopters and small and medium fixed-wing aircraft, and 15,000 service members and others to assist Indian people affected by the tsunami. It also provided aid to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives, Sen said.

One of the areas hit hardest by the tsunami was India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelago with a population of 350,000 off the coasts of Burma, Thailand and Indonesia, about 900 hundred miles east of the Indian mainland. Of the 5,628 people missing, according to the latest update from India, 5,542 were from the islands, Sen said.

The main air force base on the island of Car Nicobar was devastated by the tsunami. The ambassador said 33 pilots and 72 family members and civilian personnel were killed. The base's helicopter squadron was washed out to sea, he added.

"Still, as soon as we moved helicopters in, some of the surviving pilots, with barely any clothes on, were flying again to move people in and out. People do not realize. Why refuse aid, they ask? First, we had the capability, and we knew we could deal with it on our own," he said.

According to a field report, Sen said, the air base was operational again four days after the disaster.

There are more than 500 islands in the archipelago, and many of their inhabitants are members of indigenous tribes. News reports have focused on whether relief workers have been able to contact residents throughout the islands.

Sen said some tribes on the islands have little contact with the outside world. "We don't allow ordinary Indians to go there. One tribe was once totally wiped out from getting a common cold. They live on fish, coconut, some wildlife and turtles," he said. "We have been so careful to preserve them for so long.

"We could have ended up doing more damage, getting rescuers killed also. I am not doubting anybody's goodwill. We are very grateful for the outpouring of affection and sympathy from Americans from all walks of life, especially schoolchildren."

A core group composed of India, the United States, Australia and Japan -- countries with major resources in the Indian Ocean -- went into high gear in the first stages of the emergency under the coordination of Marc Grossman, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. The group has now disbanded to allow the United Nations to coordinate relief and rehabilitation as a multilateral institution.

Indian citizens also contributed to the relief effort. "There have been donations from the north of the country in Kashmir to the southernmost tip, and that has been uplifting," Sen said, citing $100 million collected since Dec. 27.

By last Thursday, India had spent $250 million on rescue and relief within the country and provided $25.5 million to neighboring countries, according to the Indian Embassy.

"Our practical experience with past cyclones and natural disasters showed that relief from outside accounted for much less than 5 percent of the total effort," the ambassador said. "We know how to treat waterborne diseases which no one else knows about. We have one of the largest pharmaceutical industries producing medication at one-tenth of the cost overseas."

Sen also discussed his experience in dealing with an earthquake in the state of Gujarat in 2001, when German authorities asked how they could help. The earthquake killed an estimated 20,000 people. Sen, then ambassador to Germany, advocated reconstruction help rather than charity. "People would like to come out of this with their heads held high," he said. "They don't want a handout, but don't prevent them from helping themselves."

In the case of the tsunami, the poorest members of society have been affected, Sen said. "The multimillionaires with tourist complexes have just been reduced to millionaires," he said. "The most vulnerable victims are the fishermen in the remote islands. Their homes, their means and tools of livelihood have been completely destroyed. We will look into the possibility of assistance once we draw up plans for rehabilitation," he said.

Meanwhile, tight restrictions on travel are hampering relief work in the islands, according to wire reports from that area, as islanders still struggle to make it to safety and temporary shelters along India's Nicobar chain.

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