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In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

After Refusing Aid From Outside, Singh Offers Reassurance

By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page A18

HUT BAY, Little Andaman, India, Jan. 8 -- It took four days before the first relief ship reached the harbor of this remote island -- four days of hunger, confusion and fear for thousands of inhabitants whose seaside villages had been devastated by giant tsunami waves Dec. 26.

"They just dumped the relief packets on the broken jetty by the sea and left," complained Punai Toppo, 40, a forest ranger, as he gathered his three children around him at a relief camp. "We had fled deep into the jungles, and we had no boats to go to the broken jetty and bring the supplies in."

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in turban, listens to pleas by survivors in at a shelter in Port Blair during a visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. (Manish Swarup -- AP)

Toppo's anger and frustration may be an unintended consequence of India's decision to deny international rescue-and-relief teams access to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelago that lies 900 miles east of the subcontinental mainland.

So far, out of a population of 350,000, scattered among nearly 40 inhabited islands, 1,205 people have been reported killed, 5,500 are listed as missing and about 44,000 have been left homeless .

Of about a dozen countries battered by the tsunami, India is the only one to turn away outside help. The decision was motivated by several factors: national pride, geostrategic concerns and the limited operational infrastructure on the islands.

From the beginning of the crisis, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has declined foreign offers of aid. "We feel we can cope with the situation on our own, and we will take their help if needed," he said in New Delhi on Dec. 30.

On a visit to the islands on Saturday, Singh said he wanted "to reassure the people that the government of India will do everything it can for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of these beautiful islands," the Reuters news agency reported.

Aid workers said, however, that the already patchy relief operation had been further disrupted by his visit.

In an interview Friday, a senior administrative official in Port Blair, the capital of the archipelago territory, said the presence of foreign assistance teams would have made "only a marginal difference."

"It makes us very proud that we are able to stand on our feet and handle such a big calamity ourselves," said Lt. Gen. B.S. Thakur, commander in chief of the unified military command at Port Blair, which is overseeing relief operations. "I am happy to say that not a single life was lost because of lack of relief and medical supplies."

But as in Toppo's village, the delivery of relief material has been slow throughout the far-flung island chain, due in part to administrative sluggishness and in part to the near-total collapse of the islands' infrastructure.

A naval officer said it took two days for the administration to realize the extent of the devastation because all communication lines and power supplies had been cut off. Only as news trickled in from remote villages did officials learn that the infrastructure for relief distribution had been badly damaged.

Thakur said that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have only three airstrips and that the tsunami damaged more than 96 percent of harbor jetties. He asserted that bringing in more aircraft or ships would have made little difference. "It is not a question of more resources but of how much the existing infrastructure can absorb," he said.

Sameer Kohli, an official with the state agency overseeing shipping, said thick forests also hampered aerial supply. "How much relief could we airdrop into the thick jungles where some of the trees are 100 to 150 meters tall?" he said.

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