Commander-in-Chief, unified command, Andaman and Nicobar Command, Lieutenant General B S Thakur has been on the move since the tsunami hit the islands. He visited Katchal and Nancowrie islands to supervise the operations.
General Thakur, who served as the II strike corps commander, was tipped to replace the chief of integrated defence staff, but was instead appointed commander-in-chief of the Andaman and Nicobar Command, one of the Indian Army's key posts.
On the basis of the recommendation of the task force on defence management headed by Arun Singh, former minister of state for defence, the unified Andaman and Nicobar Command was formed in October 2002.
India's first-ever integrated command is a kind of experiment to enhance inter-service integration. It is a concept which is in experiment mode in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The radical move was highly debated and is still a hot issue amongst defence experts. Those who harbour scepticism should have visited the INS Utkrosh air base in Port Blair when the tsunami hit the islands. For more than four days, without taking a break the tri-services top bosses worked, as they say, with military precision.
The unified command's viability was on display in the entire area when Indian Army officers were providing a helping hand to run Indian Air Force air bases and the IAF was supplementing the Indian Navy in evacuating the injured, and the survivors to Port Blair.
As the 21st century is dubbed as Asia's century and the century of the seas, the strategic importance of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has increase manifold. Also, ever increasing business and military activity in and around the Malacca Straits has increased the strategic importance of the islands.
China, Japan, Indonesia, Australia and Thailand are also increasing their interest in the Indian Ocean. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a gateway to ASEAN -- Association of South East Asian Nations -- too. India enjoys the enviable size of an exclusive economic zone here which includes large fishing activities.
National security experts consider the well-developed Andaman and Nicobar islands with social stability and military build-up an important aspect to register India's influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
When the tsunami struck the operational area of the integrated command, the tri-services, and the Coast Guard puts its best foot forward. Troops and material from Jorhat in Assam, Agra in UP to Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh were brought to help the poor victims of the islands.
For transportation of relief materials aircraft IL-76, AN-32 and helicopters carried out special operations. Since the navy has the largest presence with around 16 ships in the island territories, it was instrumental in reaching out to the southern-most points.
Armed forces lead relief efforts
In addition, Dornier aircraft which are used for surveillance and for anti-smuggling activity were used to survey the rear tribes in the inaccessible islands.
In an exclusive interview to Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt in Port Blair, the highly popular commander-in-chief spoke about the tsunami disaster and the extraordinary rescue operations by his troops.
How did you get going once the tsunami hit the shores of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands?
The situation became too evident because we felt the tremors all over Andaman and Nicobar at the same time. It was only the question of trying to find out the damage everywhere else. Since the situation could be seen from my house -- I felt the tremors -- and I could see the swell in the sea, we immediately set in motion our machinery to find out the damage caused in all our establishments.
'Only survey will show if tribals are safe'
Unfortunately, communication with Car Nicobar was (broken) down. We were able to talk to our other establishments like in Campbell Bay and Diglipur. I was not sure of the damage caused at Car Nicobar. We decided to send a Dornier aircraft with my air commander to personally visit and assess the situation. After he landed there we came to know about the severe damage and loss of lives. Thereafter, the entire machinery was set into motion to give all the support to rescue victims.
'Car Nicobar islands totally devastated'
This tragedy is of a great magnitude and can only be described as a calamity. It has caused tremendous amount of loss of lives, property and infrastructure.
Will it have any bearings on India's strategic interest in this region?
You see everything that causes damage has its consequences. Therefore, ultimately yes, our infrastructure has got damaged, therefore our ability to make use of that infrastructure and exploit our capability has got affected. So everything is relative.
What's your immediate agenda?
My immediate agenda is to ensure that rescue and relief operations are executed. We have been able to take care of my military stations but now, my concerns are the smaller islands in the south like Noncowrie group of islands and Great Nicobar. We want to reach out to every island and ensure that they are getting necessary relief materials.
How are you tying to keep the momentum of your operations?
It is an unusual event. First it was the case of trying to overcome the trauma ourselves, my air force base having suffered maximum damage. We had to overcome our personal shocks and had to get on to the job. But I must says that relief and supplies that were to come from the mainland and the resources that were made available to us by the services headquarters, which includes all the three services, came immediately.
Additional naval ships with helicopters were made available to us, the air force's additional sorties were made available. IL 76 were sent, additional engineers and helpers came from the army.
Centre plans Integrated Relief Command for A&N
It is said that the armed forces are also not able to dispose of dead bodies faster in many islands. Why?
We must understand the topography. There are small-small islands spread all over. We are not present on all islands like the civil administration. All the islands' communication is cut off, roads damaged and jetties broken. Even if you land at a point A, it takes time to cover the entire island. Work is being undertaken fast.
What's your estimate of the death toll?
No idea. I can't make an estimate. What the governor says should be accepted. If you take the example of Car Nicobar Air Force base. We said that 31 bodies have been found but 77 bodies missing that means that many numbers have been washed out. You note the ratio. Because the waves were so high and so ferocious that the dead bodies have been washed out.
900 IAF men, kin evacuated from Car Nicobar
Was India's first and only joint command's presence in Andaman and Nicobar helpful?
Yes. One of the advantages, as I see it now, is that I find that our responses in case of natural disasters are much faster and much better in the unified command because I have the components of all the services with me. And everybody reacts to one single commander and therefore everybody responds to him in a much faster manner. And, efforts get co-ordinated. They are not individual efforts. I find this is an excellent learning.
It may take us some time but this has to grow more and more. I find that the only way to achieve success here is by having our efforts co-ordinated and joint.
What's the extent of damage to the unified command's infrastructure?
It's very difficult to assess at the moment. My base at Car Nicobar is more or less out. The loss to civil property has been tremendous. The roads are destroyed, the jetties are destroyed. It will take a long time to build it again.
This can not be done unless the state administration departments start giving their estimates.
What is your task?
The first challenge is to make sure that everybody is taken care of. We don't want anybody to go hungry. We don't let anybody suffer because of lack of medical aid. The next big challenge is rebuilding and rehabilitation.
At a time when your infrastructure is severely affected are you still fit?
Yes! Very much so. One of our tasks is to help the nation in times like this. The Indian armed forces have always done it. But let me assure you that we are not lowering our guard as far as national security is concerned. Our training is such. Let me put it this way... as and when required (for battle), we will rise to the occasion.
Do you have any lasting memories of any moment of the last few days?
I told you about the magnitude of the tragedy in Car Nicobar. There were six officers who lost all their family members. In some cases, complete family is wiped out including my officers. They are no longer there. But it is the history of mankind that whenever we are put under pressure and are challenged we re-establish ourselves and life goes on.