At the best of times, the normal travel time between Chennai on the Indian mainland and Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, is 50 to 60 hours by ship. And that is the easy part -- because there are regular flights from Chennai and Kolkata as well. The problem really begins after that, when onward travel becomes entirely dependent on the sea.
There are two Pawan Hans helicopters with eight seats each that fly to other islands from Port Blair thrice a week or depending on the weather, but that is hardly an option because priority is given to government officials.
While we were there, there was only one helicopter and that too did not take off for five days in a row -- first, due to bad weather and then because the Jet Airways flight from Kolkata carrying a spare part for the helicopter was cancelled.
So it is only natural that locals depend on the sea for travelling between different islands, aboard ships named after various places in the region like -- MV Dering, MV Sentinel, MV Long Island, MV Katchal...
Travelling from Port Blair to Car Nicobar takes a minimum of 16 hours and can go up to 23 hours. With 24 jetties destroyed on the tsunami-affected islands, the breakdown in infrastructure has added to the tedium of travel. Officials and locals say things are better now than immediately after the tsunami, when almost every article of relief material was transported from the mainland.
Fifteen thousand metric tons of relief material have been transported from the Indian mainland so far.
"MV Sentinel and MV Yerawa were transporting relief from the second day onwards, but in the first few days all that people wanted was to be evacuated to Port Blair. There was so much panic," says Relief Commissioner Puneet Goyal, an IAS officer posted in Port Blair for the last one-and-a-half years.
During that time, ships leaving Chennai with 1,000 to 2,000 metric tons of rations would take three days to reach Port Blair where it would take another one-and-a-half day for material to be unloaded. This material would then be transferred to smaller ships and dispatched to other islands taking up to eight days to reach, provided the jetty there had withstood the tsunami.
Bamboos from Kerala took up to 30 days to reach Car Nicobar. The absence of basic infrastructure like labourers for unloading material, lack of storage space and damaged jetties further compounded the task of the civil authorities.
In the islands of Teressa and Katchal where jetties were completely destroyed, it could take 10 to 15 days for ships to reach, perhaps even longer if the sea was rough. In Hut Bay, unloading 45 tons of rice from Long Island takes four hours in good weather.
The Indian Air Force -- under the Integrated Relief Command, supervised jointly by Lieutenant Governor Ram Kapse and Lieutenant General Aditya Singh, Commander-in-Chief of the Andaman and Nicobar Command -- extensively used its AN 32 and IL 36 aircraft for transporting relief.
In the first 10 days, around 5,681 people were evacuated to Chennai and 13,928 people to Port Blair both by air and ship.
"Considering the sheer logistics, it was a phenomenal task carried out jointly by the government, defence forces, NGOs and locals. There was no illness, no starvation, no danger to tribals and intermediate shelters were readied before the monsoon," says General Aditya Singh.
The IAF made 226 sorties as part of Operation Madad till January 26 and continues to assist in rehabilitation. At the height of the tragedy, around 5,000 defence personnel were involved; the number has now been reduced to around 400 on an as-required basis.
"We were able to maintain an uninterrupted supply of ration despite the damage to roads and jetties. There is a supply of ration for the next four to six months in all places," says Chief Secretary B S Negi, the top civil servant in Andaman and Nicobar.
Negi says people were in a state of shock initially and the government would assist them in restoring sources of livelihood. They were paid wages for constructing temporary shelters -- Rs 107 every day. Tribals, especially in the Nancowrie islands, will be encouraged to diversify -- move from growing a single crop to planting cash crops as well.
"The government has also initiated a buy back system which applies to poultry, pigs, etc. More than 500 units have been distributed," continues Negi.
Agreeing that the Rs 20 compensation per coconut tree was not commiserate to the loss -- which resulted in one lady receiving a cheque for the bizarre amount of Rs 2 -- he explained that the problem was also because there was no survey or revenue record of tribal land and compensation was, at times, calculated by counting trees.
"But we have taken it up with the government and the compensation amount will be increased," he said.
The administration has disbursed Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million) of the Rs 55 crore (Rs 550 million) total compensation for loss of life. Rs 1 lakh (Rs 100,000) has been given for 2,900 of the 3,700 people who died.
Rs 821 crore (Rs 8.21 billion) has been sanctioned as the whole rebuilding package for the island for the next one-and-a-half years, of which Rs 235 crore (Rs 2.35 billion) has been stipulated for agriculture. Jetties have been temporarily repaired and over the next year-and-half repair and modernisation work will be carried out at the cost of Rs 1600 crores [Rs 16 billion].
The administration pats itself on the back for moving 10,000 families into temporary shelters before the monsoon but has come under strong criticism for using tin sheets and not constructing concrete flooring. As a result, houses are liked baked ovens during the day and mud floor gets slushy with rain water entering through the slits in the ceiling and seeping through the ground.
"We had to construct the shelters in two-and-a-half months with limited resources. Where would we have got 25,000 cubic metres of timber and 25,000 metric tons of material for pucca floors," asks Negi, in response to the criticism.
The administration feels it will take another two years to build permanent homes. Reconstruction work on the bulk of the 85 schools that were destroyed has been taken up by the Church of North India and the Jain Sangathan. Till then, schools will operate from temporary structures.
Six months after the tsunami, the islands continue to experience 45 to 50 aftershocks measuring 2.5 to 3 on the Richter Scale, almost every 24 hours. As people try to recover from a disaster that was so cruel that only 391 of the 1,600 dead bodies could be identified, and over 3,000 missing victims were presumed dead, the administration wants to get the jetties, roads, bridges, schools, permanent housing, livelihood back on the rails.
Tourism has seen a 91 per cent decline after the tsunami and efforts are being made to sell the message that tourism infrastructure has not been affected. Hotels are offering discounts and a spokesperson at the tourism directorate says, "The damage is in the Nicobar group which was not open for tourism anyway."
The live volcano on Barren Island, five hours from Port Blair, has given a fresh lease of life to tourism. Seizing the opportunity, the government has begun weekly trips for tourists.
"A professor from IIM Calcutta was here for holiday and he told us he had a wonderful trip," said an official in the tourism office, "Moreover, for the first time there has been so much positive press coverage about tourism from here. We can only hope it percolates down and results in enhanced traffic."
Photographs: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images; Design: Dominic Xavier