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The tsunami warriors deserve our salute

December 26, 2007 10:47 IST
It was January 26, 2005. The familiar visage of my school chum riveted my attention to the television screen. The Doordarshan correspondent gushed while covering the sterling work being done by the crew of the Indian Navy's anti-submarine frigate INS Taragiri in tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka, especially in the worst-hit Galle and the surrounding Hikkaduva region in the southwest.

That was the image of my classmate Commander G Prakash, the captain of the Taragiri. So, out of curiosity, I googled to find out whether he and his men had notched up reports in the media for their remarkable stint in Galle.

Oddly, maybe not-so-oddly, whereas the American The Washington Post and The Seattle Times had brought out glowing chronicles of the Indian naval effort in Sri Lanka, the Indian media had not found it worth their while, save for the Doordarshan capsule.

An overview of tsunami relief

Showing rare alacrity, within hours of the tsunami strike on December 26, 2004, the Government of India mandated the Indian armed forces to launch relief work in the devastated neighbourhood as a gesture of goodwill and empathy. The Indian Navy would be the main instrument through which the nation would execute this gigantic humanitarian mission.

Though the naval ships reached Galle on the same day for relief, much of the initial job was salvage as sunken vessels, fishing equipment and missing navigational marks had made the ports inaccessible.

The hydrographers were summoned to chart the affected area. Simultaneously, the naval divers cleared the obstructions from the navigational path and restored the harbour in a record time of six days.

Meanwhile, the Indian Army positioned its personnel drawn mainly from the Corps of Engineers and the Army Medical Corps for the construction of relief shelters and to run medical camps.

As part of Operation Rainbow, the Taragiri was also deployed to Galle in mid-January. The tsunami had pummelled Galle to the Stone Age. The harbour structures, the quayside buildings and the tourism-related paraphernalia were reduced to an agglomeration of rubble.

The local naval base had been knocked out beyond recognition. Beyond the coast, up to a mile or so, heaps of wreckage welcomed the ship's crew. The scale of the human tragedy wrought by the tsunami was soul-numbing.

The relief tasks identified were clearing of debris, erecting tents for the displaced people, setting up of medical camps, building cookhouses, cleaning of wells, provision for potable water, construction of toilets and sanitary system, electrification of the camps, restoration of fishing tools, aid to the Galle naval base and finally detailing teams to trawl for assorted chores.

These tasks were shared by the army and naval personnel. The whole work had to be done manually as bulldozers and similar heavy-duty equipment were unavailable. They managed with whatever implements were in hand till reinforcements arrived from India. This absorbed them so much that within days, Rejipura, Televatha, Kahawe, Seenigama, Godagama, etc -- places no one knew existed on the planet -- had become the buzzwords and the stopgap centres of their universe!

About 2,300 patients were examined by the medical teams. An important victory for all the international agencies that worked in Sri Lanka was that they prevented the outbreak of any epidemic despite the conditions.

The sincerity, industry and affability of the Indian contingent fulfilled an undeclared objective -- of building everlasting bridges of friendship.

The Taragiri left Galle harbour on January 26, 2005, leaving the resettlement and the rest of the reconstruction job to Sri Lanka and the NGOs. The locals, Sri Lankan men in uniform and schoolchildren, lined up the jetty to choreograph a poignant departure ceremony, with the naval band playing the national anthems of Sri Lanka and India.

The Sri Lankans were so impressed with the Indian Navy's pains to deliver them timely succour that to register their gratitude, President Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka herself expressed her desire to meet the Indian naval personnel.

The Taragiri was the chosen one and the President hosted a team from the ship at her palace in Colombo.

In retrospect

Could Prakash and his men have done it better? The answer, I suppose, is yes. Right from levelling the ground, they had to do everything manually; even one JCB excavator could have been a great force multiplier.

Apart from speeding up the relief assignment, this would have released manpower for other pressing work. The Americans had the big vessels to haul the JCBs and our boys didn't.

The Indian Navy took note of this capability gap and pulled out all stops to bridge it. With the induction of four LCM-8 (Mike Boats) and a Landing Platform Deck, the INS Jalashwa (formerly, the USS Trenton) in June 2007 into the nNavy, India has acquired the sea-lift capability to ensure that future missions won't be hamstrung by such inadequacies.

What about the parallel relief work done by the myriad NGOs? A little bird whispered about what we have suspected all along -- many NGOs with formidable nomenclatures being used to siphon off the aid. The ugly underbelly of relief work. Regrettable.

The human angle

In spite of his efforts to dissimulate, did I espy an instance when Prakash's eyes turned moist while facing the Doordarshan camera? The stiff demeanour notwithstanding, it was only natural to be moved by the unspeakable human disaster.

Later I chanced upon an account about a temporary settlement his ship's team had stumbled upon: About 35 fishermen and families desperately sought refuge, with absolutely nothing to call their own in this world.

The Taragiri gladly embraced and adopted these tsunami-castaways and gave them a shelter as long as the ship remained anchored in Galle, obtaining relief material including clothes, utensils and even crutches from the Red Cross. Bravo!

The media mystery

With little digging, I unearthed Prakash's accidental tryst with the Western media: the USS Duluth, an American amphibious ship, had checked in at Colombo, with typical American fanfare, to unload men and material for relief work. As is the norm, a contingent of mediapersons too descended there to cover it. These scribes had little to despatch as the Indian army and naval personnel had already done much of that job. As US troops were no longer needed, the USS Bonhomme Richard and other US ships were diverted to Indonesia. So they graciously reported the commendable work done by the Indian military.

The numbers, in sum

The Indian Navy rushed 19 warships, 11 helicopters and four aircraft for rescue, relief and reconstruction on the very day the tsunami struck the Indian Ocean nations, a testimony to its operational readiness and competence. In all, it deployed 32 ships, 20 helicopters and seven aircraft for the various missions in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Finally, a salute

The armed forces have proved time and again that they are the salt of the earth. They do their devoir without pushing the boat out. Since they do not hanker for the limelight, since they do not believe in self-propaganda like filmstars, since they do not resort to razzle-dazzle, the mainstream media tend to ignore their quiet work and praiseworthy accomplishments.

The tsunami warriors do deserve a pat on their backs. As they say, better late than never. On this third anniversary of the tsunami, let us remember and salute them for their admirable devotion to duty and for flying the Indian tricolour high.

M P Anil Kumar is a former MiG-21 pilot.

M P Anil Kumar