Transcript of the chat with Sheela Bhatt, who visited the tsunami-hit Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Ramakrishnan : How many lives have been lost in A&N?
Sheela Bhatt : So far government has confirmed 800 deaths, but Lt Governor of A and N claims that around 5,000 are missing. The final figure will arrive only after official formalities are over.
bhavin : How's the condition of the people there?
Sheela Bhatt : The people are shocked. Absolutely confused about what has hit them. They have no clue even now that sea which surrounded them since they were born could be so nasty. They are feeling helpless and clueless. They are feeling alienated.
San : Is red tape affecting relief operations?
Sheela Bhatt : Bureaucracy can't change overnight. But here, the military establishment is working too. They have their own method of functioning. Their resources were of great help to ordinary people. Let me tell you that first time I saw that after disaster money was NOT a problem for Indian government. In that sense I feel satisfied. Also, Commander-in Chief Lt Gen V S Thakur is quite a popular person amongst his cadres. Such things too help in crisis.
Priya : How far is our govt helpful to them? Are they able to get at least their one-time meal ??
Sheela Bhatt : Government is helpful but the tragedy is so huge and so powerful in its impact on human minds, no help can be enough. If you read this piece http://in.rediff.com/news/2005/jan/04an1.htm you will understand that things are not easy here. Its a very, very special case. I am not at all undermining tragedy elsewhere but Andaman and Nicobar islands people, particularly tribals, are in minority and their psyche is disturbed. It's very important that they don't feel that the "mainland" didn't come to rescue. Government 's help is not enough in that sense.
Priya : How far is our govt helpful to them? Are they able to get at least their one-time meal?
Sheela Bhatt : Of course, food and shelters have been provided to most of them.
Arivu : Though I live in Delhi, I come from a coastal area of Pondicherry. I loved the sea since my childhood and had been boasting of such a beautiful seashore. But now I am afraid of the sea, which I admired the most. Could you tell us the feelings of the A & N people who survived the tsunami waves and the people of A&N in general?
Sheela Bhatt : Most Nicobari victims are talking about sea's unimaginable behaviour. As you might be knowing in A and N Hindi is spoken widely. it's second language here. Even some tribals speak it fluently without accent. One of them told me: Samudra hamari jameen kha gaya! Aisa pahle to nahin dekha tha, na suna tha.
Vijay : What is happening in Little Andaman and Nicobar, which are far from Port Blair?
Sheela Bhatt : Please read about Nicobaris here -- http://in.rediff.com/news/2004/dec/29an.htm They are unable to come to terms with the situation.
Monica : Why would there be a threat to woman survivors of the tsunami?
Sheela Bhatt : Women always suffer more in disasters and in conflict zones. Accidentally, in A and N I met so many women whose husbands were not doing any job. I don't know how come I came across so many "idle husbands." Also, the population here have developed a different mentality while living in the area, which has too many restrictions due to strategic reasons, ecology and anthropology reasons. The modern development of Nicobar is not on cards and situation will not change in near future.
Gudipati : I am surprised when my friend was saying that even organisations like Red Cross mint money during these times. Hardly any money reaches the needy.
Sheela Bhatt : People do have many questions over the way money is spent during relief work. But in A and N, most money will be spent by Indian armed forces and government. I am doubtful if foreign donations will be accepted for A and N.
Ansh : Why Indian government refused international aid?
Sheela Bhatt : Hi, please read the intro of this interview. You will know why Indian government is refusing aid in A and N. http://in.rediff.com/news/2005/jan/03inter1.htm
Srinidhi : Now, tell me frankly, why is rediff, NDTV, indiatimes and so many Indian English media carefully removing the RSS cadres from your image galleries, and other reporting stuff? I don't think u would answer me (ndtv reported worldvision, rediff has so many images) but not of RSS. Why is this happening in such a large scale by the Indian English media particularly?
Sheela Bhatt : This is just not true. I didn't come across any RSS worker when I visited Car Nicobar and Campbell Bay. Otherwise I would have surely reported about them. But just yesterday Gujarat government claimed that they have visited a few of islands.
Balakrishnan : Do you think India is able to manage the relief operations without the help of any foreign aid?
Sheela Bhatt : This is a difficult question to answer. But my very personal answer is YES. 1) I have reported Kutch and such other calamities. Believe me, we Indians and particularly poor victims need huge sympathy and compassion more than money. 2) There are still a lot many people in India who want basic facility and little initial support. Rest they will build up with hard work and with help of their faith in god. And let me tell you I am not kidding. 3) You must read diplomatic analysis in mainstream papers world over. Americans interest in South Asia is doubtful. Many governments are afraid of their marine presence in disturbed areas. 4) Tsunami is not a problem. It is an opportunity to reassert ourselves. Our administration and our collective spirit. Don't you see India changing slowly and steadily? Why can't we do without foreign aid? Come on, if we can feed ourselves, we can provide help and protection to our people.
Velang : What has happened to the population of rare tribes Onge, Jarawa, Sentinelese... ? They're looking help? Our officials approached them?
Sheela Bhatt : We were told by chief of Coast Guards Mr Singh that choppers flew over these islands. While flying low they noticed the normal activity in these Islands. I don't see any reason to not believe them.
Shadowfax : So much is being reported about the shocks, aftershocks and govt aid. But I would like to know are people recovering from the shocks, and are there any signs of life coming back to normalcy? I know that's going to be difficult, but any sign would be a sign of hope!
Sheela Bhatt : Very difficult. I think it will take along time to trust sea again for these people. They will now keep a tight vigil on high tides. Nicobaris are very depressed and feel cheated. They hate to say that they were caught unaware, and that too by sea.
Anshu : Why Indian government cut down the numbers of died peoples. First they declared that 12000 peoples died and then they declared that number of peoples is 9500. You think that it is right?
Sheela Bhatt : See, government is not in position to quote exact figures for obvious reasons. It's odd to even write but sea has been cruel. It's assumed that sea swept away large numbers of people and now they are respectfully termed as "missing". My assessment is that around 4000 people died in A and N. But this is an estimate.
Raj_Fusion : I am just wondering when would normalcy prevail in A&N. Do you have a tentative time frame from your experiences?
Sheela Bhatt : See, Andaman is quite normal and will be better soon. But please remember that this area is India's sensitive point from national security angel. Things will not work fast. Development is not even on card. Life here was slow. Peaceful. People here are not ambitious. They can live on small earnings and even remain contended without big opportunities. Sudip Kumar, local resident told me, 'Give me water and power, I want nothing more.'
Sajida : Can I know the whereabouts of my friend Saida Banu?
Sheela Bhatt : Maam, please give me more details at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will surely find out.
Joe : Yes Sheela, I think after more than 54 years of independence, India is in a position to take care of such calamities by herself. I think it's about time we stop looking for outside help and help ourselves. A country of 1 billion, surely can overcome this calamity.
Sheela Bhatt : I agree with you.
Ravikanth : I would like to be a part of the relief work that is being carried out in the affected areas. What should I do for that?
Sheela Bhatt : Please contact Tata Institute of Social Sciences at Mumbai. PO Box- 8313, Deonar. Mumbai- 88tele- 25563289
Srinidhi : This is ridiculous, why don't u answer my next question?
Sheela Bhatt : Where is your second question? Please send it.
Graf : Why would any government set up rules for setting up house near sea shore. The government should provide security for those who live in seashore rather than setting up rules and regulations. We are taking about a country with one billion people. Where you expect them to live?
Sheela Bhatt : Yes ,I agree with Graf. Let me say that people will come to terms with the tragedy and again start their life around seashores.
mishakale : English media is showing pictures of our people struggling for food packets from choppers, etc. What do they want to prove? Is NDTV managed by outsiders?
Sheela Bhatt : Many will not agree but many time TV footage is not a reality because what happens outside the camera's focus is a bigger reality, which is not projected. Camera has to project or shoot a story, emotions and effective saleable images.
Obelix : Won't it be difficult for the fishermen in the affected areas to get back to earn their livelihood as the common people have developed a fear about eating seafood now. So what actions does the govt have for this?
Sheela Bhatt : All such reactions are natural and expected. Time is a great healer. Let's wait.
Soumendu : Do we have any "authentic" data on how the tribal population in A&N are doing? There are lot of guesses it seems. I'm afraid if the truth is much bad than what is being conveyed to us! Also, how can we help the tribals there? Do you know any NGO or some other organisation working there? Can u give me their address?
Sheela Bhatt : Please read this -- http://in.rediff.com/news/2005/jan/04an1.htm. As I said tribals are safe. GOI claims.
joe : As I see the first round of relief operations are well underway. Coming to the next phase, of providing those affected with livelihood means, Is our government doing anything in procuring new boats for the fishermen who have lost everything. Is there any scheme from government that helps fishermen mend their boats and buy new nets?
Sheela Bhatt : I am knowing only about A and N. Here things will move slowly. Infrastructure is the priority and that will be taken up steadily. I am sure. Tsunami is a huge blow to air force here. And rest assured, things will move surely. I would like to add that if Indian government is not transparent about relief and re-construction here it will lead to a serious situation. There are vested interests, I am told, who wants Indian government to relax the movements inside Nicobar. Particularly foreign media is furious that they were stopped from flying to Car Nicobar. Its entirely different debate that if they should be allowed or not. But till the time restrictions are on Indian government has huge task on hand. If tribals feel ignored and discriminated it will create international impact. Their alienation will be an equally big disaster for India. Experts claim that the Indian government must take sincere steps.
Srinidhi : If u think not even 1 RSS worker was not there to help, I can show you the images for proof that, they are indeed for the seva of the nation. I am saying with respect to A&N, Chennai, Pondi, & Nagapattinam. Please give me your email address so that, I can forward it to you. The RSS has been in seva for years and in fact, the RSS was spontaneous to jump to action when the tragedy occurred.
Sheela Bhatt : As I told you in first four days I have not seen them in Campbell Bay or Car Nicobar. So I said so. My wishes to them for their good work. They were the first to reach when Morbi floods hit the town. I know well about their work.
Sheela Bhatt : Thank you very much for asking questions. Wish you all well.
'Affected people need houses and boats'