We are a peculiar nation. We first learnt the word tsunami after thousands of lives were lost to the sea in 2004. It was a pity that despite millennia of learning, we lacked the basic knowledge of a forest-dwelling primitive Negritoid tribe of the Andaman Islands, called Jarawas, who escaped from the Boxing Day tsunami without losing a single life notwithstanding the proximity of their land to the epicentre of the killer seaquake. The naked Jarawas have been living in complete isolation for aeons but they understood the early warnings that Nature gave before wreaking havoc. Of how they managed to escape without sophisticated early warning systems, Director of the Anthropolitical Survey of India in Kolkata V. R. Rao has said, `[They] get the wind of impending danger from biological warning signals like the cry of birds and change in the behavioural patterns of marine animals.`
Education, it is said, teaches the art of living. But, we were blissfully unaware of the phenomena associated with a tsunami such as the rolling back of the sea and other environmental changes that signal the onset of killer waves. So, when the sea receded exposing its bed, people thronged there to collect the gasping fish and block out land, only to be swallowed by the next wave that came like a messenger from hell. Until then, we had been taking the wrong Geography and Social Studies lessons! Ironically, the educators who didn`t teach us at least what the tribal Jarawas knew are today on the warpath, demanding better pay. So much for their service to the nation!
Never mind the past which is now dead. Have we at least benefited from hindsight? It is a pity that we haven`t, if our reaction to tsunami warnings is any indication. On Wednesday we saw how unprepared we were as a nation even almost three years after the tsunami disaster. Running pell-mell is not the way to respond to a warning. The ordinary people cannot be faulted for panicking as the first reaction of anyone in such a situation is to hook it as fast as his legs could carry him. But, if we are to look after ourselves in such situations, we don`t need the apparatus called the State (as opposed to governments that change).
Those who opposed the proposed buffer zone along the coast and encouraged tsunami rebuilding almost on the beach must be collared and made to explain why they sought to play politics with public safety. The declaration of the buffer zone was one of the few good things that former President Chandrika Kurmaratunga did or tried to do.
Some of the panic-stricken people who ran to places of worship and public buildings seeking shelter were turned away on Wednesday. We thought helping the hapless was a basic tenet of any religion. Their ordeal exposed a serious lapse on the part of the state. Places to shelter the evacuees must be earmarked and announced so that the people know where to make a beeline in an emergency. Chaos is the inevitable outcome of the absence of a contingency plan. How many tsunami drills have we had since the actual disaster? Our disaster management has become a total disaster.
School children should be trained in systematic evacuation. If the parents can be assured of the safety of their children in school, they won`t run helter skelter blocking roads, as they do now, triggering pandemonium in a frantic bid to pick up their precious ones. The same goes for everyone else. If the people could be organised at the community level with leaders appointed to guide them in an emergency, chaos could be avoided. Motorists must be taught how to adopt safety precautions without making a mad rush, which takes them nowhere. More haste, they must be told, less speed. In the urban and semi urban areas characterised by heavy traffic congestion, the police who are usually all at sea need to be trained to handle extraordinary situations. The most important thing that the motorists should be taught is that tsunami is not something like lightning and they have ample time to drive to safety after a warning. Finding and building alternatives to the existing roads hugging the seashore must be considered a national priority. They may be called `tsunami exits` a la the fire exits. New airports can always wait!
Doomed are those who don`t know their first aid in a disaster. Thousands of lives could have been saved in 2004, had we known our first aid. We haven`t learnt from that tragic experience. Crash courses on first aid need to be designed and imparted via schools, workplaces and the media to help the public survive disasters.
The hospital system cannot cope with an influx of victims mainly due to the chronic manpower shortage it is afflicted with. An effective remedy for this situation may be the training of volunteers around health institutions so that they could make themselves available at short notice.
The first casualty of a disaster in this country is the telecommunication network. It gets jammed in no time. Of what use is a telephone, mobile or fixed line, that goes dead during a catastrophe. This is one main aspect of disaster management that needs to be looked into carefully.
Another casualty of a tsunami warning is law and order. There are organised gangs raising false alarms with a view to fishing in troubled waters, as we saw within the first few months of the tsunami disaster. They get an opportunity to prey on the frightened public even when a real warning is sounded. The dastardly crimes such human vultures committed against the dying tsunami victims in 2004 shocked the civilised world. Deserted houses, abandoned children are easy prey for such monsters. Hence the need for better policing during disasters in addition to systematic evacuation!
A tsunami kills only the unprepared. Preparedness is therefore the key to survival. Although no killer waves came on Wednesday, we stood naked as a nation that doesn`t learn from her past. Let the chaos we experienced on that day serve as an early warning!