a casual comparison of the timings and magnitude of the
tremors on Andamans and East-coast of Indian peninsula would
have immediately indicated two facts: a) that the earthquake's
epicenter was located further East of Andamans somewhere
in the ocean bed, and b) it was of an unusually high magnitude.
Once these two facts are known, the likelihood of a tsunami
could have been anticipated instantly. All these conclusions
could be drawn without consulting any other country, and
without any elaborate global warning system.
even this minimal level of alertness was exhibited by our
science and technology establishments, they could have alerted
the populations in the Andamans, on our East coast, and
probably even Sri Lankan East Coast. The physical damage
could not have been prevented, but precious lives would
surely have been saved. This is a serious failure - not
on account of absence of global tsunami warning system in
the Indian Ocean, but because of the callousness of those
whose job it was to monitor earthquakes and inform the population.
it is the height of insensitivity and complete failure of
imagination to say that even if authorities knew, they could
not have alerted people. This would have been true 20 years
ago. But today we have several 24-hour satellite news channels
- global, national and local. The earthquake occurred not
in the dead of night, but in the morning hours when people
are hungry for news. The people of Aceh province of Indonesia
probably had no real chance of saving themselves, given
the impact of the earthquake itself, and the very short
time gap between the tremors and the tsunami. But with some
150 precious minutes, Indians and Sri Lankans had a fair
That lives could have been saved by advance warning is not
a mere conjecture. Take the case of the 70,000 villagers
on the island of Simeulue in Indonesia, 60 kms south of
the epicenter of the earthquake. Amazingly, only 5 people
died on the island, and all of them in the earthquake. Although
90% of the buildings on the coast were destroyed by the
five-metre-high walls of water that followed, not one person
died. In another town of Meulaboh, about 60 kms north-east
of the epicenter, thousands perished in the tsunami. The
miracle in Simeulue was possible because the people ran
to the hills the moment the earthquake struck. We do not
require a global warning system to anticipate a tsunami
when an earthquake hits in the ocean bed.
is not my desire to be wise after the event, or judge those
in positions of responsibility harshly. Undoubtedly, the
information available was not put together coherently in
order to make sense, or to enable the political leadership
and administration to draw reasonable conclusions and alert
failure is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in our public
functioning. Our perception of public office is largely
related to a sense of personal power. Most political and
bureaucratic scuffles are for power as a private attribute,
not about ideas, institutions and outcomes. In such a pervasive
culture of power and position as personal goal for private
gain, public good is the inevitable casualty.
some ways, our strengths as a society have become a great
source of weakness to our country. For most of us, our own
family is all-important, and larger public good is incidental.
There are, of course, outstanding public servants whose
dedication and devotion to duty promote larger public good
abundantly. A lady teacher in Guntur district (AP) who took
on herself to visit the coastal villages on her two-wheeler
without anyone's prompting and saved hundreds of lives is
a glorious example of such devoted service. But sadly, such
passion for public good is the exception, and not the norm.
If we judge our public servants by three yardsticks - integrity,
competence, and commitment, most would only get a 'C' or
'D' grade. The reasons for this woeful failure are many.
There are no real incentives for excellence, as good performance
is rarely rewarded, and bad performance never punished.
Actually good behavior is fraught with risks, and bad behavior
is often rewarded! Then we have a culture of lazy policy
and poor execution. Witness free power as a substitute to
sensible farm policies and a search for panaceas to combat
poverty instead of doing some painstaking work to improve
education, healthcare and infrastructure. Finally we have
no real sense of priorities, and the urgent always swallows
the important. Public work which is regarded as glamorous
- revenue, police etc - is often a symbol of power finding
its expression as nuisance value. But the truly important
areas - saving lives, healthcare, education - are often
unglamorous, and examined only when catastrophe strikes.
fury cannot always be controlled, but the resultant tragedy
can certainly be mitigated. That is the lesson we need to
learn from this awesome tragedy which engulfed so many nations.
But we also need to build public systems, and celebrate
passion and spirit of public service in order to prevent
avoidable suffering. A thorough and objective enquiry into
the failure to warn people of the likely tsunami is necessary.
Blaming the absence of a global warning system will be mere
abdication of duty. We need an enquiry not to find scapegoats,
but to understand the malaise that has crept in, and help
us take corrective action for the future. The human failure
in this tragedy is even more appalling than nature's ravage.
There is no substitute to professionalism and passion for
public good. These are priceless qualities which need to
be treasured and nurtured.