Sign Up

Tsunami Relief — The Great Indian Absence?

Is the West clinging to outdated stereotypes of India?

February 9, 2005

Is the West clinging to outdated stereotypes of India?

On January 5, 2005, several thousand tons of wreckage and debris were cleared from Sri Lanka's tsunami-crippled harbor of Galle, following round-the-clock operations by the Indian navy. This effort paved the way for a sea-borne lifeline, to enable both relief and delivery of heavy reconstruction materials.

Even as it coped with the tsunami's impact at home, India moved decisively to help its neighbors.

On December 27, 2004 — within hours of the tsunami — an Indian naval hospital arrived at Sri Lanka's Trincomalee harbor, followed by helicopter-equipped corvettes and other ships for search and rescue.

The Indian air force added muscle to the effort, using heavy-lift transporters to deliver fully-staffed field hospitals and clinics, as well as its own Mi-17 helicopters to airdrop relief supplies.

The Indian relief mission outstripped those of all other powers in the region, involved over 20,000 military personnel and almost 35 warships — operating in an arc from the Maldives to Indonesia.

For a variety of reasons, this colossal deployment went largely unnoticed in the rest of the world. Observed by bemused Indian sailors, the world media made a beeline on January 10, 2005, to welcome the USS Duluth to Sri Lanka — two weeks after the arrival of India's navy to assist with relief operations.

The irony escaped the Associated Press, whose January 17, 2005, report did nothing to explain comments by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in Sri Lanka: "Help from U.S. military engineers," he said, "won’t be needed much longer."

Largely unnoticed, the Indian military had already finished doing much of the work for which the Americans had, belatedly, arrived in that country.

Such a mindset — of overlooking an obviously huge contribution from outside the Western world — is central to what I call the Great Indian Absence.

It is part and parcel of the matrix of 'us and them,' which regretfully defines the worldview of many Americans and Europeans. They are handicapped by a continuing inability to accept India's often quiet, but potentially dramatic, rise.

Sure, there is plenty of awareness in the United States and Europe about the rise of India as an outsourcing power. But this development tends to accentuate — rather than diminish — the feeling that India is not an equal.

Thus, the observations by some European commentators about how the tsunami spared none — neither rich Western tourists, nor those (presumably serving them) from the poor Third World — are at least five years out of date.

In Sri Lanka, much of Southeast Asia and — in the near future — New Zealand and Australia, Indians are the highest-spending tourist group.

Part of such oversight is clearly due to the media's poor military-technical expertise. In their reports about the challenge of delivering aid on the scale required after the tsunami, BBC correspondents repeatedly failed to underline that America's proposed relief coalition with India, Japan and Australia depended heavily on India.

As it happens, the Indian air force has three times the transporter fleet of Japan and six times that of Australia. In addition, its IL-76 Gajraj carries twice the payload of the C-130 Hercules military transporters used by Australia and Japan.

The Great Indian Absence, however, also extended to the Washington Post. On its website, the paper presented a striking sequence of pictures about the tsunami's aftermath.

One showed a woman in India with outstretched hands, drawing attention to the "lack of helicopters" in the region.

Another depicted an American SH-60 helicopter, stuffed with food. In spite of the Internet, 'Post' reporters had not consulted sources such as the website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

They would then have learned that India's military operates more helicopters than Japan, Indonesia and Thailand combined. This includes the Indian Dhruv helicopter, now being considered by several countries for search and rescue.

Notwithstanding its scale, the Indian relief operation involved only about one-tenth of its 225 military transport aircraft and 400 helicopters. In spite of the subtle allusions to a helpless but savaged region, India's capabilities should never have been an issue.

One of the most surreal examples of the Great Indian Absence, however, occurred when European experts on television were using Indian IRS remote-sensing satellite imagery on the tsunami damage — while complaining about a lack of technology in the region.

As it happens, IRS images about a potential Tibetan dam burst in the summer of 2004 led to a mass evacuation in northern India. This riverine equivalent of a tsunami might otherwise have resulted in several thousand casualties.

India's high-technology early warning and disaster management systems go further than remote-sensing. They also include sophisticated weather satellites directed at the routine — but still-devastating — hazard of cyclones.

Across the entire Indian Ocean, seaborne search and rescue is enabled wholly via the Indian-designed INSAT 3-A satellite.

And more recently, India's post-tsunami relief efforts were buttressed by sophisticated satellite hook-ups at its Integrated National Command Post, which provides real-time links to all military units across the country — and to every naval vessel out at sea.

Knowing such facts may help put relief and disaster management issues into perspective in the future, both in Asia and elsewhere, long after the media has gone home.

One salutary case would be the widely reported gush of Western sympathy for victims of the earthquake at Bam, Iran, in December 2003.

Until the tsunami, few journalists — or NGOs — cared to follow-up this story, and report that just $17 million of the $1 billion pledged by the international community had been received by Iran.

Four months after the Bam quake, a paragraph buried within a report by the British Guardian newspaper referred to what was clearly one of most significant contributions to that relief operation.

An "elaborate Indian military hospital that treated 48,000 patients and performed 2,500 operations since the earthquake", said the Guardian, "packed up this week, leaving a serious gap in medical services."

Indeed, questioning the relief and disaster management capacities of a country like India reveals an outdated mindset.

India has 25 million tons of food stocks, produces one-sixth of the world's generic medicines, exports doctors and nurses to fill shortfalls in the West — and, in April 2003, vaccinated 100 million children in just one day.

Clinging to the idea that India is entirely backward is clearly a waste of time — and only serves to keep stereotypes alive well beyond their expiration date.

As hysterical outbursts about the threat of epidemics finally wane, India's own relief efforts however seem to have also disappeared off the world media's radar.

In a rare exception on January 19, 2005, a social worker told Charles Haviland of BBC News that newly-orphaned children in India were, relief-wise, "very satisfied with what they are getting."

True, much more remains to be done. But an analysis of India's response to the Asian tsunami only underlines the point that the world urgently needs to adjust its thinking — as well as its institutions — to such new realities.

This also concerns the G-7, whose exclusion of countries like India and China risks making it an anachronism.

And last but not least, the United Nations could only benefit from the presence of a mature and capable India as a permanent member of the Security Council.