By Kavita Choudhary

Looking forward to the advent of the coming year, reflecting on the year at the verge of ending did lead to the realization that the changes in these ten years have been profound; we have progressed in many ways – some happy and some not so happy. But, all concrete and accepted.

Going back in memory, led me to the end & beginning of a year about ten years back….

Calamities have a way of bringing people together in a manner no cause for celebration can. It touches upon one’s thoughts, feelings and actions so profoundly that one can never overcome it. It acquaints one with the pain and loss of a complete stranger submerging distance and anonymity. One single incident which brought me close to humanity, humbled me for life, and made me realize how blessed I was to be in a position to give, however little, was the one I never experienced personally.

On a quiet Sunday (26 December 2004), blissfully stationed somewhere on the northern tip of India with my family, gathered to enjoy the vacation, we saw the first flash on news about the earthquake in the Indian Ocean, with its epicenter off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Not the news to focus on when one is in a celebratory mood, we decided to give the news channels a break.

Closing eyes cannot change the facts, and with morning came the news of the gravity of this calamity. The third largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph, followed by strong aftershocks, resulting in the Boxing Day tsunami, demanded recognition. Over 15 countries suffered the devastation, including most of the Indian coastline.

What struck me most was its imprint on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Besides impacting the lives and property of many, loss of livelihood for most, it also changed the geographical feature of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and consequently, that of India. Some islands vanished, some got reduced in size and some simply split in two. The actual consequences of this devastation probably can never be estimated and its impact can never be assuaged. The death toll and the number of people who went missing could by no means be exactly accounted. Loss was only known and felt by them who faced it. Aftershocks rocked the area, and one-fifth of the population of the Nicobar Islands was reported dead, injured or missing.

On Car Nicobar, 111 Indian Air Force personnel and their family members were washed away when the tsunami severely damaged their air base.  Of these 111 families one was known to me, and having known that one person has bound me to these islands for life.

This natural catastrophe, its expected consequences and the pace of our administrative body did sadly delay the required relief aid; only saving grace being that the damage could be contained and widespread disease and famine prevented. Also a massive joint effort got initiated soon to rebuild the coastal villages.

To my memory, Tsunami seems to be one of the first disasters which was covered and reported so extensively. It highlighted the considerable difference that media coverage can ensure. Segment of vigilant and sincere media, irrespective of its biased siblings, managed to unfold the scenes of carnage in each household across the country, making each of us live through the same loss and feel the pain of this loss. My mind still marvels at the response this traumatizing event elicited from one and all. Overnight, Andaman & Nicobar Islands was embraced and it was no longer an obscure island merely associated with Kalapaani. The disaster did multiply all existing developmental and societal issues being faced by the Islanders, but it also brought the same in front of all who had conveniently been blind to it - by choice.

The after-effects of Tsunami pushed and coerced each Indian and reflected a change that still stands true. We as a nation came to the fore as more self-reliant and independent. A large number of volunteers and companies within India came forward to assist the government in the cleanup and re-establishment process.

No one can deny that things were far from perfect; as expected, death was followed by a fair number of scavengers; many turned it into a platform for self projection; many actions were dictated by self interest; many lapses and flaps were swathed; many deserving of compassion and support were sidelined; but all the dastardly actions were more than balanced by the countless acts of genuine and selfless help. Many volunteers and group of volunteers came forward in this moment of crisis and managed to reinstitute our faith in humanity. Tsunami turned to be a stepping-stone in reflecting what we as Indians can manage for ourselves and for each other. The aftermath of Tsunami did witness unprecedented loss, but it also observed the many unknown shoulders coming forward to share the burden of this loss.

The belief that we are one; the conviction that there are many to support in the moment of need; the certainty that the pain experienced by one was felt by many; united us to a great extent. We turned to be Indians irrespective of our caste, creed, religion or region; truly united in diversity.

The Islanders’ ability to forgive, forget and accept has been exemplary. Their ability to overlook past lapses and hold close the existing governance without cynicism is laudable. Their ability to reinstate themselves within a short span of time, overcome the loss in spite of the ongoing pain is commendable. Today Andaman & Nicobar Islands has many challenges to overcome, many milestones to cover and many dreams to fulfill. But none to parallel the one they prevailed over ten years back and stepped forward in glory.