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Reconstruction moving slowly in India's Nicobar and Andaman islands

HUT BAY, India—G.N. Chakroborty knows precisely how long he's been living in a ramshackle relief camp.

"Fifty-eight days," the tsunami survivor, 41, told a visitor recently. By all appearances, there are many more days to come.

Two months after the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the rebuilding of India's far-flung Andaman and Nicobar Islands has barely gotten off the ground. Only now are toilets being installed in some of the refugee camps.

The Nicobars, a few hundred miles north of the earthquake's epicenter, suffered more than any other place in India. At least 7,000 people are feared dead out of a population of 42,000. Another 65 perished farther north in the Andamans, and thousands more were left homeless. Only 1,400 bodies have been recovered; the rest are missing and may have washed out to sea.

While reconstruction has been slow almost everywhere, it appears to be even slower in Andaman and Nicobar. Some aid groups blame India's sluggish government bureaucracy.

The isolation of the islands, 572 dots spread over nearly 500 miles of open water, 700 miles from India's east coast, is also to blame. Only 36 of the islands are inhabited. They once served as penal colonies for British colonial India.

Traveling between islands can take a day or more by ferry, and relief deliveries are often delayed for lack of cargo space.

"It's not like the Sudan, where you have convoys of relief," said Vinod Menon, the emergency coordinator in India for UNICEF, the United Nations children's fund. "Here, you can't do that because there are no roads."

Nearly 40,000 survivors are living in 150 camps on eight islands. The sluggishness of the reconstruction has left the refugees in limbo, unsure what their next move is.

Many of the 350,000 island residents—particularly in the Andamans—are migrants from the Indian mainland. Chakroborty arrived a dozen years ago. He worked for a timber company before setting up his own store, selling books and operating a phone booth where people could make long-distance calls.

Now, with his business and house washed away, he's weighing a return to the mainland.

"I don't have anything here, and I'm afraid the tsunami will hit again," he said, pausing to help his 5-year-old daughter, Padma, with a multiplication problem.

Dr. Dipankar Roy, who runs his own disaster relief group, tries to ease Chakroborty's fears. Tsunamis occur only every 70 to 100 years, he said.

But another camp resident, Satirani Sarkar, 42, added another consideration.

"What will happen to the next generation if the tsunami comes again?" she asked.

Their camp, outside the hard-hit town of Hut Bay on Little Andaman island, is home to 2,500 people who live in a patchwork of tarps, cloth and corrugated metal sheets, all lashed onto dead branches stuck into the sun-baked soil.

The government has promised to erect temporary housing—six-unit barracks—before the monsoon season arrives in mid-April and turns the camps into swamps.

But with seven weeks to go, construction has yet to begin on Little Andaman. The only sign of activity during a recent visit was three workers clearing a site by hand, swinging machetes in an overgrown field.

Mihir Joshi, an engineer from an aid agency designated by the government to oversee the project, said the job could be completed on time "if everything goes well." With some of the construction material still not on hand, though, he wasn't making any promises.

For now, the camp routine has become a semi-permanent way of life for the survivors. One man who intends to stay in Hut Bay has opened a tea stall outside his tent on the back of a rusted three-wheeled bicycle cart.

"I felt I had to start something for a living," said Shribas Das, 42, pouring out short glasses of tea for about six cents each. He used powdered infant formula for milk.

The tsunami wiped out the family-run restaurant and stationery business his father started 30 years ago. But having lived in the Andamans since he was 12, Das considers the islands home.

Outside the camps, there are signs of revival in inland parts of Hut Bay. One man erected a new shed for his television repair business. Nearby, a woman on her porch carefully cleaned the sand from a valued biology textbook.

Reconstruction is complicated in the Nicobars, where some islands sank during the earthquake, submerging areas where villages once stood.

Most of the Nicobars' inhabitants aren't mainland migrants, so they have little choice but to rebuild.

And the Nicobars are off-limits to outsiders because most of them are designated as tribal reserves. The government has opened them to Indian nationals from several aid groups, but foreigners are still prohibited.

About 1,000 Nicobarese have been evacuated to a relief camp in the Andaman city of Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar. Interviews with them provided some sense of the devastation.

"The entire terrain has changed," said Mehmood Ali, 32.

Two villages on his island of Car Nicobar have lost so many people that tribal elders have decided to merge them into the other 13 villages on the island.

Though all 900 people in Ali's village of Chukchucha survived, the tsunami flattened the community. The elders are relocating the population inland, in the jungle.

It's not a pleasant prospect. "We're used to seeing the ocean," Ali said. "It was a nice, serene place. It won't be the same."

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(Moritsugu is a special correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): tsunami

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050303 TSUNAMI

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