The current loss of lives in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands currently stands at 3,000 and rising (it might well go up to 4,000). To understand what this means: imagine a quake across India that completely swallows both Bangalore and Hyderabad.
When we say 3,000 people in the A&N Islands, it amounts to around 0.9% of the islands' population (estimated at 307,000, in the 2001 census it was 356,000; Bangalore and Hyderabad today boast populations of 4.5 million each, which works out to nine million combined and thus 0.9% of India's one billion plus).
On a proportionate basis, the loss of lives in the islands must surely rank as one of the worst disasters ever in India, perhaps in the world.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are not always on the consciousness of the average Indian. Far away, they give the impression of a Shangri-la, a Camelot, a tropical paradise of sun, sand, and sea. In fact, if remembered, it is more for its historical role, when it served as a prison for those involved in the freedom struggle.
And if news from the islands does come in, it is usually linked to defence: this archipelago comprises some 350 islands: seven major islands and some so small that regular maps can't even depict them. The A&N Islands are considered southern India's first line of defence, and increasingly, as a place for the navy to keep watch over the key sea routes linking Southeast Asia and West Asia.
The islands can also boast of hosting India's first attempt to integrate the three armed forces. The Tri-services Command is headquartered at Port Blair, under the overall command of the Indian Navy.
Port Blair, the largest town and port, is the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which as a Union territory is directly administered by New Delhi. It is also a major naval base.
The islands are incidentally closer to Indonesia than to India and the southernmost tip, now known as Indira Point, is just eight degrees north of the equator. The quake's epicentre was just 107 kilometres away from Campbell Bay (which adjoins Indira Point).
Not surprisingly, when the earthquake struck with its epicentre just off the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, these islands were literally the first in the line of the tsunamis. Besides causing death and damage that is still to be assessed, the tsunamis cut off lines of communication. Hence, the final death toll is yet to be known.
The navy is setting up portable communicating equipment so that the marooned and cut-off islands can re-establish contact with Port Blair.
"With so many islands, it will be quite some time before the final figures come in, and obviously, at present the primary effort is in providing relief and rehabilitation and picking up all the survivors that can be found," said a source in the armed forces.
Ships and helicopters of the Indian Navy are on reconnaissance missions around the islands to pick up survivors or any person lost at sea, besides providing desperately needed relief material in the form of drinking water, food, medicines, and clothes.
When the tsunamis struck the islands, the naval ships in Port Blair harbour escaped damage. "Immediately after the first tsunami, we put all the ships out at sea," said an armed forces officer. [At sea, ships can ride tsunamis; it is near land that tsunamis crash on to them, causing damage.]
Two Indian Navy ships and a tanker have begun a shuttle service carrying relief material between Visakapatnam and Port Blair. Furthermore, two merchant ships of Shipping Corporation of India have also been pressed into service to carry relief material to the islands.
Further, four ships and a Landing Ship Tank-Large (a naval ship that can carry tanks), the INS Gharial, have been pressed into relief operations for Car Nicobar Island, one of the worst affected islands. The ships are carrying 20 tonnes of relief material, including cables to repair the communications network.
The Indian Air Force and the army brigade stationed at Port Blair are also being pressed into service across this littoral territory.
Car Nicobar has an airbase, which suffered some damage. "But the airstrip that was damaged has been made operational," the officer said.
The IAF is flying three AN-32 and an IL-76 aircraft from Tambaran, Tamil Nadu, to the Carnic (Car Nicobar) airbase with relief material. "Also, two AN-32 are shuttling between Port Blair and Carnic, carrying provisions," the officer said adding that two Avro aircraft had ferried supplies from Baroda to Tambaran, from where they would be shipped to Port Blair.
The officer added that the many jetties dotting the various islands too had been damaged. "Troops are engaged in fixing the jetties," he said.