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'India has not spurned foreign aid…'

By Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
December 30, 2004 01:43 IST
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The government of India is not refusing to accept foreign aid; it has only requested foreign countries to wait awhile before sending in aid as funds from the Indian kitty are yet to be fully utilised.

Addressing a press conference in Delhi, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was among the first ministers to tour the entire tsunamis-affected areas, including Andaman and Nicobar Islands, denied rumours that the Indian government, out of pride, has turned down an Australian offer to help out.

"We are only telling them to wait for some time. Right now, India has the necessary funds. Only after that is disbursed will we be willing to accept all and any aid that comes our way," he said.

Foreign countries have offered aid, and India is willing to accept it, but at this stage, the material would merely pile up since a distribution mechanism is yet to be put in place.

Talking about aid, he said he had been overwhelmed by the offers from across the country. "At moments like these, you realise that we are all Indians," he told the gathered journalists in New Delhi on December 29.

"Already, all the newspapers have announced tsunami relief funds and contributions from people across the country is pouring in. The response of the people has been amazing," he said.

The defence minister said the relief operations being carried out were the largest in recent times.

"Over 4,000 troops are being utilised, some 30 ships, 30 choppers, and 25 aircraft are involved," he said adding that 500 tonnes of food, water, clothing and medicines were being distributed among the affected people. Moreover, 150 tonnes of medical equipment was also being sent to the affected areas, where most houses, offices and clinics have been completely destroyed.

The Centre has directed the state governments to look at long-term rehabilitation plans. "Most of those who have been most badly hit are fishermen who have lost their boats, houses and nets. The central government has decided to ensure that all such affected people are completely rehabilitated so that they can resume their normal lives as soon as possible. They will be given complete assistance to that effect," Mukherjee said adding that insurance companies have been told to disburse funds without hindrance or delay.

While some of the mechanised or fibre-glass boats were insured, most of the catamarans owned by poor fishermen were not, and the government would help them resume their profession.

The defence minister, who told mediapersons that he was the among the first to reach the most badly hit Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said that reconnaissance missions were being carried over the many islands that are considered uninhabited.

So devastating were the tsunamis that over 80% of the establishments up to one kilometre inland from the coast were destroyed. "So far, over 350,000 persons have been evacuated and some 6000 persons are being treated in hospitals," he added.

Most of the tribals were safe since they tended to occupy the higher portions of the islands. The Andamanese, Sentinalese, Jarwa, Ongis live on the higher reaches; but the Nicobarese occupied the lower plains and were the most badly affected, the minister said.

Tragically, many Indian Air Force personnel, based at the Car Nicobar air base, had been killed in the tsunamis. "We have identified 27 officers and their families, while 76 are missing. Also missing are some contract workers at the airbase," he said.

The defence minister averred that while ships and aircraft were not affected, the jetties and the communication equipment across the islands were badly damaged and are being repaired.

Later, a senior government official said that unlike in the past, this time the central government was providing assistance right away, without waiting for any request to come in. "As an ad hoc measure, the central government is making funds available to help the people restart their lives," he said.

In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which as a Union territory is administered directly by the central government, relief measures are already underway.

Though most of the islands are listed as uninhabited, recent reports have indicated that some people had settled down on them. "As per the census, of the 350 islands, only 23 or so were actually inhabited, including the seven big islands. But we are not taking any chances and looking at all the islands," the senior government official said.
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Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi