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Statement by External Affairs Minister Shri K. Natwar Singh at the Special Meeting of leaders convened by ASEAN in the aftermath of the Earthquake and Tsunami

January 6, 2005

Your Excellency Dr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, President of the Republic of Indonesia Your Excellencies Heads of State and Government Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations Distinguished Foreign Ministers
Colleagues and Friends,

Existing vocabularies are inadequate to describe the intensity and magnitude of the horrendous catastrophe that hit a dozen countries of the Indian Ocean. The light went out of so many homes in so many countries in so short a span of time – only a few minutes.

Yesterday, the Foreign Minister of Indonesia used a striking phrase for this Conference – “ a community of grief”. I agreed. But let me also add that this community of grief is not and must not become a community of despair. As the Prime Minister of Singapore said, the resilience of the human spirit cannot be underestimated. We are facing this unmeasurable tragedy with determination, vigour, resolution, strong-nerves and with the dedicated team of workers under the UN. The year 2004 ended in unparalleled tragedy. 2005 begins with collective hope and sustained action.

South and Southeast Asia are a region joined by history and by deep rooted social and cultural ties. We are also, we realize, joined by one ocean. Centuries of interaction have created a natural sense of affinity and empathy amongst our people. It is, therefore, only natural that we have today come together in the face of this unprecedented disaster. Other friends from across the globe have joined us. This vividly demonstrates the truth of the ancient Sanskrit saying “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, or that the world is one family, said more than 3000 years ago.

In India, the Tsunami has caused extensive damage in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Pondicherry. The death toll has already crossed the figure of 9,500 and is likely to go up further as more than 5,800 persons are still missing.

The Government of India, along with those of the affected Indian States and Union Territories, has mounted massive relief and rescue operations. Initially, the focus was on search, evacuation and relief efforts. The situation in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Pondicherry has stabilized, and is returning to normalcy. It is stabilizing rapidly in various islands in Andaman district. The focus now is on establishing the communications network, prevention of outbreaks of epidemics and relief and rescue operations in the Nicobar Group of islands, which are the worst affected. Large quantities of food, drinking water, medicines, tents, torches and generator sets have been delivered, and more are ready for delivery. Supplies to inaccessible areas are being air-dropped. For the Andaman and Nicobar Group of Islands, an Integrated Relief Command has been constituted for effective coordination and operationalization of relief and rehabilitation measures. Till the 4th of January the Government of India had incurred an expenditure of US $ 250 million on the relief and rehabilitation effort within India. We have also given due importance to alleviating the psychological impact of the disaster through trauma counseling, early reopening of schools and providing access to TV sets.

We deeply appreciate the offers of help which have poured in from several countries. So far we have managed on our own. Our experience of handling natural disasters has enabled us to develop well-defined institutional mechanisms for disaster management at all levels. The lessons that we learnt from the Orissa cyclone of 2000, the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 and other disasters have helped us to effect a paradigm shift in our approach to disaster management, proceeding from the conviction that development cannot be sustainable unless disaster mitigation is built into the development process at all levels. There are designated officers to coordinate the entire disaster response at the national, state and district levels. These institutions swing into action immediately in the aftermath of a disaster. Standard operating procedures for different disasters have been developed and regular drills are organized. A Calamity Relief Fund has been set up in each State to enable State Governments to incur immediate expenditure on response and relief operations in the event of a disaster. This is supplemented by a National Calamity Contingency Fund at the Central Government level. Eight battalions of para-military forces have been equipped as Specialist Search and Rescue Teams. This holistic approach was extremely useful in dealing with the aftermath of the Tsunami. We have circulated a document on Disaster Management in India which gives in detail our approach and experience in handling natural disasters. Perhaps this could be of some interest to all of you here.

It is our evaluation that we can deal with the challenges, insofar as they affect India, with our own resources. We would, of course, be in touch with our friends in case any specialized requirements were to come up. It would, therefore, be appropriate that international relief is directed where it is most urgently required. The international outpouring of compassion - and funds - has indeed been tremendous. We realize, however, that more funds may be required in the months to come. Equally important are steps to ensure a long-term coordinated and sustained response and an effective relief distribution mechanism which is transparent and sustained.

I would like to say a special word about the children who have been orphaned by this tragedy. The seven to ten year olds who have lost their parents, we hope that their lives are not darkened forever. We need to provide them solace and comfort.

India, on its part, was among the first countries to contribute to the international relief efforts by sending needed assistance swiftly to our neighbours who have suffered even more.

We have placed a hospital ship off the coast of Aceh, Indonesia, which has been the worst hit area. This ship is providing emergency rations, medicines, tents and first aid kits. It is also equipped to set up on-shore medical facilities. Another naval ship has brought relief and emergency medical supplies. Even as I speak, the Indian relief effort at Meulaboh is in full operation. An onshore field hospital has been set up in this devastated town and relief supplies are being delivered and distributed to the victims. We are ready to do more to assist Indonesia in required areas.

Two naval ships have set up medical camps in the Maldives. A naval tanker with drinking water and a water purification plant is also in place. The four aircraft that carried supplies to the Maldives are now stationed there to assist with rescue and relief operations.

Two naval vessels are berthed at Trincomalee in Sri Lanka and are undertaking clearance work at the harbor. One of them, after discharge of supplies, will be converted into a hospital ship. Another two naval vessels anchored off the Galle port are heli-lifting supplies. Two Iluyshin 76 aircraft carrying military field hospitals have reached Sri Lanka. Seven helicopters and two other aircraft are operating from Colombo.

India whole-heartedly supports the efforts of the United Nations and the presence of the UN Secretary General here today is a testimony to the UN’s important role in coordinating international relief, and in finding ways and means to address the gaps in the relief process. We are happy to place the strengths of the Indian Navy for use in humanitarian relief in the region.

ASEAN has taken the initiative to bring all of us here today. I thank you, Mr. Chairman, and the Prime Minister of Singapore. Our partnership with ASEAN is matter of mutual satisfaction. It will be deepened by our efforts to jointly address the tragedy which we together face today. India and ASEAN have agreed to cooperate in the field of space technology and its applications for weather forecasting and disaster mitigation. We have also established a BIMSTEC Centre on Weather and Climate in New Delhi. Perhaps there is a role here for the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation too. There is great merit to activating a regional approach that complements national efforts to handle natural disasters. This allows us to pool together our respective strengths and complementarities effectively and efficiently.

As we address current disaster relief priorities, it is also time to look at medium to long term objectives. An evaluation is needed of the various long term warning systems for different disasters that we need to put in place. Even more important will be mechanisms to be able to disseminate early warning signals obtained from these systems to the public.

In conclusion, we thank the Government of Indonesia and the Governments of the other ASEAN countries for organizing this meeting. There is need to deal with both emergency relief issues as well as with later phases of rehabilitation and reconstruction. India is committed to continuing its support and assistance in every possible way, including providing trained search and rescue teams, setting up web-based disaster management information systems, and human resources development for disaster management.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity