Here, a few hundred kilometers from coastal Andhra Pradesh, the papers and TV are carrying nonstop heartbreak: a military officer clinging to his two small children, keeping their heads above the surface until he finally swallows too much seawater, passes out, and lets them slip away; dozens of women dying at one Andhra Pradesh beach, held underwater as their sarees become tangled in seaweed, while a handful manage to crawl, naked, onto dry land; more than 150 children in one mass grave in Tamil Nadu; propane cylinders exploding as people attempt a mass cremation fueled by the all-too-plentiful debris; desperate thirst driving people to drink contaminated or even salt water; two young men, their own families gone, poling their small wooden boat continuously for two days, to ferry more than 2000 stranded people to the mainland.
This calamity struck largely at people who typically bear more than their share of everyday hardship, punctuated at times by full-blown disasters (such as the 1977 cyclone that killed 10,000 in Andhra Pradesh alone). Were we living in a world governed by reality, the tsunami would, at long last, awaken Americans from our self-pitying dream, a fantasy world in which the attacks of September 11, 2001 brought our people a degree of suffering without precedent in history.
A comparison of the 9/11 and 12/26 body counts would be indecent; we all know a catastrophe when we see it. In dealing with immediate consequences of such horror, governments will salvage some situations and bungle others. It’s in their larger, strategic response that they tend do the really big damage.
Our government’s strategy after 9/11 was strangely unconnected to the event itself. It was as if, in the aftermath of the tsunami, Sri Lanka were to invade oil-rich Indonesia, or if India were to begin rounding up and jailing its population of Muslim men.
After these floods, as after any disaster, there will be well-fed scoundrels, official and unofficial, who exploit people’s misery. But as far as I know, no one here is planning to replicate the 12/26 body count many times over through massive bombing as we did in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. None of the tsunami-affected countries, no matter how desperate for outside resources, is now claiming a God-given right to invade other nations at will.
Off the coast of Guntur district in this state, a fisherman named Ramaswami lost his wife, son, and grandson when the series of tidal waves capsized their boat. His comment to a reporter for the Deccan Chronicle began with, “I wish my enemy should not bear such pain.” If only there were more people with Ramaswami’s philosophy in Washington.
With grand flourishes, the Bush administration has pledged a measly $35 million for relief, with “more to come<www.counterpunch.org>.” Imagine that, instead, the U.S. government were make a commitment on the scale of the 2001-02 Afghanistan invasion alone — many billions of dollars worth of equipment, supplies, and person-power. The United States has enough resources to make a real difference in the Indian Ocean region now, were it not constrained by self-pity, callousness, and PR-consciousness.
For us as individuals, sending donations is a tricky business. Sorting out relief groups according to their on-the-ground effectiveness is difficult here, as it is anywhere. But for those who want to help, I can recommend without reservation the Institute for Rural Health Studies, which has operated in rural Andhra Pradesh since 1979. Currently, they are making up packets of poshana, a food for small children, and hauling them by the truckload to Prakasam district, where the fishing villages have lost all of their boats and starvation looms.
Poshana is a highly nutritious mixture of ground wheat, peanut, and dal, with iron. The more funds IRHS has, the more poshana it can provide. If you would like to, write a tax-deductible check to Rural Health Studies Trust, 27413 Meadowbrook Lane, Davis, CA 95616. Please send an email to IRHS headquarters in Hyderabad: firstname.lastname@example.org to let them know how much you donated, and they can start buying more ingredients right away. These folks have been doing this for 25 years, and they do it right.
STAN COX is senior research scientist at the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., and a member of the institute’s Prairie Writers Circle. He can be reached at: email@example.com