Indigenous Engine

How disasters affect indigenous people

How the Tsunami affected indigenous people

By Malini Shankar & Rashid Yusuf

Digital Discourse Foundation

“If the Mega Andaman Sumatra Earthquake on 26.12.2004 lasting for 8 – 10 minutes, and the ensuing monster tsunami – counting atleast eight waves that lashed the Nicobar Islands were unprecedented, the aid money that poured into the isolated islands was worse in terms of socio political impact” says Prince Rashid Yusuf of Nancowrie, sharing his unique emotional perspective while speaking exclusively to Digital Discourse.

The ancestral palace of the Queen of Nancowrie was devastated by the Asian Tsunami in the Nancowrie Island of Middle Nicobar district. © “Prince” Rashid Yusuf, WWMC.

The sheer volume of the aid money that poured into an isolated Island chain that lacked even a basic economy corrupted the fragile indigenous social fabric of the Islanders’ society unprepared for anything more complex than the hard labour of fishing. More money than there were goods and services to buy corrupted the psyche of the simple Islanders! The security of the natives of the Islands has never before been a bigger concern.

The Tri Command / United Command – comprising of units of India’s Army Navy and Airforce and also of Coast Guard are stationed in this United Command in Port Blair and patrol sorties take wings every ten minutes to cover all Islands. Poachers from Myanmar and illegal fishing vessels are the primary concern, aver officials and Islanders in the same breath! But foreign powers now eying the Islands for a military base camp for a future war around the Indian Ocean rim states makes the lives of the Islanders even more of a fait accompli. Nicobarese resent the Coast Guard acquiring Islanders’ terrain in Kamorta Island of Middle Nicobar Islands for construction of a Coast Guard station.

Rashid alludes to the unspoilt paradise that were the islands of Nicobar district in India’s Union Territory of Andaman Nicobar Islands strung between Sumatra in the South and Myanmar in the north in the Bay of Bengal. The best and most honourable intentions have had unforeseen consequences.

Defence personnel from all over India posted in ANI, give a sense of national integration to the Islanders making the Union Territory the semblance of a Microcosm of India which is largely well received. Hindi is the lingua franca of the Islands today offsetting the importance of native languages like Andamanese / Nicobarese. The advantage is that Hindi the national language easily integrates the divergent groups of people in the Islands. But there is no native language programmes on either Doordarshan – the state TV broadcaster nor All India Radio; seconding the fact that no native Islanders find employment in executive positions in either All India Radio or Doordarshan in Port Blair. It follows then that no locally created content is aired on the state broadcasters; private TV channels / cable do not have the logistical reach and resources to cover the Islands’ need for locally created content.

It is also a matter of concern that the outsiders manning the State run broadcasting stations are not committed to taking initiative in disaster risk reduction in the highly seismic Islands. The fact that the 11th April 2012 Major earthquakes (of 8.2 and 8.6) that triggered a Tsunami alert by Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services was not broadcast on All India Radio Port Blair station is a case in point.

The tradition of Dal Chawal – or rice and lentil soup made its presence in Nicobars equally because of Defence forces as well as post Tsunami relief. The Islanders’ native nutrition and staple diet revolved around Pandanus, fish, rice and coconut before the Asian Tsunami. But cooked lentil soup – Dal and rice substituting native nutrition in the name of food security has triggered large scale sedentary lifestyle by displacing the traditional division of labour. Coupled with tectonic activity and the nightmares associated with memories of the Asian Tsunami the propensity for higher rates of hypertension has become significant in the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami.

Refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are also housed in the Islands. The officials of the federally administered Islands not many of who have grown up in the Islands lack an Islander’s perspective and are thus accused of not factoring well the needs of the Islanders.

We have heard romantic tales of a Bo tribal man (Great Andamanese) having gracefully climbed up the tallest tree in Strait Island because he knew of the Tsunami; that he had the time to beckon his family / clan members to climb the tree while he himself waded the Tsunami’s seven waves and then finally climbed the tree himself to await till the tsunami waves subsided.

This picture of a young Bo woman with her baby being rescued by the Coast Guard ship belies the claim that tribals in Andaman were not affected by the Asian Tsunami. The Andamanese, Bo, Onges Sentinalese and Jarawas inhabit the Andaman Islands while the Nicobarese live in Nicobar and the small populace of the Shompens to live in the Great Nicobar Island in the Nicobar district south of the Ten Degrees Channel. © PRO, United Command, Port Blair.

The truth is the tsunami was not as monstrous in Andamans as it was in the Nicobars. The Nicobars Islands – being closer to the epicentre off Sumatra subsided into the ocean whereas the Andaman Islands north of the Ten Degrees Channel heaved up by atleast three metres during the mega earthquake.

The remote resemblance of the story of the tribal man climbing the tree is reproduced here from my book Preparing for the Day After (


First person account of Francis Alexis Captain of Daring village in Champion Island Kamorta, Nancowrie Nicobar: “When the earthquake struck we instinctively ran to the seashore because there is no danger of trees and construction falling on us. Inland trees were swaying violently. The gut feeling based on which traditional wisdom has evolved is to stay away from swaying trees in this earthquake prone area, so sea shore is the safest. But as we went to the shore we heard someone scream that the water is coming quick and fast. The first wave came in within 15 minutes. The first wave came till the middle of the Island and swept back with all of civilisation as debris in its belly. It withdrew far from the shore. Then the second, third wave were each mightier than the one before. In all we had about seven big powerful waves that day. I ran with my two children and wife and climbed up a Jamun tree (Syzigium cuminii). We were high up on the tree but even then the waves came up to my waist as I clung to dear life on top of the swaying tree. I reckon I must have been about 12 metres above ground. As the water level decreased, - gradually me and my wife climbed down slowly. After reaching ground the water inundation was about my height -1.7 metres. The village was destroyed we could not identify or find anything. It was like a war zone. 130 people died in my village out of a population of 185; The next day, me my wife and family walked for about 18 kilometres to the HQ through the jungle. I think we left the night halt spot at around 6.00 am and reached HQ at around 4.00 pm. Only then did I realise that I was stark naked.

All my clothes were washed off by the tsunami. My wife too barely had any clothes on her. Me, my wife and children survived for one day without food and water to drink. 14 members of my extended family perished in the killer waves. That night I slept in the open jungle under the sky. I lost two of my children and my father to the tsunami”.


3000 souls perished because none in living memory in the forlorn volcanic islands had the faintest idea of a tsunami.

Smugglers and pirates from the Straits of Malacca bartered large screen LED TV sets with Islanders who received monetary aid as compensation. Put simply, the aid was unsustainably profligate: Nicobari families got lot of aid money for fishing boats, craft and gear. But in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami struck Islanders refused to put out to sea for fishing out of fear. Mechanised fishing / boating is not ideal for the sea loving and fishing loving Islanders. Meanwhile the pirates made good while the Sun shone. The Tsunami survivors were left without money to buy food rations.

In other instances a woman from Banda Aceh applied for tsunami compensation but was denied for want of documentation to prove her Indian citizenship. In another instance a Nicobarese ‘mistress’ of a Sumatran man was denied Tsunami compensation.

Given that the Andaman Islands – separated from the Nicobar Islands by the 10 Degrees Channel – geologically – was less affected by the Asian Tsunami then Nicobar Islands have led to mistrust and misgivings of discrimination between Andamanese and Nicobarese.

Like all festive days the Nicobarese had celebrated Christmas on the 25th of December and, intoxicated on coconut wine they crawled into their earthen mattresses late night. Nicobarese are wont to live on the edge of the sea given their preference to fishing. Their fragile ‘traditional straw huts’ did not so much as stand the fierce winds accompanying the tsunami wave.

In flat Car Nicobar, Islanders who were shockingly awoken by the earthquake did not have time to stretch their muscles before running to safety because the Tsunami waves reached the centre of the island unhindered within minutes after the mega earthquake. Many were so rudely awoken by the jolt from under the ground early next morning that it was too late for some to run from the invading waters of the Asian Tsunami. Those Islanders in hilly terrain like Nancowrie and Campbell Bay / Great Nicobar atleast had higher ground to run to. Car Nicobar on the other hand is a flat Island and the deadly Tsunami waters reached the centre of the Island within minutes of the Mega Earthquake.

The idea of alternate livelihood options for livelihood security for the Islanders – significant disaster risk reduction technique no doubt – was not adapted to suit the needs and requirements of the simple lifestyle of the Islanders. Kitchen gardens / cultivation of herbs for alternate means of food security for fish eating islanders tethered on the amusing note. They cup their one hand palm to gesticulate the amount of Kichidi dished out to survivors of the Tsunami. Nevertheless they remain grateful to this day that the Government of India took care of their day to day needs in the face of an unprecedented calamity. Many survivors of the Tsunami I met in the Nicobar Islands are incredulous about vegetarian food. Culture sensitive food security means fish is the staple for coastal communities, not herb flavoured multigrain vegetarian dishes! However they count the post calamity relief as the primary cause for their survival post Tsunami. And they remain grateful that they did not starve.

Natural calamities in the history of the planet have caused entire civilisations to be wiped out. Today’s population densities ensure that such consequences will not be likely. All the same, global agenda for local needs is the key to adaptation for disaster risk reduction.