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5,000 missing: A&N officials fear the worst

By Sheela Bhatt in Port Blair
December 31, 2004 05:47 IST
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According to a top official of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 'we will consider ourselves lucky if the final death toll remains confined to 5,000'.

His fears are borne out of the fact that several thousand people are still missing since Sunday December 26 when a quake, followed by tsunamis, struck the Indian Ocean archipelago, causing widespread devastation.

People were taken unawares by the quake and the tsunamis. Officials fear that many may been washed away by the surging sea water.

Though the toll so far has been put at 400-odd, the figures of those missing is being taken as an indicator of what the final toll might be.

"When tsunamis hit the shore, would it leave behind bodies? We believe that most people now listed as missing could actually be dead and the bodies lost in the sea," a senior bureaucrat in Port Blair said.

Till the bodies are found, the government would continue to say that 5,000-odd persons are missing to respect popular sentiment.

The Indian Coast Guard has been making the rounds of the islands to take stock of the situation. It has noted two instances, which give an idea of the magnitude of the calamity.

According to an entry on December 28 in the log book of CG vessel Vivek, the ship visited Chowra Island, which is in the southern part of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Vivek was the first ship to reach Bompoka village on Chowra Island. The sailors 'found only 500-600 survivors out of a population of 1,500'. CG doctors treated the injured while 20 critically ill were evacuated.

A day after, when CG officials visited Katchal Island, they found that less than half of the 5,000-odd population had survived.

Katchal Island is 228 nautical miles (422km) from Port Blair but less than 100 nautical miles (~185km) from the epicentre of the quake, near Indonesia, which measured 8.9 on the Richter scale. It appears to have become the Bhachau (a town in Kutch region of Gujarat, which was devastated by the January 2001 earthquake) of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

According to Janki Andharia of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, there is a need to count the survivors instead of dead people. Her institute is exploring ways to help affected people.

Chief Secretary V V Bhat explained that the tragedy is bigger than people imagine. Andaman and Nicobar Islands are rated Zone V by earthquake experts and is vulnerable to seismic movements. Besides, Barren Island, which is situated in the northern parts, even has a passive volcano.

To compound matters, the aftershocks reported in the past few days have dealt a major psychological blow to the local population.

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Sheela Bhatt in Port Blair