Thursday, December 29, 2005


Everything about the Andaman and Nicobar islands can leave the Indian mainlander staring with wide-eyed wonderment. For most journalists it was a similar experience - learning how these remote and largely inaccessible islands function, how their ancient tribes live and of course discover the endless beauty of its shores and what a world away these tiny dots in the ocean are from anything we see on the mainland. Vishnu Som, the Associate Editor (Defence) at NDTV was among the first journalists who landed in Car Nicobar after the December 26th tsunami. Here is his account of what he saw, what moved him and what became of one of the world's oldest tribes – the Shompen.

From Heaven to Hell: The Great Nicobar Story

By Vishnu Som Associate Editor (Defence), NDTV

Ever had the feeling of the ground sinking under your feet? It's a strange feeling, the earth gently quivering, not quite an earthquake, but not quite normal either. On Great Nicobar Island, India's southernmost landmass, nothing was normal. Ever since the magnitude 9 earthquake struck, just 40 kms away from where I was reporting, everything had gone topsy-turvy.

Late one evening, as I prepared for a live standup report from Cambell Bay, a small township on the northeast of the island, the ground started shaking again. Should I run, was this a major aftershock ... was another Tsunami just around the corner? Great Nicobar felt like a sinking ship, except that there were no lifeboats. In fact, there was nothing and no one really knew what to expect next. On the one remaining road which connected Campbell Bay and the tiny airstrip the Japanese had built during the Second World War, there were families of crabs, dozens of them, scurrying around. Inside the nearby Coast Guard headquarters, now partially under water, there was only one resident. A crocodile.

The waters of the Bay of Bengal were now just 20 feet away from us. If the waters rose even one foot more, the road would be under water and the only link to the airstrip would be severed. Not that it really mattered. Planes couldn't operate onto the airstrip at night. Rescue would not be possible. But the most frightening reality of Great Nicobar wasn't the aftershocks, or the crashing waves. It was the fact that there were no dead bodies, no over-filled hospitals, no stench of death and devastation and no illness. Those who had survived were in a handful of relief camps. Those who weren't there were dead, their bodies somewhere out there in the ocean, never to be recovered.

The knowledge of death brings with it a sense of closure. For the first several days after the Tsunami, many of those who made it to the relief camps lived with a sense of hope. Sure, their loved ones were missing but who was to say that they were dead?Thousands of people from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are still missing. They have not survived. It's a reality many survivors on the islands have no choice but to slowly come to accept .

Elsewhere on the island, a remarkable story of surviving the odds. The Shompen, perhaps the most isolated tribe in the world date back between 30,000 and 70,000 years. Unlike some of the other tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar chain, the Shompen have conscientiously avoided any contact with `civilization,' content in living off the thick jungles which form the core of the island.Very little is known of the tribe. They are extremely shy, scurrying into the jungles at the sound of helicopters. Armed with poison-tipped spears, the nomadic Shompen hunt wild boar and fish in rivulets which run through the island.

The Shompen may have survived 70,000 years but had any of the 200 tribals survived the wrath of the Tsunami? I joined commandos of the Indian Navy in trying to find out.A day earlier, the first signs that at least some members of the tribe may have made it. Two naval pilots had spotted a Shompen dwelling in a densely forested area along a narrow rivulet. Today, it was time to verify the survival of the tribe.

With the jungles on the island too thick to land a helicopter, I was winched down into a narrow opening and joined by a young commando, a Lieutenant from the Navy in hiking to the Shompen village."Be careful where you tread. This undergrowth is infested with snakes and scoropns. Stay clear of the rivulet, there may be crocs" I was warned. As I hiked along the slippery, muddy slopes alongside the rivulet, falling to my knees every fifty metres or so, I spotted the Shompen village - 6 small thatched structures built on stilts at least 15 feet high and 3 smaller enclosed pens nearby. Wading across the rivulet and climbing the thick slope on the opposite side, we reached the dwelling.

There were no Shompen.

This was a deserted village. Or was it?"They're here said Lieutenant K U Singh. And they're watching. They're probably a 100 metres away from us looking on at us from somewhere there" he said pointing to the thick forests which ringed one side of the village. And sure enough, the signs of the tribe having survived were all there. Smoke from what looked like a cooking utensil, freshly cut fruit, footprints in the mud and wild boar in bamboo cages under the Shompen huts. Soon, it was time to leave. No one really knew about the behaviour patterns of the Shompen and there was every possibility that they could attack. In any event, our goal was not to disturb the tribe, only verify their survival through a natural disaster of unimaginable proportions.

The next day, my last on Great Nicobar, was perhaps the ultimate reality check, an opportunity to view the island from the air, and gauge the true extent of the topographical damage.The Navy flew me along the coastline. Within minutes we were at Indira Point, the southern-most point of India. The lighthouse at the southern tip of the island was ten feet under water, the 16 people who worked here, presumed dead. They had no chance. The Tsunami waves struck the lighthouse less than 5 minutes after they were triggered by the earthquake.

But it was the Western coastline of the islands where the fury of the Tsunami was most evident. Every few kilometers, there were dagger-like blows into the jungles along the coast, sea water making its way upto three kilometers inland, parts of the island completely cut-off, now islands by themselves. However, there was one silver-lining. The parts of the island worst hit by the Tsunami were also the least populated and that really was the saving grace on Great Nicobar. Only 7,500 people lived on the island. 567 are thought to have died. Only 27 bodies have been found, of which just 10 have been identified.

For me as a journalist, the Great Nicobar story was not just about death and suffering. It was also about survival, courtesy a few good men, soldiers of the Indian Army, a few Coast Guard Officers, transport pilots of the Indian Air Force and helicopter pilots of the Indian Navy.Two stories stands out.

Within days of the Tsunami, two Navy pilots flying a tiny Chetak helicopter off the deck of a destroyer rescued a remarkable 170 people from a settlement to the south of Campbell Bay. On each trip, their helicopter could not carry more than 2 survivors but that didn't deter them. They kept flying for more than 5 hours non-stop, landing more than a 100 times in order to bring trapped islanders to safety.

Elsewhere, a young Major of the Indian Army felt that those who survived the disaster may have lost everything, but shouldn't feel that they have lost their dignity. And so, he ordered his soldiers out of their barracks and made them camp outside in the open, while survivors were put into the soldier's barracks and given three proper meals a day.No one knows what is going to happen to Great Nicobar. Most of the settlers who were brought here in the late sixties have lost everything. Most families worked on betel nut and coconut plantations which have been devastated by the giant waves. It takes between 12-14 years for these trees to grow back to their full height. Earning a living off these plantations is just not a possibility.

And then there's the fear factor.

Tremors continue to be felt on the island and the coastline has receded sharply. Sea water levels remain higher than normal. All settlements will have to move further inland, a process of resettlement which may take years.Great Nicobar was a tropical paradise. Warm seas, a stunning coastline, a laid back life. Today, it seems to have gone back a century. A handful of settlers, a handful of soldiers and ofcourse the ever-present Shompen.

(Vishnu Som was the first journalist into Great Nicobar Island and the first to independently corroborate the survival of the Shompen tribe.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


This is a piece I wrote for the first anniversary of the tsunami. I was given all of three days to shoot this story and with almost a month of rain and floods, I had little time to research what was really going on in the tsunami-affected areas. I employed three strands in my story to give viewers a big picture – that the men turned lazy, that women are pulling their weight with help from banks and donor agencies and a strong culture of self-help groups, and that the grief for individual families is still very raw and fresh. Its been re-written in parts to make it a print script. Here it is.

Across Tamil Nadu's tsunami-ravaged coast-line some scenes are common – women gathered in groups – some are weaving baskets, some others are making soaps, somewhere else they’re making dolls, yet another group is making slippers…. the list is long and the road has been hard. But many of these women of the tsunami have shown that the path to salvation is through self-help.

When Palamma returns with her large metal carrier – you know shes been at work selling fish. She didn't make much money today but shes grateful that her familiar routine has been restored. This routine has returned after months of struggle. The fishermen were first beset by a fear of the ocean, then they were happy to live off generous NGO and government doles. But their inaction was making Palamma and many fish-sellers like her - desperate. So she and the other women in the hamlet started applying pressure on the men. Palamma says, “We told them not to be scared and to overcome their fears. We said, the tsunami wasn’t going to come again so they should start their regular fishing and then slowly things began.”

The collector of Nagapattinam, Dr. J Radhakrishnan, a man responsible for reducing the turnaround time on restoring livelihood says that Palamma’s hamlet of Nambiar Nagar set off a trend. “'When the catch came and it was so huge the word went around to the other hamlets. The catalystic role played by the women in that hamlet was perhaps very critical for the other hamlets to realise the bounty available in the sea for them to follow suit and then it caught on like fire and people went fishing... this is one area where I am very thankful to the fisherwomen.”

But fishing activity is going through its annual lean season again and today in most villages you’ll find groups of men at street-corners playing cards.

But a once highly insular fishing community has learnt one very hard lesson – the importance of an alternative livelihood – another skill that can sustain them. Women have shown the lead by coming together in these self-help groups to learn new skills and men are now seeing its virtues.

Sister Lily Pushpam from an NGO called the Daughters of Mary Immaculate has been training self-help groups (SHG’s) for the past 12 years. We met her as she was beginning training with a new group of women. She says the burden of the times is shared unequally. She observes, “Men actually have become lazy because after the tsunami NGO's and voluntary organisations have given enough their mentality today is to ask of whoever comes from outside. They ask for money or materials. The first question is always - what are you going to give?”

But womens groups are also more successful because of their higher credit-worthiness and SHG’s in Nagapattinam have already saved upto 6 crore rupees! It's real empowerment for people like Kavitha. She had been a housewife till the tsunami forced her out, because it killed her husband. After learning printing she makes about 2700 rupees a month – enough to sustain her young son and her. She prints bags that carry the brand name of the products made by the women of Nagapattinam – 'Alai Magal' or 'daughter of the wave'. Then Kavitha's along with the products of hundreds of other groups travels to a specially set up market called ‘Rural Bazaar’ and also to exhibitions in different cities. Through the bazaar one group has even received an order of candles worth 5 million rupees from Netherlands. But the scenario is not entirely optimistic. The difficulty lies in finding and sustaining markets for these products. The district administration has come out with a brochure on all the available products but even they are nervous about the challenges. Dr. J Radhakrishnan says, “What we are worried about is the capacity of these SHG's to manage the requirements of the market once they attain the quality.”

If you want to help you should visit a store called ‘Tsunami ka dukaan’ that has opened recently in Pondicherry. (Its very close to Goubert Avenue. Ask for an art gallery called ‘Aurodhaan’ and they’ll direct you.) The process of the governments disengagement from rehabilitation can only begin once people start patronizing such stores. This enterprise shown by the victims has had both monetary and psychological benefits. Its helped soothe traumatized minds where hope and despair can be easy bedfellows.

I found that the people most desperately searching for a new reason to exist are parents who lost all their little children to the tsunami. One such couple is Selvi and Vijaykumar. The couple lost all their five daughters to the tsunami. But life throbs inside Selvi again. She was one of 50 women who underwent a surgery to reverse an earlier sterilization operation. Only four women have been able to conceive so far and Selvi is one of them. But having this baby will be very different for her. Her husband remains slumped in mourning, a strong smell of alcohol surrounds him, he speaks reluctantly and his face contorts with grief at the mention of his five girls. The name of ‘Sneha’, his favourite daughter, is etched across his heart. He says, “I just drink to forget….i loved Sneha because she was just like a boy. Very boisterous and playful. No matter what time I came home, she’d be awake, waiting for me. She would only go to bed after I bought her a little trifle.’

Vijaykumar has contemplated suicide very often. But somewhere deep inside he does hope to be holding his sixth child soon. Palamma hopes to be making more money once the lean season gets over and the women who are diligently employing their new skills are hoping their products will continue to inspire clients. For now, if you're looking for hope, you'll find it in Nagapattinam.


Viewers often accuse the media of jumping from story to story without telling them enough about anything and without doing enough follow-ups. It’s a valid criticism. Then, why I wonder, is the market not dictating terms to news-channels? Why isn’t there a greater need for independent documentary film-makers who can bring in the analysis and follow-ups that the viewers are looking for?