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B. K. Karanjia

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An Irrelevant Question

he question was the obvious one where was God when the tsunami struck?
Columnist and author William Safire was provoked to ask it openly, but millions
must have asked it in the silence of their hearts as they watched, horrified, television and home video images of the world they knew being blown apart by a strangely named force surging waves destroying everything in their path, even sweeping innocent children playing on the beaches to a watery grave, and leaving other children orphans of the storm, without parents, without homes, with nowhere to go. Where, indeed, was God? But in life, often, the obvious turns out on closer examination not to be the truth.

Environmentalist Maneka Gandhi in an article titled "The Roots of Refuge" in Outlook, quotes the views of scientists all over the world that if there was a storm at sea, it would inevitably destroy buildings on the seashore; that by clearing the sand dunes, mangroves and coral reefs to raise buildings, the land would be dangerously eroded; and that as water from the water table near the beach was displaced, sea water would storm into the void. There was never any ambiguity about these findings.

Now, in the aftermath of the tsunami, the scientific verdict has been unanimous, writes Gandhi, that damage was greatest where beaches had been built on, dunes flattened, groundwater pumped out and coral reefs killed. On the other hand, five villages in Pichevaran and Nathupeet in Tamil Nadu, 500 metres away from the shore, were saved from the raging waters because of the thick cover provided by the mangroves on the shoreline. Agricultural scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan confirms: "The dense mangrove forests stood like a wall to save coastal communities. It acted like a shield and bore the brunt of the tsunami, saving those inhabiting the region."

No doubt the Coastal Regulatory Zone forbids building activity within 500 metres of the coastline. But this is only on paper. Owing to pressures and inducements from the hotel industry, certain chemical and oil industries and fish farms, this regulation has been ruthlessly violated in the mad pursuit of Mammon. Nature's fury, yes. But Nature also provides the means to subdue that fury. In this context the question, where was God, is irrelevant. It is also irreverent. For the question we should really be asking is, how can man in his greed inflict with impunity such suffering on his fellow men? Weren't the builders, hotel owners and others silent accomplices in this great but avoidable tragedy?

If the "luminous mystery" defined as God is at all to be linked with the tsunami disaster, it is in the abiding hope of a new humanity in the tremendous outpouring of compassion with governments outbidding one another (the USA donating $350 million, Japan $500 million, Germany $674 million and Australia pledging $800 million); with people all over the world giving till it hurt; even children emptying their piggy banks into the common pool.

The question of anticipating and surviving future tsunamis is explored in this issue by Vivek Kulkarni ("Tsunami Waves of Fury"). Kulkarni is in charge of the much-cherished Godrej mangroves in Pirojshanagar and has also made a study of mangroves in some of the other tsunami-affected countries, including Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.


B.K. Karanjia