Report from Southeast Asia: Local Consultant Brings Relief to Tsunami Survivors
A glimpse of what Neet Narula saw in Southeast Asia
In January, shortly after the tsunami struck Southeast Asia, Neet Narula, a consultant in financial services, headed to the affected areas to provide relief, leading a group of volunteers co-sponsored by United Sikhs and the American Red Cross. Neet spent 12 weeks in Asia, primarily in South India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Following are some of his thoughts about the experience:
When I first left, my hope was to help for two weeks at each of the most badly hit places: Tamil Nadu in South India, Batticaloa in Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh in Indonesia. But during our travels in South India, where we spent the first three weeks helping victims, we discovered that there was also a lot of devastation at Campbell Bay on Great Nicobar Island, which is part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands -- a territory of India. Because of difficulty in getting to the islands, not much help had reached this area, despite the fact that it was just 80 miles from the tsunami’s epicenter, and was one of the first places to have been hit by the killer waves. After detailed analysis, as a relief mission team leader, I decided that our team would spend all our time, effort and money in places where little or no help is being reached. So we created a new plan and re-routed our paths to help the tragedy struck survivors on the island.
Getting To the Island
It was practically impossible to get to Great Nicobar Island. It took eight days by boat to go from mainland India to the island. There were no reservations for cabins or even seats on the ship, so we slept on the deck in open air, amongst the cockroaches and bugs. And since we didn’t have a cabin, we didn’t get served food. Despite the poor accommodations, the trip still cost 34,000 Indian rupees (about $782 US), not a small amount for any individual, let alone tsunami survivors who have lost everything.
In addition, we also needed a tribal pass and further permissions from three government entities. Foreign nationals are not allowed to visit the islands, period, so even if you want to help, it’s not easy at all. According to the government of India, access is limited to islands because they have a policy to protect the local indigenous tribes from external influences.
Thanks to good networking, political connections and sheer determination, we were able to get to Great Nicobar Island, although my entire team was at risk of landing in jail because of some of the bureaucratic rules we had broken. When we finally got there, the devastation just blew my mind. There were so many problems that I didn’t know where to stop looking, they were just everywhere. Our team was the first nonprofit group to arrive on the islands, and for the next six weeks we lived among the islanders.
Problems at Great Nicobar Island
To just provide a glimpse of few problems the island residents were facing:
• The sea jetty was broken, and ships could not dock. Ships come twice a month and if one is cancelled, it means you have to wait an entire month before you can get out of there or before supplies can arrive.
• There were no proper medical facilities to handle emergencies or operations, plus the transportation problems didn’t allow patients with serious conditions to get the right treatment on time.
• The electrical plant was underwater, and people in close proximity were in danger of electrocution.
• The communications tower was underwater, phone lines were down and communication links were broken.
• Daily, every meal at relief camps was lentils and rice (potatoes if you were lucky), three times a day.
• Clean water was not easily available, entire water supply was salty, which made for unhygienic conditions
• Socio-economic problems were occurring too: there were lots of rape cases, kidnappings and some children were sold as slaves. Plus, some missionaries were forcing survivors to adopt their religion.
To make a difference, we had to put ourselves in many different roles: provide emotional support to children who had been orphaned, provide physical support to help rebuild survivors homes and businesses and to become leaders to help these uneducated survivors figure out what to do next. Over the almost two months we were on the island, we arranged for the delivery and distribution of relief materials to the entire island, prepared and provided hot food to the islanders and held a sports day to uplift the spirits of the children.
We have committed to helping them till they get fully back on their feet. We also plan to support and rehabilitate by sponsoring children for education, developing a computer institute and a community center and establishing a service to get clean fresh water from the island’s mountain springs to all the people on the island on a daily basis. Even though I have come back home to the US, the projects we have started will continue to operate.
I am still talking with the families on the island almost daily to provide hope and reiterate that things will get back to normal. Late night calls are happening daily with my volunteer team there -- discussing tasks, planning budgets and implementing activities to ensure that we continue to help the survivors to the best of our ability. This has become part of my life -- to ensure that everything continues to work as planned for the betterment and rehabilitation of those who survived the tsunami.
I have taken the responsibility to sponsor two children -- I feel that after experiencing what I have experienced, it’s the least I can do to help a child get some hope. I am thankful to Accenture and the senior leadership team who have helped and supported me all through this time frame, in this cause of humanity. I have been very lucky to be a part of an experience such as this and I truly feel blessed.
For more info: Contact Katherine.B.Whan@Accenture.com