Where’s the quake information?

The Indian government must provide timely, accurate, accessible information on natural disasters

The Indian Ocean tsunami that resulted in the deaths of around 20,000 Indian citizens (and displacement of around 700,000) occurred less than five years ago. The human tragedy of the earthquakes in Kashmir (October 2005) and Gujarat (January 2001) are also relatively fresh in public memory. After these natural disasters you would have thought that the Indian government would be a little more active in disseminating timely, accurate and relevant information regarding seismic events. And you would be wrong.

The online edition of the Times of India reported a 7.6 magnitude earthquake off the coast of the Andaman islands at 7:55 UTC on 10th of August. It was a wire service report, quoting the US Geological Service (USGS). The USGS site provides a summary, measurement details, maps and other information, including a link to a tsunami alerts. Its Indian counterpart, in comparison, only showed a terse ‘preliminary’ report stating the location of the quake and its magnitude. Neither the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) nor the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had any useful information about the nature of the quake and the risk of a tsunami.

There is, however, a ‘crowdsourced’ website that provides such information based on secondary (reported) information. The Amateur Seismic Centre is a commendable initiative, run by one Stacey Martin who started it in June 2000 as “a one-stop guide to earthquakes in India as well as south Asia.” It puts the Government of India to shame. (See its report on today’s quake)

The UPA government has shown itself adept at creating new bureaucracies after disaster strikes. It does not seem to be capable of doing the relatively trifling—but crucial and life-saving—things such disseminating timely information.

Update: Amit Varma wrote about last night: even the Indian mainstream media was late in reporting it.

Update: On 12th August, The Hindu reports that India’s National Tsunami Warning Centre had issued an alert six minutes after the quake. Why then didn’t the media pick it up, while they picked up the USGS report?

A naval standoff between Bangladesh and Burma

A new territorial dispute in the Bay of Bengal

The Burmese navy has withdrawn two of its warships from an area in the Bay of Bengal 50 nautical miles south-west of Bangladesh’s St Martin’s Island. Bangladesh is to withdraw its four ships after the intruding commercial gas exploration ships leave the scene. (via Information Dissemination)

It appears that the standoff ended without shots being fired. But not before a war of words.

Bangladesh’s foreign minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said he had warned Myanmar’s envoy to Dhaka that “all steps would be taken to protect the sovereignty and territory of Bangladesh.” [AFP]

A senior official from Myanmar’s military government said they were open to talks, but insisted that oil and gas companies were operating inside their territory and far away from the disputed sea boundary. “We will try to solve this peacefully, but we are also ready to protect our country if needed … we will not tolerate being insulted, although we do want good will. We will continue with exploration,” [AFP]

So who’s going to run relief operations over the junta’s heads?

America, Europe and a coalition of the willing

It should be abundantly clear by now to any thinking person that Burma’s generals are not about to open up their country to foreign relief workers, even if they somehow agree to accept foreign relief supplies. It should also be abundantly clear that in doing so, the generals would be responsible for making the humanitarian disaster worse, the recovery longer, and the human cost higher. It should also be abundantly clear that the generals don’t care.

So all those who are trying to negotiate with the junta can only be hoping that Burma and Cyclone Nargis will be buried under the rubble of disasters elsewhere, the Sichuan earthquake, the Jaipur bombing (at least for India) and the latest twist in the US presidential election campaign.

Countries like India–that have some leverage with Burma—are quietly delivering relief goods; more than a week after Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, it is possible to discern that India’s strategy is a calibrated, low-key approach, that balances the objective of keeping communication channels (with the junta)open while delivering humanitarian relief goods.

What about countries—like the United States and Europe—that don’t quite have working relationships with the Burmese regime? Well, Anne Applebaum has it right—a “coalition of the willing” is exactly what the situation needs. Only the United States has the capacity to make a meaningful difference to the relief effort. It would be justified in going into Burma on a humanitarian mission, without sanction from the Burmese regime or the UN Security Council. India should support such an initiative, but is likely to take a neutral position. It is extremely unlikely, though, that the US will act. Not because of regard for international law, not because of what happened over Iraq but because it might not see it as important enough to US interests. [Update: Robert Kaplan invokes the pottery barn rule]

It is interesting to see the European Union call for forceful international intervention under the “responsibility to protect”. Given that Europe has no military assets of its own in the region that it can deploy at short notice, it is hard to avoid the impression that it sees its own responsibility to protect as largely moral. So, ironically, the Europeans have to convince the Americans that, well, a “coalition of the willing” is necessary.

Just how callous can governments be?

And why the option of airdropping relief supplies to Burma’s disaster victims should not be dismissed

The numbers the Burmese junta killed while suppressing pro-democracy protests last year fade in comparison to the numbers they’ve killed in the last two weeks.

India’s state-run Meteorological Department said it had alerted Burma two days before the cyclone struck. The department’s spokesman, B P Yadav told reporters in New Delhi on Wednesday: “Forty-eight hours in advance we informed the Burma weather department about the likely area of landfall as well as time and intensity of the cyclone.” [The Irrawaddy]

“I’ve never seen an emergency situation such as this before,” said Greg Beck, Asia regional director of the International Rescue Committee. “A week after the disaster, the entire humanitarian community is still sitting in another country, outside the affected area, looking for means to access the disaster zone.” [WP]

Burma has deported the few aid workers in the country after declaring it is “not ready” for foreign search and rescue teams following a devastating cyclone. [Herald Sun]

Update:Dozens of aid experts are reported to be waiting for visas in neighbouring Thailand – but the Burmese embassy there has now closed for a public holiday until next Tuesday. [‘BBC’]

The larger point is that there are few instruments to hold the junta’s leaders criminally liable for these deaths. Sins of omission are seldom punished.

Frustrated by the junta’s refusal to open its doors to international humanitarian relief, the US state department proposed airdropping relief supplies without their permission. It was shot down by the US defence secretary on the grounds that it would violate Burma’s sovereignty. Similarly, the French foreign minister proposed an international humanitarian intervention under the “responsibility to protect”. The usual UN logjam stopped that. (China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia argued against the UN Security Council getting involved. “China’s envoy compared the crisis to a deadly heat wave in France in 2003, questioning why the Security Council should step in now when it did not do so in the French case”)

At times like this it is useful to recall Operation Poomalai (Eagle Mission 4).

Cooking up a relief race in Burma

Reporters or imaginers?

“Tiger vs Dragon again, this time to help Myanmar” announces a headline in DNA. Seema Guha, who wrote that article, ‘reports’ that India and China are competing to send relief to cyclone-hit Burma.

It’s a very good example of very poor journalism.

First, it is undeniable that countries can use their participation in international humanitarian relief efforts, in part, to boost their stature. It is also undeniable that Burma is among the countries in the region where the geopolitical competition between India and China manifests itself. But to link these together and claim that there is some kind of a humanitarian relief race on is absurd. Perhaps Ms Guha could point out cases in the neighbourhood where India did not intervene because there was no geopolitical prize. She can’t, because there isn’t one. India would have participated in humanitarian relief efforts even if, and perhaps especially if, no other country had come forward. So, what ‘race’?

Second, the report presents facts that contradict its conclusions. It announces that “China was first off the block when it pledged $1 million as initial aid for relief and rehabilitation. On Wednesday, a Chinese Boeing 747-400 landed in Yangon carrying 60 tonnes of emergency relief material.” But it then goes on to say that “Earlier on Monday, two Indian Navy ships, INS Rana and Kirpal, were dispatched with initial aid from Port Blair. The ships reached Yangon Port early on Tuesday morning and anchored four miles from the harbour, awaiting offloading.” So how is it that China was “first off the block” when its aircraft arrived a day after the Indian ships?

Third, Ms Guha forces her own conclusions down your throat, despite the people she quotes saying the very opposite. Both the people interviewed—a JNU professor and a foreign ministry official—emphatically denied that India’s relief operations are motivated by a “race”. Yet, Ms Guha and her editors saw nothing out of place in publishing the report as they have.

It might even have been excusable if Ms Guha’s article had appeared as an op-ed. But it’s being offered as reportage. What a shame.

How do you help a country like Burma?

The tricky business of delivering aid to victims of a natural disaster who are also victims of a repressive regime

A closed regime. Media controls. A category 4 cyclone. Damaged infrastructure. Broken communication links. Death toll first in the hundreds, rapidly upped to the tens of thousands.

From ReliefWebIt’s highly likely that the Burmese junta can’t cope with the disaster. Worse, its isolation is making a bad situation much worse. The international response is hobbled by the lack of communication channels, common frameworks and operating procedures.

India was among the first to respond. India’s military base at Port Blair, in the Andaman & Nicobar islands has some capacity address humanitarian disasters in the Bay of Bengal region. But while India dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan with emergency relief material—tents, medicine and food—the lack of communications (and previously agreed contingency plans) means that at the time of sailing, the ships didn’t quite know which port they could access.

The foreign ministry states that India is considering “further immediate relief and medical supplies, including by air”. Thailand is reportedly preparing to send supplies by air. Burma has also accepted Australian help. These responses will be constrained by Burma’s capacity to co-ordinate the use of its airspace, airports and landing strips. According to some weather reports, Cyclone Nargis could be followed by an even stronger cyclone, adding in a factor of urgency to this matter.

Ultimately, the delivery of relief supplies to the affected people depends largely on the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces. The scheduled referendum introduces a political complication. That the junta is deeply unpopular is clear enough: but a botched response to the cyclone might well break the camel’s back. [Cyclone Bhola struck East Pakistan in late 1971, also ahead of elections, and set off a chain of events that led to the birth of Bangla Desh]

The problem is—the generals know this too. They could decide that the presence of foreign volunteers, media and military personnel is a risk to the survival of their regime, even if it means that the humanitarian response suffers as a result.

The toughest question for India and the rest of the world is should the world’s humanitarian response become an instrument to effect political change in Burma? For, isn’t releasing the Burmese people from the clutches of a brutal, repressive regime also, in the end, a humanitarian act? The answer is yes. As The Acorn has argued before, doing so is in India’s interests.

Related Links: NASA’s Earth Observatory has “before and after” images of the affected area; a briefing from the Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System

Using Bollywood for regime change

Why Tarun Khanna is wrong about Burma and confused about geopolitical power

The India-China hyphenation is doubly dangerous: one the one hand, the conflation of China and India (and its unspeakable, dreadful portmanteau) ignores the differences in the outlook, policies and global impact of these two countries. On the other, stretching the differentiation indiscriminately can lead to some very flawed policy prescriptions.

Like Tarun Khanna’s. In Mint, he argues that India should not try to match China in embracing the junta but rather extend “unstinting support” for democracy. Because because “India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power” and because “India’s true strength lies in projecting soft power”, and because “trying to play China’s game against China is folly, not to mention unprincipled”.

Mr Khanna’s analysis, unfortunately, is drowned in cliches and unfortunate generalisations. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable that trying to beat China in its own game might not be a good idea. But what if it is not really China’s game, and that China is a player in a game that has its own age-old rules. Like the balance of power game, for instance. It certainly doesn’t make sense to suggest that India should not play the game just because China is playing it better. Does this mean that India should cuddle the junta? Not quite, as this blog has argued, but for very different reasons. [See this op-ed and this post]

There is something disturbing in Mr Khanna’s assertion that India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power. He seems to have forgotten Hyderabad 1948, Goa 1961, Bangladesh 1971, Maldives 1988 and Sri Lanka 1987-1991. The claim that India is structurally incapable of deploying hard power does not hold water. Moreover, Mr Khanna misses a very important point: projecting “hard” power is not quite the same as using military force. Nuclear weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles and a blue water navy project hard power. None of this means that India must even threaten their use, much less use them.

Whenever commentators call for the “projection of soft power”, one listens to see how exactly they propose this could be done. In Mr Khanna’s case, India would do this by an unstinting support for democracy and you-can’t-be-serious-ly through Bollywood. Here he is incredibly mixed up. Now unless India is willing to support democratic forces with financial and military support (“hard power”) they can’t conceivably overthrow the junta, not least because it will turn to China for support. And at this juncture, the fact that there are Bollywood lovers in Burma isn’t going to matter much. In other words, talk about moral support for democracy is certainly about softness, but won’t work without real power.

Moreover, it is naive to believe that turning Burma into a democracy will necessarily transform it into a pro-India country. Democratic governments can play one power against another, just as well as dictatorships can.

Mr Khanna begins his essay by pointing out how Chinese influence has supplanted Indian influence in Burma. This is not as much because of politics as it is because of economics. China’s economic growth has given it the clout it has. India can regain the clout at the ground level in the same manner. Like geopolitics and balance of power, the trade and investment game is also not “China’s game”.

There is a case for India to support democracy in Burma but not on the grounds Mr Khanna has laid out. And as a foreign policy prescription, it is dangerous to propose that all that is needed towards this end is “a projection of soft power”.