India: A disaster made worse by poverty

INDIA SAW more than 15,000 killed as the tidal wave pounded southern fishing villages with Tamil Nadu and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands the worst hit. Thousands are still missing. In Andhra Pradesh alone, 400 fishermen were missing immediately after the first strikes.

The Hindu newspaper, published in southern India, reported that 40 children playing cricket on a beach in Cuddalore drowned when a massive wave pulled them out to sea. One local man, who lost two sons playing on the beach, said: “I suddenly saw waves 30 to 40ft high. People just froze, they didn’t know what to do.”

The earthquake hit the Indian mainland coast five hours after it struck Sumatra. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands experienced the maximum shocks, as they were situated 500 kilometres away from the epicentre of the quake in Sumatra. Sumatra is around 2,500 kilometres from the Indian coast. Almost the entire east coast of India was affected, though the worst hit were the southern parts.

The epic devastation in India caused by the past earthquakes of Bhuj and Latur, with over 100,000 fatalities, remain etched in the country’s collective consciousness. But atsunami is such a rare phenomenon in the South Asian region that people were completely unprepared for what happened on 26 December.

The 2001 earthquake in Bhuj challenged the capacity of the Indian ruling classes to handle emergencies on a gigantic scale. But history has repeated itself, as a farce, as the stories of bureaucratic bungling begin to unfold in the wake of the tsunami.

A simple warning system, available through modern communications – a public address system – would have mitigated the situation. But it is clear that the capitalist governments of the region have failed miserably in protecting their people.

The most remarkable example, perhaps, is the story of Nallavadu, a village in Tamil Nadu.

Vijayakumar, a youth who now works in Singapore, saw the tsunami warning there. He immediately phoned the village information centre, setting off an instant reaction. A warning was repeatedly announced over the public address system and a siren set off. As a result, the tsunami claimed no victims there, but others in nearby villages were forced to become the victims of a so-called “act of god”.

It is criminal on the part of the Indian government, not to be a member of the The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC). This would have warned the devastated people at least four hours in advance.

The successive BJP and Congress governments are trying their best to make India a permanent member in the UN Security Council, which is nothing but a macho posture. But they have not been concerned to give protection to their people from natural disasters.

The politics of relief

The internationalism of working people all over the world has been demonstrated in a fantastic manner. The way in which the ordinary people are responding to the appeals for aid and relief is unprecedented. In contrast the ruling elite of the advanced capitalist countries have proved to be extremely “stingy”.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, British chancellor Gordon Brown has called for a ‘moratorium’ on debt repayments from poor countries. This is hopelessly inadequate.

It is time that we move to make demands on the imperialist countries to write off all the ‘debt’ of the poor countries. In turn we also make the demand on the local capitalist governments to waive repayment of all the loans given to its people.

There must be democratic control over distribution of the relief and aid. It has to be controlled and supervised by elected representatives of the trade unions, fishermen’s organisations and poor peasants in a democratic, accountable way.

No tax on the poor in the name of relief schemes; make the rich pay!

There should not be any discrimination in relief distribution on the ground of class, nationality, religion, caste, gender or political ties.

Massive public work programmes should be taken up, employing unemployed youth and peasants and fishermen. Cut out the contractors from public works.

We demand seismic oceanography sensors and all other related technological aids to protect all the countries and peoples on the planet who need them.

The avoidable scale of the death and destruction of the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat, India, in 2001 and the 2004 tsunami disaster are a warning about the horrific consequences of poverty and neglect in countries exploited by capitalism and imperialism.

They must act as a wake-up call for socialists to intensify their struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Freed from the clutches of capitalism, science and technology can then be utilised for the good of all in the world.

Human solidarity…

AMONGST THE nightmare accounts of death and survival, there shines out example after example of human heroism and selflessness. Not least were the actions of local people in attempting to save complete strangers from far off lands. The human solidarity displayed has been moving and inspiring – in marked contrast to the dog-eat-dog brutality of the society we know under capitalism.

Hopes are nurtured that this ‘natural disaster’ can bring the peace to the region’s war-torn areas that capitalist governments have been unable to secure for decades, but these will only be realised if working people are able to act together to secure their future.

…Corporate stinginess

But as Steve Jolly, Socialist Party councillor in Melbourne, Australia, points out:
Corporate Australia has, in the most part, been even more stingy than State and Federal Governments. Australia’s largest company, Telstra, which made $4.12 billion in profits last year, has donated only $100,000!

Even the Murdoch-owned Weekend Australian newspaper headlined an article: “Companies slow to show they care,” it continued: “Individual Australians are easily outstripping corporate Australia in donating money to tsunami victims.

Despite booming corporate profits and a soaring share market, less than $8 million of the estimated $51 million donated so far has come from corporate Australia. The $7.8 million donated by 25 companies by the close of business yesterday (31 December) compared with their last published annual net profits of more than $30 billion combined.”

Global capitalism’s ‘economic tsunami’

THE ‘ECONOMIC tsunami’ of global capitalism and imperialism is a million times more murderous than any natural phenomenon.

It is a system that bestrides the globe, looking for cheap labour and exploitable markets, impoverishing millions more people daily in the process.

It is a system that screws billions of dollars of profit from the unpaid labour of the working class, leaves millions on the scrap heap without work and demands more than the whole budget income of some nations in interest payments on their debts.

Its representatives call for emergency action to save lives. But according to the World Health Organisation, nearly 30,000 children under five die every day with preventable and treatable diseases being responsible for 70% (21,000) of these deaths.

The US government spends more than the rest of the world put together on arms. Its budget for financing the US army’s occupation in Iraq next year is estimated by the Christian Science Monitor (published in Newsweek) as $212 billion-$232 billion – more than $4 billion a week!

Before the invasion of Iraq, hundreds of thousands of children died because of the sanctions. This year, thousands more civilians have died in bombing raids, etc, that are the direct consequence of US government policy.

The capitalists and imperialists who try to impose neo-liberal, anti-working class policies on the working and poor people of these countries should put some fraction of their ill-gotten gains into protecting them.

As it is, the US spends just 0.14% of its national income on foreign aid – less as a proportion than any other modernised nation.

Stephen King of HSBC wrote: “Those that appear to have suffered the greatest loss of life are those that are also the poorest. Gross national income per capita in Sri Lanka is just $930 per annum. In Indonesia it’s $810 per annum. And in India it’s just $530 per annum. By contrast, the average American can expect to live off $37,610 per annum.” (The Independent, 29 December.)

What conclusion do the big imperialist countries and the world’s stock markets draw about the catastrophe? According to the press of 30 December they hardly batted an eyelid, the countries are so poor. (The GDP of Sri Lanka is only equivalent to 5% of the US military budget.)

Jagadish Chandra, New Socialist Alternative (CWI – India)