MADRAS, India — In India, very few people had heard the word tsunami, let alone understood what these waves could do. Until Sunday, Dec. 26, hardly anybody had the vaguest inclination of the destructive ability of the sea.

Of course, people have read about the angry Earth in National Geographic and other nature magazines, but there was little knowledge of what a tsunami could do along India’s long coasts.

I had been to the beach that Sunday morning, and had seen a bright sun, clear blue skies and a deceptively calm ocean. The Bay of Bengal, on whose shores lie the southern Indian city of Madras, seemed so serenely calm that I could not imagine that a quarter of an hour after I left waves would roar in anger and rush inland.

Many others lingered in the sand and on the breezes. I distinctly remember a group of boys playing cricket on the sand. I am told that they were swallowed by the giant waves that threatened to ravage even some of the historic buildings on the Madras seafront.

Elderly couples, food vendors and fishermen also died, among the 15,000 — mostly women and children — who were killed in India that Sunday. About as many people remain missing in a tragedy with few parallels in history.

The question that now disturbs and angers people in India is whether the toll could have been minimized. Some experts believe so.

Environmentalists aver that the devastation would have been far less had the various state governments and the central government heeded warnings about the destruction of coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes along India’s coasts. They are natural barriers against oceanic turbulence.

As an example, specialists refer to the Maldives, a small nation of nearly 2,000 islands, each averaging only about a meter above sea level. Here coral reefs absorbed the impact of the killer waves and limited the death toll to just 85. And, mind you, the Maldives have no high ground for refuge. In India, the casualty was frighteningly high because natural buffers were no longer in place.

Debi Goenka of the Bombay Environmental Action Group said unsustainable development, including deliberate land reclamation for urban and industrial use, and widespread shrimp farming had wiped out mangrove forests.

Nick Nuttall of United Nations Environment Program noted that mangrove swamps have disappeared rapidly in recent decades in tropical areas. “For low-lying coastal regions and small islands, a lot of protection comes from coral reefs, beaches and mangrove swamps,” he said. “The last decade has seen such swamps cleared to promote tourism.”

In India, some zones suffered surprisingly little damage because of natural barriers. Pichavaram and Muthupet, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu — the worst-hit state in the country — escaped with relatively few deaths and minimal loss to property.

In 1999, a terrifying cyclone hit the eastern Indian state of Orissa, but the coastal villages adjoining large mangrove formations were unscathed while the rest of the state lay battered.

Although India has strict rules governing its coastal zones, such as a construction prohibition within 500 meters of the high-tide line, ecosystems in these areas are sadly neglected. What is worse, they are being systematically destroyed.

Some of the worst offenders are hotels. For example, since the government notification on coastal regulation came into effect in 1991, some 75 hotel projects have gone up in Goa, on the western Indian coast, in violation of the act.

The noted Madras-based agriculturist and environmentalist M.S. Swaminathan, who heads a review panel on coastal regulation, said recently that the intention is to preserve the ecology of India’s coasts but that the Indian administration often ignores expert advice and recommendations.

The director of the National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organization in Calcutta, G.N. Saha, said in a recent interview that his institute seven years ago had tracked the possible epicenter of an earthquake like the one Dec. 26 off Indonesia and the probable paths that a tsunami would take: “We traced the route to the Andaman and Nicobar islands as well as the southern Indian coast.”

Yet India’s administration turned a blind eye to such a prediction. It also decided not to participate in the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, which could have given adequate notice of the approach of the waves Dec. 26 had India opted to become a member. The reason was not technical; it was not even financial. Rather, it was due to a larger ideology of self-reliance that India began to follow in the 1970s — to scientific isolation.

Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of internationalism and global cooperation disappeared after his death in 1964. New Delhi adopted a rather inward-looking approach bordering on self-denial. Add the deep suspicions of a foreign bogeyman that politicians of the day raised, and the result was a failure to collaborate in important areas of science and technology.

India did not become a member of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System. China did, though, despite its political problems with the world community.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.