Indian officials tangled in bureaucratic red tape lost 30 precious minutes after they received an alert from an air force base in a remote island about the tsunami hurtling toward the coast, a government official admitted today.
The official said the urgent message from the Indian air force base in the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean was not directed right away to the federal Ministry of Home Affairs, responsible for dealing with natural disasters.
The delay in forwarding the alert may have cost thousands of lives along India’s worst-hit southern coast, where more than 7,763 people were killed. Tens of thousands of people remain unaccounted for, and with each passing day are feared dead.
The Indian Express newspaper quoted the Indian air force chief as saying the Ministry of Defence was immediately alerted about the sinking islands.
Air force spokesman, Mahesh Upasni, said: “We do not work as a warning centre.”
“We require rapid and specific responses. The Indian bureaucracy by its training and conditioning can’t do it,” said Balbir Arora, a New Delhi-based professor of public administration.
“There is an obsession with communication through proper channels, a mind-set fixed on outmoded tools, such as communications which must be made in written form,” Arora said.
For India’s multilayered bureaucracy, sticking to the unbending rules of official communications is the first commandment. This means a message from a junior official, however urgent, must pass through several layers before it reaches the top. Similarly, communications between departments and ministries have to be approved by senior bureaucrats.
That’s next to impossible on a Sunday, especially on a holiday weekend.
Worse, the disaster management cell in India’s home ministry did not learn about the tsunami until half an hour after it hit the southern coast. Weather officials in southern India mistakenly sent the news of the disaster by fax to the home of the former science and technology minister, rather than his successor in the present government, which took over in May.
“It looks like they forgot to update their records,” said Ashok Kavdia, an aide of the former minister, who was not at home when the fax arrived.
After waiting nearly half an hour for a response, the weather officials sent another fax, this time to the home ministry. By that time, television channels were showing the devastation that had already claimed thousands of lives.