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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 January, 2005, 18:20 GMT
Mass exodus from Indian islands
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC East India correspondent

More than 7,000 people, mostly settlers, have packed their bags and left the Andaman-Nicobar archipelago after it was devastated by the massive earthquake that triggered tsunami waves on 26 December.

"There's no sign that this rush is going to abate," said Samir Kohli, director of shipping services in the Andaman capital Port Blair.

Hindu women on the Andaman Islands pray to the sea
Many Indian mainlanders in the islands were deeply shaken by the tsunami
His ticketing staff has been having a harrowing time, controlling the surge of crowds at the jetties, from where ships leave for Calcutta and Chennai.

"All my colleagues are heckled and harassed but we have to accept this. People are really panicky here and many are desperate to leave," says ticketing clerk B Srinivasan.

Bengali and Tamil settlers make up the majority of the archipelago's more than 400,000 people.

The better-off among them or those who have panicked are leaving for Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, but there are others from the Indian mainland who are leaving as well.

'Staying here'

Officials say rumours of islands tilting after the earthquake, rising sea levels and possible flooding of many coastal regions during high tides have triggered the panic.

We feel so shaky, literally
Sunanda Das
Office clerk
Nearly 200 aftershocks, some measuring more than six in magnitude, have been felt in the archipelago since the 26 December earthquake.

"People suspect major below-the-earth changes that will affect the islands. They don't think it is safe to be here any more. But I think a lot of people are rushing to conclusions in sheer panic," says Ashim Poddar, editor of the Port Blair-based newspaper Daily Telegram.

"We have tremors all the time. Things fall off, we feel so shaky, literally," said Sunanda Das, a Bengali office clerk.

But unlike many other "mainlanders", she is not going back.

"I have a good job here. On the mainland, I will have nothing, so I will stay back with my family and perhaps get married here only," said Sunanda.

"Those who are leaving are either people from the vulnerable areas, real poor people, or the rest of them are rich. Both can find something to do on the mainland, we cannot," she said.


The island administration has not made any effort to stop the exodus, though the federal authorities feel something should be done about it.

"They have a fear which one can understand, given the terrible devastation. But we must counsel them to think about it and not to rush into a decision [about leaving]," India's Home Secretary Dhirendra Singh told a news conference.

But even the Indian navy has said its ships were encountering rougher waters and higher sea levels. The Geological Survey of India has sent a team to study the changes in the island's topography.

Environmentalists say the island could do with a lower population than it now has.

Surveys in the past have indicated that no more than 250,000 people should live on these islands. The present population is almost double that.


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