Bureaucratic battle over those missing after tsunami

Sunday, January 23, 2005

VAILANKANNI, India -- Six members of Melvin Antony's family were washed away when killer waves struck this town, though only one body was found. After weeks of hoping against hope, Anthony has come to accept that all are dead. But he has yet to convince India's bureaucrats.

Antony, an office worker in his 30s who lives 220 miles away in Madras, has made the all-day trip to this tiny coastal town in southern India three times since the Dec. 26 tsunami. Next week he will come again, hoping to collect the death certificates of his mother, nephew, niece and two sisters. Only the body of his nephew was found. A brother-in-law survived.

"The others are all dead. If they were alive, we would have known," Antony said, his voice choking. The five are among 5,640 missing in India, in addition to nearly 11,000 confirmed dead.

Even in normal times, categorizing a missing person as dead is a meticulous, often time-consuming process in this country. For relatives of tsunami victims, the absence of remains has made the process even more of an ordeal, adding to their suffering. Like Antony, hundreds of people have made long -- often futile -- trips to government offices and police stations to get missing relatives declared dead.

And yet it's important in a disaster of this scale for relatives to have an official declaration of death as soon as possible. Not only are death certificates are required for claiming insurance and transferring property or bank accounts, they can also provide emotional closure for relatives in a disaster where so many of the dead simply vanished.

Some were swept out to sea; others were buried unbeknownst to their kin in the rush to remove a potential source of disease. Often their remains were not photographed for later identification or were so disfigured they could not be recognized.

More than 900 people were reported missing in Vailankanni, home to an 18th century church much visited during the Christmas season. At least 614 people were confirmed dead. Most were tourists, including Antony's family who visited the church to attend the midnight Mass and stayed on.

It used to be a person had to be missing seven years before he could be declared dead. The law was changed in 1998 to allow exceptions for natural disasters, but only if a missing person report is promptly filed with police. Police then investigate, checking for example whether the person was in the disaster area at the time.

If a case involves government compensation, survivors have to get authorities in their area to certify they are related to the deceased. Once the claim is complete, a process that takes at least several weeks, an administrative officer of the area where the death occurred can issue a death certificate.

But police are often skeptical of First Information Reports that are filed late, which can delay the process considerably.

As of Saturday, authorities had disbursed $7.7 million in compensation to 3,500 families. The district's death toll is 6,054. But that doesn't include the hundreds of bodies buried without being photographed because there were not enough cameras, or time, said J. Radhakrishnan, the top administrator.

District officials have urged aid groups and fishermen associations to help the poor file reports with police, fill out claim forms and open bank accounts. Last week, it set up a computerized center, where people can file a report and collect a death certificate, instead of having to return to the scene of their loved ones' deaths.

All pictures of unidentified bodies have been collated into a single computer database and displayed at district headquarters. Forensic experts have been roped in to help relatives identify the photographs. Software students from a state university and local colleges have carried the database on laptops to villages, so that more bodies can be identified.

"We are doing our best to help the survivors of missing people, most of whom are actually dead," administrator Radhakrishnan said. "But we can't break the basic rules. There has to be a FIR and a death certificate. Only then, we can release the compensation."

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