India asks: 'Why weren't we warned?'
For two and a half hours the tsunami sped toward the Indian coast, yet nobody was warned.
The waves struck Indonesia, Thailand and then submerged an air force base on the Indian island of Car Nicobar, 800 miles from the mainland.
Faxes were sent between government departments, but still no warning was given to the public. Finally the tsunami struck, with devastating effect.
"At every stage, there was a shrinking window of opportunity to warn people. But nothing happened," said Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute, a New Delhi-based think-tank.
"A country that hopes to run the call centers of the world could not call its own people."
India's grief over Sunday's tsunami has not yet given way to anger, with most people too stunned by the awesome power of nature to blame their government. But the media are beginning to ask the question -- was the bureaucracy fatally complacent?
The Indian Express Newspaper says the top brass of the Indian Air Force knew their Nicobar Air base had been submerged a full hour before the waves struck the mainland coast.
The IMD only informed the home ministry itself after the tsunami had struck, a ministry official told Reuters.
"The debate is on and it will go on, whether we could have reacted faster," the home ministry's secretary in charge of disaster management, A.K. Rastogi, told Reuters.
"My dear, it was a Sunday. Time was taken by the officer to get ready and get into the car -- but there was no delay."
"You have to appreciate that there has been no system like this, and now everyone is getting wiser. In future, I hope, the Indian Meteorological Department will be better."
It is certainly easy to be wise after the event, and the IMD says it had never in its "wildest imagination" expected a tsunami on this scale to strike India.
Seismologist Arun Bapat says he has been warning of the risk of a tsunami for decades, yet no one was listening.
"There have been four tsunamis in India in the last 100 years, and it is well-known that an earthquake of such a large magnitude generates a tsunami. There was no system in place."
Yet the Meteorological Department is all too convenient a scapegoat, some commentators have argued.
The Indian Express newspaper blamed the government's "tunnel vision," its policy of self-reliance, and its reluctance to take part in international scientific collaboration.
India was not among the 26 countries which were alerted within minutes of the earthquake, using a system of seismic sensors and tidal gauges linked to ocean buoys. The truth, perhaps, is that India has long been more wary of its Indian Ocean neighbors than worried about tsunamis.
The final irony is that a system is in place to warn fisherman of an impending cyclone within minutes, with 500 receivers along the coast ready to broadcast in native languages.
Four days late, the government sprung into action. Saying it had picked up a warning "from a number of experts outside country" that another earthquake might be on its way, the home ministry issued a tsunami warning.
There was widespread panic along the coast and the aid effort was interrupted for hours as coastal areas were evacuated.
It turned out to be a false alarm.
Science Minister Kapil Sibal called it "hogwash" and relief workers called it
a "cruel joke."