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Loss of paper records adds to tsunami plight

Published Aug. 24, 2005

As hundreds of people jostle for bags of rice, temporary shelter and donated clothes outside a government office here, K. Ramachandra has a special mission _ drying documents. Lots of documents.

Tsunami waves swept through the Hikkaduwa Divisional Secretariat Office on Dec. 26 leaving the city's most important documents under water for days.

Ramachandra, a government clerk, is desperately trying to revive them. He's got the paper trail of many lives spread over the office, the ceiling fans on full blast. Business permits, marriage certificates, car registrations and birth certificates: They all spill from the office and into the blazing sun outside.

"Right now people are more worried about food and health," he says amid the mosaic of soggy documents. "But soon they will need these." Nearby, lines of sweaty people push forward relentlessly in the heat. They clamor to report lost documents to even sweatier clerks filling up big ledgers. Police will later try to sort out which claims are real and which aren't.

In the developed world, being rich "on paper" is just an expression. But in many developing nations, entire economies, bureaucracies and especially personal wealth are recorded in punishing piles of loose papers or fat folders of hand-filled forms tied up with string. The upshot: While survivors of the 9/11 tragedy in the United States were able to piece together lost documents digitally with relative ease, many thousands of people in South and Southeast Asia will have no such luck.

Sri Lanka's paper-bound bureaucracy owes much to the legacy of fastidious British bookkeeping during the colonial Raj era. This culture remains one of necessity in the corners of poor countries untouched by the power of personal computing or the Internet.

Despite slow advances, it can take months of filling out forms and collecting stamps to rent an apartment or get basic services. Aid workers quick to the posttsunami scene in Colombo, the capital city, groused about being papered over by unbending customs officials just to get medicine and food aid out of hangars and into hands. In normal circumstances, the paper system works well. Though slow, paper is a lot cheaper than computer databases. But now, with millions of indispensable personal and official documents washed out to sea or waterlogged across Asia, police and bureaucrats are predicting a tsunami of bureaucratic headaches _ and even court cases _ as people find their way back to the paper trail.

What is happening in this small tourist town along Sri Lanka's western coast is being repeated in homes and offices across Asia. Throughout the region, a little piece of paper is the only proof a person has of what he owns or who he is.

Soon, the survivors of the tsunami tragedy are going to need paperwork to do everything from finding the boundaries of properties, to dividing the assets left by a dead parent or borrowing money to rebuild a business. If government copies have been ruined or lost, it might take months or years for survivors and the relatives of victims to reclaim what is theirs.

Subadthra Abaywardana's home is the only one left standing in her neighborhood on the outskirts of Hikkaduwa. Her family survived the 19{-foot wave that was powerful enough to knock a train off its tracks and kill more than 500 passengers just three blocks away. When she returned to her home three days after the tsunami hit, she found mud in every room, but little else.

"It was all destroyed," she says, pointing to shards of expensive china and a new refrigerator she was saving for her daughter's dowry. Everything that could fit through the door was washed away. "No jewelry, no birth certificates, no bank books," she says pointing to a high-water mark more than 6{ feet up her living room wall. "We want to go to the bank to get money but we have no documents."

Her bank and others say they are doing their best. Some branches near the water have lost their records and don't have backups on computers. The Bank of Ceylon in Hikkaduwa was lucky the tsunami hit on a Sunday. The most important documents were safe in the bank vault, which only took on about a foot of water.

The Bank of Ceylon keeps backup hard copies, but if depositors have to use them it can take days to make a withdrawal. People who have lost their bank books and official IDs had better hope the local teller _ if he or she is alive _ remembers their face.

Even with proper identification, there is plenty of confusion. "I've had an account here for almost 10 years and now they are telling me it's gone," says Jakob Hasso, a German who lives in Hikkaduwa about one-third of the year and thought he had an account at the Bank of Ceylon. "It wasn't much money but I need it now or my new currency is going to be bananas."

Not all is lost. The Commercial Bank Ltd. in Hikkaduwa has its records in a computer database in Colombo. It was up and running five days after the tsunami hit with the ability to help those who had lost their bank books and other official forms of identification. "Thanks to (technology) we are in a position to help people," says branch manager F. Ameer proudly. "All we needed were new computers."

At the Hikkaduwa Divisional Secretariat Office Mr. Ramachandra's prognosis for his piles of papers isn't good. "Most of them are useless," as the water has made many of the handwritten documents illegible, he says. In the back, he opens a dark closet to reveal piles of ruined birth certificates stacked nearly 6{ feet high.

But even if someone should come for a birth certificate that was legible, he couldn't release it. "The registrar was killed by the water," he says.