They will bring clearing equipment, tents and food so as to be self-sufficient for up to 10 days

A team of almost 50 trained rescue workers from India will arrive in Japan on Saturday to help with the earthquake recovery effort, Indian embassy officials in Tokyo said on Thursday.

The group of paramilitary and police officers from India's National Disaster Management Authority will travel from Tokyo to Sendai in northern Japan, near the epicentre of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit the country on March 11. The group will clear rubble and debris in the devastated areas around Sendai. They will also assist the Japanese with re-construction work and set up basic infrastructure in areas wiped away by the tsunami.

Indian embassy officials said the group would bring its own clearing equipment, tents and food from Delhi so that the workers could be self-sufficient for up to 10 days. The team — known as the National Disaster Rescue Force — has assisted in the aftermath of major natural disasters in India and abroad.

Sponsored by India

“These rescue workers are sponsored by the Indian government,” said Yuichiro Kamikawa, of the Tokyo-based NGO Japan Guide Consortium. His organisation sends Japanese interpreters to help foreign aid workers communicate with Japanese rescuers and evacuees in the disaster zone. Mr. Kamikawa has arranged for four volunteer interpreters to accompany the Indian workers during their time on the ground.

Two weeks after the earthquake, hundreds of thousands of survivors in evacuation centres are still awaiting shipments of food, water, medicine and other essential supplies, prompting criticism of the Japanese government for acting slowly.

In addition, logistical challenges such as inaccessible roads, lack of gasoline, power outages, freezing temperatures and snow, and a threat of dangerous levels of radiation, further hampered the relief effort.

‘Situation is bad'

“The situation is bad,” said Takashi Yamamoto, an experienced NGO aid worker who recently set up a base camp in Ishinomaki, one of the hardest-hit towns, located 50 km from Sendai. In this town alone, almost 30,000 people lost their homes. “These people are getting no help,” he said.

Mr. Yamamoto said the area was full of emergency camps of all sizes. Some small shelters house as few as 20 to 30 people, while up to 1,500 people sleep on cardboard boxes spread out inside school buildings with no working toilet facilities. These evacuees may have to stay in these camps for at least two months, and perhaps longer.

Few doctors

“Their health situation is getting worse,” he said. “There are only a few doctors in the area.”

NGO leaders say they have struggled to provide support to severely affected areas due to several problems.

“There's a lack of information from the government,” Mr. Yamamoto said, as he described the challenges involved with the relief effort. “They don't know what is going on. They didn't expect this to happen.”

Some small shelters in remote areas are still hidden. “There are pockets of the Japanese north-east that have fallen off the radar, without anyone knowing that they need help,” Mr. Kamikawa said. “People are starving to death,” he said.

“There's been a widespread understanding nationwide that the government is slow,” he added.

Aid workers pouring in

Aid workers from other nations, including Malaysia, Canada, and the U.K., are also coming into Japan.

While a few major international aid organisations, such as the Red Cross and Mercy Corps along with the U.S. military forces, have a significant presence in the affected areas, the Japanese government has not allowed some foreign relief organisations to begin work in Japan.

“The government is so slow to start accepting foreign aid,” Mr. Kamikawa said. “Lots of affected areas were completely wiped out,” he added, “so the Japanese government wants some semblance of order before they start accepting medical aid.”

This earthquake and resulting tsunami ravaged a 500-mile-long area along the north-eastern coast, making it difficult to set up staging areas for relief work.

Unprecedented damage

“The scale of the devastation is unprecedented,” said Meri Joyce, International Coordinator for the Japanese non-profit organisation Peace Boat. “There is nothing available in affected areas,” Ms. Joyce said.

The fear of nuclear radiation around Fukushima's nuclear power plants led some foreign aid groups to withdraw relief workers.

According to Mr. Yamamoto, who said his friend dropped off supplies in Fukushima late last week, evacuees closer to the nuclear reactors are suffering the most. “Even transportation companies refused to bring relief goods to Fukushima because of the nuclear problems,” he said.

The transportation to the region remains severely limited, since many roads are still inaccessible and train lines are not running. A severe gasoline shortage became worse in recent days. According to Mr. Yamamoto, even police cars in northern Japan waited in long queues to fill up their gas tanks.

“The roads are badly damaged in some areas. Today, we could finally reach those areas,” Mr. Yamamoto said late last week. “The government should help with transportation logistics,” he added.

Instead of dealing directly with the central government, many NGOs have decided to coordinate their own efforts with local town and city governments. One group of foreign volunteers based in Tokyo said they delivered a truck full of canned food and water directly to a fire station in Sendai.

This week, Mr. Yamamoto will take a group of 35 volunteers from Tokyo to Ishinomaki, where they will cook 500 meals a day for evacuees over the next seven days.

Currently, almost 20 to 30 NGOs along with Japanese Self Defence forces and American military forces, are working in the disaster areas.

“The Japanese government is largely absent from these efforts,” Mr. Kamikawa said.

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