'Let's not tackle this tragedy in the traditional Sri Lankan way - endless talking in long meetings over cups of tea,' urged an editorial in Sri Lanka's Daily News last week. But that, at least in the first few days, is just how the relief efforts were handled by a shockingly lethargic bureaucracy. It was partly because everyone was so dazed by the apocalyptic scale of the worst human tragedy the island has ever faced. The official toll rose yesterday to 29,744 dead, 16,665 injured and 5,540 missing, said R.M.Jayasinghe, a public servant attached to the Social Welfare Ministry's emergency co-ordination office. Up to 2 million are homeless. Isabelle Bernijn, project co-ordinator with the International Red Cross in Colombo, said: 'They just don't know where to begin. They're overwhelmed by the scale of it all.' It was not until Wednesday, three days after the tsunami struck, that some fast decision-making began to be visible, but even then the quintessential red tape of the subcontinent kept getting in the way. At one point there were 30 different government offices trying to co-ordinate relief work. This meant that United Nations and Red Cross workers had to waste their time calling different departments to get the information or approvals they needed, instead of dealing with only one centre. Another Sri Lankan problem is that until low-level civil servants obtain authorisation from their superiors, they do nothing. No decisions are taken. As huge consignments of relief supplies started landing at ports and airports, there was chaos at customs. 'One customs official has been refusing to clear plastic sheeting for wrapping up corpses and tarpaulins needed to give shelter. He's citing some obscure procedural reason. He doesn't seem to know there is an unprecedented calamity out there,' said a furious UN employee. On Wednesday, President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed one minister to co-ordinate all the relief work, a move that made a difference. Nevertheless, even as late as Thursday, most of the destitute and homeless people who had taken shelter in temples, churches and schools were still waiting for food and clothes. Much of the help they received during the week came from voluntary organisations and ordinary Sri Lankans who were collecting food, water and clothes for the refugees. Some aid began to trickle in by Thursday - food parcels, clothes and water - but no tents or tarpaulins. Still needed were cooking pots, soap, towels, tents and buckets. Sri Lanka has plenty of doctors and nurses but medicine is badly needed. With parts of the main coastal roads in the east and west blocked by debris, relief trucks had to use small country roads to reach the affected areas, causing long delays. These roads were hopelessly blocked by well-wishers bringing in their own supplies of food and water. Worse still, some of the vehicles clogging the roads were full of curious sightseers determined to see the obliterated coast.