A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Riders On The Storm

India Today

December 29, 2005

Relief experts have an adage: "For the survivors of a natural disaster, a second man-made disaster may also be looming-the rehabilitation." Given India's dismal record in calamity management, it usually holds good. This, however, is a story to the contrary. It shows how the government machinery spearheaded by committed officials, combining with a host of well-meaning private individuals and institutions, can bring a sea change in the lives of a shattered people. This then is a tale of how the worst of times can bring the best in humanity.

On that Black Sunday a year ago, the giant waves swallowed fishermen's hamlets, boats, crops, buildings and thousands of people within minutes. Bodies lay littered like dead fish on the coastline. In Tamil Nadu alone, apart from the human cost of 8,018 deaths, the tsunami left behind 1.26 lakh people homeless, over 40,000 boats damaged and 7,300 hectares of agricultural land destroyed. "We thought our world had come to an end," says G. Shakthivel, a 33-year-old fisherman in Nagapattinam's Akkaraippettai neighbourhood. Today, Shakthivel, who had lost family and friends to the tragedy, is set to return to the sea in his new gleaming steel boat that he has bought with a bank loan of Rs 15 lakh and a government subsidy of Rs 5 lakh. The waves had smashed his wooden boat into smithereens. "Life is not as bad as we had imagined it would be," he says.

As the anniversary of the tsunami approaches, in the affected areas there is an eagerness to show the world that life moves on and ahead for the better. Officials unanimously acknowledge that aid poured in from all parts of the world. If relief from the Central and state governments is added, the total aid sanctioned comes to Rs 1,136 crore. Initially, the good Samaritans went berserk. If you wanted bread, you got a bakery. A Karnataka MP sent 60,000 chapattis to victims in Cuddalore who ate only rice. Truck-loads of old clothes arrived from all over the world and lay on the roadside rejected by the fishermen community, a proud lot who don't wear used clothes. State-of-the-art commodes arrived from abroad for a people not used to western toilets.

District Collector G. Radhakrishnan, who was posted at Nagapattinam a fortnight after the devastation to take charge of relief measures, was appalled at the magnitude of destruction and the chaos that followed in its wake. All the roads were washed away, piles of bodies lay all around and 80,000 people had moved to relief centres. Food had to be arranged. The dead had to be buried. Sanitary workers from the entire state were mobilised for retrieval and burial of the bodies. Roads had to be laid and communication restored. The task before him was enormous. Radhakrishnan was also confronted by an army of NGOs-419 in all-demanding to help.

"The trick was efficient utilisation," says Radhakrishnan. ngos were asked to choose their areas of function such as shelter, livelihood and comprehensive village development. He then selected the NGOs, based on their past performances and reputation, and allocated the work. A coordination centre was also set up and its functioning placed in charge of an NGO to facilitate cooperation within the sector by eliminating the need to go through tedious official registration procedures. Radhakrishnan instituted a mandatory weekly meeting with district officials and NGOs where they would sit across the table and analyse the progress made to address both short- and long-term rehabilitation, shelter and livelihood needs. This was a method adopted soon by neighbouring Cuddalore district where the damage was equally extensive. On the day of the tsunami, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, its district collector, rushed back from a holiday in Mahabalipuram and during the two-hour road journey supervised relief measures on his mobile phone. Once the job of rescuing the survivors and burying the dead was done, he too set about organising long-term rehabilitation measures.

The result was speedy and coordinated decision making. Yash Bhatt, a deputy manager with Tata Projects Limited, Hyderabad, came to Nagapattinam in January with a desalination mobile van that could produce 3,500 litres of potable water an hour. He also submitted samples of water to the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Damage Board. "The collector gave us permission to start work within two hours of arrival. Eventually, he urged me to stay on for two years," recalls Bhatt. After the mobile van, Bhatt and his team have now installed a static plant with a capacity of 1,250 litres per hour. The Government has given them the land and free supply of power.

In both Nagapattinam and Cuddalore, much of the debris has been cleared, new roads laid and potable water tanks installed. While there are still rows and rows of ragged, ugly-looking temporary structures built for the homeless, new houses have been constructed, shops restocked and hotels built to accommodate NGO workers who have been camping here since last year. In Nagapattinam, beyond the new bridge that is coming up on the way to Akkaraippettai, a huge fish auction centre is being built by Metro Cash and Carry. The contractors say it will have all contemporary facilities like cold storage. A little beyond the centre is the panchayat elementary school, where 52 children died under the debris. Now the school again reverberates with students' laughter. The Government had announced a waiver of all tuition fees to tsunami-affected students, supplied free books and uniforms, besides bicycles to college and higher secondary students.

Some of the figures are impressive. In Nagapattinam, there were a total of 3,230 non-mechanised fishing boats before tsunami, a number that has gone up to 5,126. But the surfeit of boats has led to a peculiar problem: all muthalaalis (owners) and no tozhilaalis (labourers). "This has created a social imbalance," says Annie George of the NGO Coordination and Research Centre. "Most of those working as crew in boats have become boat owners. But they have to double as crew too as there are not enough labourers left."

The biggest challenge for the officials, though, was to convince the fishermen to go back to the sea. Radhakrishnan says, "For a long time, most fishermen were reluctant to do so, especially since the Government was doling out subsidies." Bedi convinced them that their new boats were much sturdier and safer. He now plans to put wireless sets in the bigger boats so that fishermen will be updated about rough weather while at sea. The other major problem was the constant need to upgrade the temporary shelters. "It was a challenge because we did not have a standard design that would withstand heat and rain," says Radhakrishnan. There was also the issue of managing the NGOs. Nagapattinam and Cuddalore are now dotted with offices of NGOs. Many hotel rooms have been permanently taken up by them, kicking up rentals. Properties which used to be rented out for Rs 1,000 a month have been occupied by international NGOs paying as much as Rs 25,000.

Meanwhile, the work done by some of the NGOs has began to show results. In Cuddalore, at Puthukkuppam, the Mata Amrithanandamayi Organisation has built 75 permanent houses for the victims. Machchagandhi Vadivelu, a fisherwoman, is busy washing the verandah of the house given to her. The tsunami killed her daughter and destroyed her house. Secure in their new home, her son Ravendran is no longer afraid to return to the sea. In Devanampattinam, there is a new orphanage with shining tiled floor being built by actor Vivek Oberoi. In Kadampadi, Nagapattinam, the 100-odd orphans, who were put up in the small makeshift building, are expecting to move soon into the swank 25,000 sq ft Annai Sathya Home being built at a cost of Rs 3.5 crore by an array of private institutions and individuals that include the Amway Foundation, the German Leprosy Association, Standard Chartered Bank, Rotary Club and a group of Rajya Sabha MPs.

The battle has now moved from survival to subsistence. Training centres have been set up in Nagapattinam to impart livelihood skills, such as candle-making, vermi-composting and manufacturing micro-concrete roofing tiles, to women. "I now know there are other ways to survive. I need not depend on the sea alone," says S. Geeta, a fisherwoman who lost her children and husband to the tragedy. "I can educate my children and train them for other jobs," she adds as she proudly shows a micro-concrete tile made by her.

Of course, there is more to life than rehabilitation. The depressing reality of losing their loved ones was too much to handle for many victims. A few of them are now trying to bounce back. Selvi Vijaykumar, 25, who lost all her children, is among the 17 such unfortunate women in Nagapattinam who have undergone recanalisation surgeries. She is eight weeks pregnant now and happy about it.

Both collectors admit that there is still a lot more to be done. Strengthening the infrastructure and providing alternative means of livelihood once the NGOs move out is a major challenge. Also, a number of projects are still at the conceptual stage. These include revival of a minor port in Nagapattinam at a cost of Rs 50 crore, development of coastal villages as hubs of infrastructure, desilting and strengthening of drainage canals and development of bridges. Community assets like schools, multi-hazard shelters, fish landing and auction halls are also to be completed. A plan for a habitation-level taskforce involving the local community for developing risk perceptions for various disasters has been floated. Overall, however, the work done so far is an energising spectacle of a self renewing humanity.

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