Wednesday, February 02, 2005

After Tsunami: Eyewitness Account From India

EYEWITNESS: India’s fishing villages fight fear of the sea
Anna Jefferys works in Save the Children UK’s emergencies department. She writes from India.

The plight of the 2.7 million Indians whose lives were devastated by the December tsunami never reached the top of the international press agenda.
This is partly due to the overwhelming scale of the tragedy in nearby Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and partly because of the Indian government’s statement that it did not require any external aid.
The Indian government is no stranger to large-scale disaster – it has contended with crises in Orissa, Gujarat, Assam and Jammu and Kashmir as well as ongoing drought in Rajasthan, and is adept at mobilising relief interventions that require vast resources and high levels of organisation.
Initial efforts by the Indian government to clear bodies and debris, to deliver widescale relief, to set up water tanks and provide shelter materials have been impressive.
However, while the crisis in India lies outside the international media limelight, the enormous and complex task of helping people to rebuild their lives here must not be underestimated.
The long-term needs and priorities are clear: reconstruction, supporting people’s livelihoods, and helping communities to provide psychosocial support.
The village of Anichamkupam in Villapuram, Tamil Nadu, resembles a ghost town, with buildings lying crumbled, and others empty and coated with a layer of sand. The debris of daily life litters the floor -- a broken water pot, the remnants of a child’s book, a scrap of clothing.
A few women fan the flames of bonfires where they are burning debris. The voices of children can be heard from a sort distance away, as they sit under a tree learning Tamil, their school building destroyed.


Most of the inhabitants of this village have been evacuated to grim-looking interim shelters across the road.
The state-level government has made a huge effort to build interim shelters quickly in most of the affected villages and hamlets, but its quality is questionable in many areas.
Many of the new shelters I saw in villages along the coast were made of corrugated iron, which absorbs the sun’s searing heat.
In the middle of the day when the sun was at its strongest, most of the structures I saw were empty.
Part of the reason for using these seemingly inappropriate materials is the fire hazards associated with traditional timber and thatch construction.
However, finding a safe, ecologically friendly solution that would abide by the Sphere minumum standards in emergency relief in such a short time frame is hard to replicate on a wide scale.
Meanwhile, houses, schools, businesses, early childhood development centres, and warehouses have been destroyed all along the coast.
In the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which faced the worst of the wave’s fury, and which accounts for over half of India’s 11,000 reported deaths, almost 30 percent of the schools we assessed had been completely destroyed, and 50 percent of those remaining are damaged.
The process of rebuilding permanent structures is being complicated by a government order prohibiting new construction within 500 metres of the sea.
What, ask villagers, will happen to houses that are within the legal requirement when the rest of the village is being moved?


“They can’t just take my neighbours away,” said Fatima, from her doorstep. “What will happen to our community then?”
There is widespread fear that this will also leave planners open to pay-offs from people who are determined want to build on the beach.
Ensuring that communities participate in the rebuilding process, and have a say in the design and materials, is vital.
In the western Indian state of Gujarat, which was shaken by a severe earthquake in early 2001, houses in 11 villages still remain unoccupied because they were made with inappropriate materials and were imposed on communities.
Many members of the fishing and farming communities are helping to construct interim shelters and schools in a bid to keep themselves busy.
A rehabilitation package has been announced to replace the boats and nets of 150,000 fishermen across Tamil Nadu and to support workers associated with the fishing industry.
However, none of the communities that we spoke to had yet received this aid. In Anichamkuppam, 200 people -- a fifth of the community’s inhabitants -- worked in a small-scale jellyfish catching and packaging business with a warehouse on the beach.
The fishermen caught the jellyfish, and people of the dalit caste -- or so-called untouchables -- transported and sold it.
It is a short three-month season, beginning in January. This year, the season never began and the warehouse has all but disappeared, its remnants strewn across the beach.
Supramani, a fisherman who delivered fish to the warehouse, is worried. “I have relief for now, but all I want to do is rebuild our warehouse and start again. I need to go back to the sea. It’s all I know,” he said.
It is vital that the hidden groups and communities who are only indirectly involved with the fishing industry but whose livelihoods have nonetheless been shattered, are not overlooked in government and NGO rehabilitation initiatives.
Some of those our staff spoke to include dalits who transport fish or engage in inland fishing, women who sell fish, and “irulas” -- nomadic groups whose lives are ineitably interlinked with the fishing economy.


Meanwhile, farmers are faced with a bleak future. It will take around two years on average for soil to recover from such high levels of salt.
An immediate relief package to the tune of $375,290 has been released for their support, but people will need concerted assistance in desalinating their land for a long time to come.
The most vulnerable groups are the women who have lost partners, and have been left to run households on their own, with no source of income, and children, who risk losing their ability to return to school in a bid to support struggling family incomes.
“The concern is that we will address those with visible assets such as boats, and overlook those who lost invisible assets, such as educational or employment opportunities. We must ensure this isn’t the case,” said Mike Aaronson, Save the Children’s director, on a visit to tsunami-struck villages in India.
Likewise, rehabilitation initiatives need to address the psychological problems that these communities are facing.
Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable in emergency settings.
Teenagers face the grim task of taking exams despite losing their notebooks, uniforms, textbooks, and in many cases, their schools.
The experiences that many of these children have been through -- including having witnessed the deaths of their friends and family and having come face to face with their own mortality -- will affect their ability to focus and participate.
In the town of Kaccal in the Nicobars, just one teacher out of 100 remains alive.
“What is so hard is that these people have come to fear the sea which was once the provider that they always trusted. This is very traumatic,” Aaronson said.
In Thirumullaivasal, a village that lost 100 people to the tsunami, I met Parvita playing alone on the beach. She was doing the same thing when the wave struck, and watched her grandmother drown.

She told me: “Even though I am afraid of the sea, I will stay here. I will not leave it.”


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