India after the tsunami

After the wave.

Prodeepta Das travels to South India to see how coastal villages are recovering, one year after the tsunami struck.

Over the past few years, India has become used to being buffeted by natural calamities, but the tsunami on 26 December 2004 caught us all unawares. While the response to the disaster from both within India and beyond was huge and magnanimous, the task of reconstruction has been comparably large.

I recently travelled to Tamil Nadu to see for myself how far the people had been able to re-establish themselves.

The road from Pondicherry was itself a constant reminder of the ravages the tsunami had made – all but destroying the road in places. At Cuddalore, I was joined by two officers from CARE, and headed further south along the coast.

The first port of call was the village, Silambimagalam, where Mr R Devabalan of BLESS, a local NGO, said, “The tsunami left all the ponds in the village with salt water. Since the people depend on these ponds a great deal for everyday living, they have been greatly inconvenienced. It was the same with the few wells. Only a couple of the tube wells are in working order and these hardly satisfy the needs of the villagers”.

Working hard in the scorching heat, a group comprised mostly of women were scouring a large pond, emptying the remaining sea water and salt soaked mud. “We have 250 day labourers on our book”, supervisor T Vasantha said, pointing to the attendance register, “but today, 128 have reported to work”. Maheswari, three of whose family members were swept away by the tsunami, seemed happy with the work and the money she was getting: “I do odd work in agricultural fields and get no more than 30 rupees for a day’s work,” she told me. “Here I’m getting 80 rupees daily.”

A meeting of the NGOs working in the agriculture sector found that land reclamation and revitalisation of agricultural operations were the priorities. Sea water encroaching on agricultural fields and water channels had destroyed the standing crop. Water bodies like ponds were salinated. It was also found that while the pH of the soil had not changed considerably, the electric conductivity had increased considerably in certain places. This would have an adverse effect on the desalination process. Further, because the carbon content had dropped, there are no living micro-organisms present in the soil. In places, there is high accumulation of sand and silt with sand deposits up to 3 feet. The high level of salt content will render fertilisers ineffective for up to two years. The immediate tasks seem to be: deepening of drainage channels; removing the sand deposits on the top soil; removal of the upper layer of top soil; cleaning of irrigation tank and ponds; using green manure seeds to produce biomass which would raise the carbon content; and adding bio-solutions to the soil to assist the growth of essential micro organisms. It remains a huge task.

In February, the Indian Government spelt out a compensation package which provided for Rs12,500 per hectare for three years but it did not take into account crop types, and the losses incurred by specific farming and labouring communities. And because the cost and kind of reclamation process varied from place to place, depending on the nature of the soil and the amount of inundation and salt accumulation, the compensation has not always matched local needs.

But for some it has worked. Kanniyappan, a fisherman in the village of Kumarapettai, 18 km from Cuddalore, was separating the fish on the shore with other fishermen when “the tide began to become high and higher.” He said, “Children were playing nearby. We sent them away. Then we saw a very high tide approaching and we ran inshore. It looked like a wall of water, probably eight or 10 feet high. Four of us could not make it to safe ground. We also lost three boats, 40 catamarans, two fibre boats and 10 engines.” Kanniyappan and his fellow fishermen were appreciative of the help they have received in putting their lives back together. “We have been given 27 boats with engines and nets. The new boats are made of fibre. The old catamarans could go 2km out to sea; these can go further, five to 10 km and can carry a bigger catch” he acknowledged happily.

Many of the affected people earn their livelihood from fishing. It is no surprise, therefore, that much of the reconstruction effort is focused on fishing communities. The Tamil Nadu government has expended over £5 million on replacement of gill nets and over £2 million on fishing boats.

CAFOD, through its local partner Caritas India, has distributed 22,000 nets and over 1,400 new or repaired fishing boats. Boatyards in Chennai and Pondicherry are employing local people to do the work.

Sadly, the tsunami has left many children without their parents. The government acted swiftly to counter possible trafficking attempts. Several childcare centres have opened in Cuddalore, Nagapattinam and Nagercoil districts with ayas (childminders) to look after the children.

The village of Pudupet, near Indranagar, lost 130 people. Here, on a long stretch of land levelled by the tidal wave, is a new building housing a child care centre. Adults were clearing the floor and the children, 30 of them, aged three to 11, stood around, ready to take their places for their midday meal. Today it consisted of rice, dhal, vegetables and a boiled egg. Subamathi Mahalingam manages the centre and also has the responsibility for community health programmes. This requires changing the mindset of the villagers. She said, “I work with children and women, trying to raise health and hygiene awareness among them. For six months I have been trying to persuade people to have safety latrines in their houses but most cannot accept the idea of a toilet inside the house. So far, I have been able to help build 102 bathrooms and 13 toilets.”

SchoolgirlsAccepting new ideas is never easy. In some areas, the residents have actively resisted outside help. The villagers of Devapattinam spurned well-intentioned offers of support from many NGOs who came. But Father Ratchnagar of Pondicherry Multipurpose Social Service Society succeeded in getting through. “They accepted me because one of their leaders is a former student of mine”, he said. “We knew there would be much more to do than just replace the lost boats, nets and houses, so we started to work with all the village, especially the women.” Girls and boys received training in computer skills. Women-only self-help groups were set up. Each member paid 10 rupees (8 pence) every week to a bank account, swelling their collective deposit by 150 to 200 rupees every week. The money in the bank account helped them start their own shop or trade, such as fish stand, a tailoring shop or mushroom cultivation. They could also borrow money to pay for essentials such as medicines, and school books. The initiative has brought them relief from the moneylenders.

The continuing challenge is to restore and improve upon the previous living conditions of the affected communities. Four key areas have been identified: individual and community rehabilitation, infrastructure reconstruction, economic recovery and women and health. The South Indian Federation of Fishermen’s Societies has just completed construction of permanent shelters in Chinnangudi village with people’s participation in design of the houses, which are built to withstand future disasters and reflect the aspirations and expectations of the beneficiaries. Mr Vivekanandan, Chief Executive of SIFFS, speaks with missionary zeal about the project. “The construction process will go on a war footing with the support of the government and the community.” They have conducted a socio-economic survey and risk assessment study, and set up model houses with the aim of creating a new habitat, and ensuring the protection of the fisherfolk.

Arguably, prevention is better than cure. Taking a long term view, Germany has decided to finance an early warning system, akin to the US backed one that monitors the Pacific Ocean. At a cost of €45 million, it will sink marine instruments that can detect monster waves caused by seabed earthquakes like that on December 26. It will use seisometers and global positioning system satellites to detect tremors. UNESCO’s oceanographic commission will coordinate the project, to be completed by mid-2008.

Reflecting on the speed of recovery, Tamil Nadu’s Officer on Special Duty for Relief, Mr C V Shankar, commented, “The fishermen are a hardy lot. They have been able to bounce back very quickly and now go out to the sea on their new boats, ready to collect their catch.”