Asia-Pacific

Impact of Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation Work in India

Indian women taking part in a recent campaign for equity and equality in tsunami rehabilitation

Indian women taking part in a recent campaign for equity and equality in tsunami rehabilitation. Photo courtesy of Albert P'Rayan.

The Asian tsunami that struck India and a few other countries caused unprecedented devastation in the coastal districts of the state of Tamil Nadu in India and touched the hearts of many world leaders, celebrities and ordinary people who responded to the calamity in an extraordinary manner. Former president Bill Clinton, the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Tsunami Reconstruction, recently visited Nagapattinam, the worst hit district in the state, and applauded the government and various N.G.O.s for the good work they have been doing in reconstructing the lives of those affected by the tsunami. Was Clinton good at assessing the situation? And was he right in praising the Indian authorities responsible for relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction work? Many human rights activists have expressed concern regarding the reconstruction effort in India. Tsunami survivors at Nagapattinam and other places in Tamil Nadu are grateful to the government but are not quite happy with what the government or humanitarian organizations are doing to rebuild.

While interacting with fisherfolk in some coastal villages in the districts of Tuticorin and Tirunelveli, and Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, I could see and hear their woes and aspirations. According to them, the government’s response to the disaster is not praiseworthy because a real “needs analysis” has not been done in any of the villages hit by the tsunami. “Relief and reconstruction efforts taken by the government and non-government organizations will be successful only if the affected community is allowed to participate in discussions and decision-making process,” says a leader of a fishermen community at Koothenguly, Tirunelveli district, “but unfortunately that is not done. Bureaucrats such as district collectors and politicians think they are experts in disaster management and continue to do what they think is correct.” Intellectuals opine that the government has not taken into account the needs of vulnerable sections of the affected community: women and children.

William Santhanam heads the Tsunami Rehabilitation Office of the Tuticorin catholic diocese, a post he has resigned three times because he does not want to “act against his conscience.” He says that rehabilitation programs are only an eyewash. According to Santhanam, there is no reliable statistics on how much damage the tsunami caused, how many people were killed and how many were actually affected by the killer waves, etc. “The government is doing it only to woo voters as the Tamil Nadu state is going to polls next year and N.G.O.s are involved in the reconstruction effort because they have to run their business smoothly,” says Santhanam. “There is no commitment among most of those who are involved in tsunami relief work.”

According to researchers, the statistics provided by the government of Tamil Nadu and various N.G.O.s is not correct. The damage has been exaggerated in some districts and understated in others. As a result, those who are most affected and in need of relief packages haven’t got what they deserve and those who are not at all affected have enjoyed relief benefits. The manipulation of statistics is quite common among governmental organizations in India but what is surprising and shocking is the distortion of statistics by a few so-called volunteer organizations that receive money from funding agencies. “It is very difficult to find really committed people among those who are involved in the tsunami relief and rehabilitation work. More than tsunami survivors and affected people, those who work for the welfare of the victims benefit,” says John Rayan of the Centre for Human Empowerment through Education Related Services.

The generosity of the people was as unprecedented as the massiveness of the tsunami. Raj Kumar, an auto driver in Chennai, earns 80 to 100 Indian rupees a day ($2). He and his fellow auto drivers contributed 45,000 Indian rupees (about $1,000) to the Tsunami victims. “When I heard about the tsunami attack in our neighboring towns and the subsequent tragic loss of lives and damages to property, I was really moved and decided to sacrifice certain luxuries of taking non-vegetarian meals in restaurants and contributed some amount to the victims,” says Kumar. “My fellow auto drivers also did the same. We collected some money and sent it to an organization so that the money could be utilized properly. Then we took delight in what we did as it was a kind gesture on our part, but now we regret having made such a sacrifice.” Why? “The benefits are enjoyed by those who were not at all affected by the tsunami and there is no proper distribution of the relief packages. My family is poorer than those who get those benefits.”

There is a massive influx of aid but it gives little relief to the affected community in India because of corruption. The government lacks transparency. There is no correct official report detailing how much money has been received by the government or how much has been spent on tsunami reconstruction projects. The fact that India is one of the most corrupt countries in the world makes wise people ask whether it is right on their part to expect wonders to happen in the government’s reconstruction efforts.

The government has issued orders about tsunami relief and rehabilitation and the question is whether promises will be kept and sustainable development achieved. The relief measures include the construction of permanent houses for homeless families in tsunami-affected villages; the construction of schools, hospitals, child welfare centers, primary health centers, etc.; grants of relief to families of the deceased; the distribution of essential commodities such as rice, grocery items, kerosene, etc.; relief packages to affected farmers (damages to crops) and fisherfolk (damages to fishing implements such as boats, engines and nets); relief assistance to affected women.         

The distribution of relief packages is not being carried out properly because of bureaucratic hurdles and the corruption and clash among political parties. The Campaign for Equity and Equality in Tsunami Rehabilitation recently held demonstrations protesting the government’s callous attitude toward the tsunami affected people in the state of Tamil Nadu. Some of their demands: Put an end to discriminatory aid distribution; distribute relief packages in a just manner irrespective of the castes of affected people; stop discrimination against fisherwomen; protect the rights of women and children; spend the funds allotted for tsunami relief and rehabilitation only for that purpose, which includes constructing permanent houses for the homeless, creating alternative jobs for fisherfolk who fear going to sea, opening more schools to improve the student-teacher ratio, empowering women, etc.; say “no” to the Sethusamuthram ship canal project because it is a great threat to the livelihood of fisherfolk and coastal economy; don’t force the fisherfolk to leave the coastal area in the name of shifting them to a “safer” place; avoid unnecessary delays in distributing relief packages.

Vijaya was in class 10 last year when the tsunami hit Chennai. Although she is a highly motivated person, there were moments when situations forced her to discontinue her studies. The environment in which she was living was not conducive to studying. Her parents are illiterate and her three siblings (two elder brothers and one elder sister) have dropped out of school. Most of the girls her age in Thideer Nagar, a slum near Marina Beach in Chennai, have studied only up to class five. Most of the residents are coolies and domestic servants. After the tsunami, the government forced the community, more than 1,300 families, to move to a “safer” place called Thuraipakkam, about 25 kilometers away. The tsunami was a blessing in disguise for the corporation of Chennai [city administrators] because it was looking for an opportunity to shift the community to a different place in order to clear the slum and beautify the city. The new dwelling place lacks basic facilities such as electricity and water. The government didn’t take into account the displaced people’s livelihood or the children’s education. Many families lost their livelihood and students like Vijaya found it very difficult to commute more than 25 kilometers to their schools. The state government takes pride in having provided shelter to the 1,300 families but the families themselves think that they have been pushed out of “paradise” for they now have no regular jobs and are unsure about how they are going to survive.

Vijaya and many other girl students were helped by the authorities of catholic schools run by the Madras-Mylapore archdiocese. Now, thanks to the initiative taken by Packia Mary — a volunteer who used to visit Thideer Nagar and do social work until it was shifted to Thuraipakkam — a hostel for girl students has been started in the locality. It accommodates 25 girl students and gives them free board and lodging. Besides that, some volunteers tutor the students in English, math and science. But for the hostel accommodation, many girl students would have dropped out of school. “Education of girls is the key to social development. Unless we educate girls, the most vulnerable group, we cannot bring about reformation,” says Packia Mary.

There was a move to shift families from Muthirayar Nagar to a far away place. People refused to go. “What about our livelihood,” asks Mukkamma. “Even the collector’s office is on the coast. The sea is our property and our livelihood. We can’t be forced to go from here as the sea is our source of income.”

Some local volunteer organizations are doing excellent work in the tsunami-affected area. Representatives from the Centre for Human Empowerment and Education Related Services visit fishermen hamlets and motivate them to send their children to schools because the school dropout rate is extremely high in their communities. They also raise their voice against boat owners who employ child laborers. “Tsunami rehabilitation work among fishermen will be successful only if the government takes serious steps to put an end to child labor and punish those who employ children below 18 years of age,” says Rayan.

The Rural Uplift Centre in the district of Kanyakumari has brought out a booklet compiling government orders related to tsunami relief work. The documents in English have been translated into Tamil and the purpose of bringing out the booklet is to create awareness among affected people so that they know their rights and get the benefits to which they are entitled. C. M. Gerald, a legal advisor for the center, says that most people are not aware of government orders on tsunami relief and rehabilitation programs.

Tsunami survivors face not only economic problems but also psychological, social and many other problems. Although the government’s response to their problems is not to be appreciated, some non-governmental organizations have been doing things in a professional way. Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, Project Concern International and the NGO Coordination and Resource Centre have shown a commitment to supporting development initiatives and restoring the lives of the tsunami-affected community of Nagapattinam. These organizations have employed personnel in Nagapattinam and other coastal villages worst hit by the tsunami for various programs: women’s rights and gender justice, child rights and protection, designing livelihood security interventions and other livelihood functions, psychological activities such as counseling, etc.

Tamil Nadu Government Order Ms No. 172 states: “The Tsunami Housing Reconstruction of about 130,000 concrete houses at an approximate cost of 150,000 Indian rupees each (about $3500). Each house will have 300-325 sq. ft. of built-up space. The house will be having all disaster-resistant features. The layout will have adequate infrastructure facilities like water supply, streetlights, roads, rainwater harvesting structures, drains, community center, noon-meal center (free noon meal for children), etc. … The entire program is likely to cost 1950 crores (Indian rupees given in crores — about $450 million). It is expected that Government of India and the World Bank will provide substantial assistance for this program.”

Social activists have their own doubts because the government officials are known for their corrupt practices. John P’Rayan says that these are empty promises by the government and he fears whether the allotted money for the project will be spent on it or part of the amount will go into the pockets of the politicians and bureaucrats. William Santhanam says that the Tuticorin Tsunami Rehabilitation Office, with aid from Caritas (Rome), is going to construct 967 houses in the districts of Tirunelveli and Tuticorin on land provided by the government of Tamil Nadu. But the hurdle he faces is that the government is not ready to give ownership to those who are going to occupy the houses. The state government wants to show that it is doing all the work and win the voters’ support in the upcoming legislative assembly election. Santhanam signed the memorandum of understanding with the collector after waiting for many days because he is being pressured by the donor agency (Caritas) to realize the project. He feels that it is very difficult to work with bureaucrats because they are not going to stick to their promises.

The fisherfolk of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu have not yet recovered from the shock of the tsunami disaster. Now there is another threat to their livelihood in the form of the Sethusamuthram ship channel project, a plan to connect the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal through the Palk Strait so that ships moving between the east and west coasts will have a straight passage within India’s territorial waters instead of having to go around Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laid the foundation for the ship canal project July 2 amid protest from the fishermen community. The inauguration was held in Madurai, far away from the sea, rather than Tuticorin, a port city, because the authorities feared local protests. The National Union of Fishermen organized protests in different parts of Tamil Nadu because the project is considered a threat to the livelihood of fishermen in the Gulf of Mannar. The protestors believe that most of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu were spared the fury of the tsunami because of the presence of the 23 islands that will be destroyed to create the canal. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Selvi Jayalalitha, blamed the central government for rushing the project despite serious environmental concerns and a threat to the livelihood of fishermen in the region, and did not attend the inauguration of the project. While the government describes the project as “technologically challenging and economically vital,” environmentalists and human rights activists describe it as a disastrous project.

The impact of the tsunami in Tamil Nadu has been a heavy loss of lives, extensive property damage, and the loss of a livelihood for fisherfolk. It is not easy for the affected people to come out of their traumatic experience. It will take years. What is the impact of tsunami relief and rehabilitation program? “Many welfare schemes proposed by the government and N.G.O.s are aimed at giving only a temporary relief to the helpless people,” warns Santhanam. “Such relief measures make the people dependent on donors and make them beggarly.” If the government and N.G.O.s are really interested in the welfare of the people then they should focus their activities on sustainable development.

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