Tamil Nadu after the tsunami: hopes and obstacles

About the author
Kirsty Hughes is Chief Executive of Index on Censorship. Kirsty’s career has taken her from Chatham House and the Policy Studies Institute to the European Commission, Friends of Europe thinktank in Brussels and Oxfam. Kirsty has an international reputation as a writer, policy analyst and journalist - including for her extensive writing and commentary on European politics.

The big church near the beach in Velankanni, on the Tamil Nadu coast of southeast India, was first built by 17th century Portuguese sailors as a gesture of gratitude to the Virgin Mary after they survived a storm at sea. It is a place of pilgrimage for Christians but also an auspicious site for other religions, so at dawn on 26 December 2004 many Hindus, Muslims and Christians, large numbers of them from outside Tamil Nadu, were gathering here. They died in their thousands when the tsunami struck.

When I visit, months later, the repainted church gleams white under a clear blue sky and in the little lanes, up which the waves rushed on that terrible day, the traders’ stalls have been repaired and are stacked with candles and plastic trinkets. But there are no customers.

Also on the December 2004 tsunami in openDemocracy:

Caspar Henderson, “Tsunami coming for us all” (January 2005)

Dave Belden, “Sin and tsunamis” (January 2005)

Antara Dev Sen, “India’s tsunami” (January 2005)

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With Joe Velu and his wife Jessi, I had driven the 200 kilometres down the coast from Chennai (Madras) the day before. Joe, a soft-mannered man, slightly balding, with a moustache and round glasses, leads a Tamil Nadu non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the People’s Development Association (PDA) , and he and Jessi, wrapped in her billowing sari, make a formidable team.

The PDA does most of its work combating child labour farther south in Madurai, famous for the Meenakshi temple with its soaring, decorated towers, but they have experience in emergencies. When the tsunami struck they loaded their Land Rover and headed straight for the coast. Ever since, with a local coordinator and forty volunteers, they have been working in twelve of the worst-affected villages. PDA funding normally comes from the Austrian NGO Volkshilfe, but after the tsunami the funding was reinforced by contributions from a European network called Solidar.

From the traffic-crushed streets of Chennai down the coast to Nagapattinam and Velankanni – where the most serious casualties were experienced – the road crosses a green, lush landscape, with beautiful stretches of swaying palm trees shading little huts whose thatched roofs reach almost to the ground. From time to time stretches of sandy coastline can be seen: there was little here to resist the inward sweep of the giant waves. Besides occasional rows of temporary huts and shelters, however, the impression is one of normality.

This changes as we approach our destination towards nightfall. As we edge along dirt tracks in the darkened streets, crushed carcasses of boats jut into the reddish moonlight at strange angles, and the wreckage of one-room homes is visible in the gloom. We pause, and a woman carrying a huge water container, seeing my foreign face and assuming I might have some influence, explains to me in Tamil, in tired, stern, but matter-of-fact terms, that they have to go a very long way to get the water every day. These are people who lost everything.

The top-down effort

India was by no means the worst hit by the tsunami, yet in Tamil Nadu, according to estimates from officials in Chennai, 8,031 people are known to have lost their lives and 1,000 disappeared. Almost a million more – around 300,000 families – were affected through bereavement, injury or loss of job or home, and more than 100,000 families ended up in camps. These are the people for whom the relief and rehabilitation effort is so vital.

There is a story that India refused aid, but this is wrong. It is true that the initial government response was that the country could deal with the immediate emergency – and international observers in Delhi agreed that it could. But the government did seek and receive some help, with bilateral aid channelled through the United Nations, Unicef rapidly addressing immediate health issues like the supply of drinking-water, and large numbers of national and international NGOs arriving quickly on the scene. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank are involved in longer-term reconstruction, with the World Bank announcing a reconstruction package of around $500 million in May.

The plethora of NGOs, some better equipped than others, caused problems in the early days but the state government stepped in to coordinate, while also setting up hundreds of relief camps. The experienced NGOs are said to have been better than official bodies in moving relief, although some foreign groups aroused antagonism, particularly American religious groups accused of exploiting the crisis to evangelise among the Hindu population. Then, with initial relief structures established, temporary housing erected, and food and basic water delivery systems working, most of the NGOs left. On the few that remain, alongside the government and international institutions, falls the task of overseeing the huge reconstruction and recovery effort that remains. One of them is the People’s Development Association.

The bottom-up response

As we went from village to village Joe Velu and his workers engaged in long, patient discussions with groups of men and women, or with individuals, asking about needs, wants and problems. This is bottom-up assistance, painstaking, consultative, and detailed.

The villagers’ mood and outlook varied from place to place, but the key issues are work and housing. Almost no fishermen are back at sea, and the women who normally clean the catch and travel to sell it are also unemployed. On the land, farmers and agricultural workers are equally affected since the soil will in some cases take years to recover from its swamping in salt water. Housing reconstruction inevitably takes time, but it depends on government decisions and grants and loans, and these cause delays.

In the first village we visit, Vellapallam, thatched homes are still standing but there are gaps, and scattered under the palm trees are the blue and brown temporary huts. These huts are hot and bare, and mostly lie empty during the midday hours. The government initially gave each family 60 kilos of rice and 4,000 rupees (about $88) followed by a monthly payment of 1,000 rupees, but this is barely enough for survival. The PDA gave out more rice, as well as spices, cooking equipment and clothes and every day now it distributes 4,500 rations of milk. Though Joe Velu says people depend on this as a source of protein, he is not sure how long they can carry on supplying it.

We walk down to the sea. There used to be 150 metres of grass here before the start of the beach but now all is sand, the grass swept away by the tsunami. A few beached boats can be seen, some repaired, some awaiting repair. The PDA is helping with this, and with supplying new nets and engines, but – it is a story we hear again in other villages – no one has yet gone back to sea. There is a mixture of reasons: partly an understandable fear, but more importantly a strong community feeling that they should wait until all have boats again and can return together.

There is also confusion about government grants and loans. Some worry that if they go back to sea, they won’t get any government money; others say the government money is too slow in coming or inadequate. Further reports suggest that the fishermen too may be at fault for arguing over the compensation. It does seem that government delays have caused problems, including bureaucracy in checking claims.

According to one source, in some cases the government handed out cheques to tsunami victims but instructed the banks not to cash them while claims were being double-checked. And a mixed story of loans is coming through too – some fishermen getting loans in a straightforward way, with an interest rate holiday for some months ahead, and others being asked for security (house documents or other guarantees they no longer possess) or being charged interest from the start. For people who lost everything, large loans may not be the answer.

As we cross the village the school is in full swing, two classrooms crammed with girls and boys, the former with looped plaits in red or blue ribbons swinging under their ears, and silver anklets above bare feet. They jump up as we arrive and give a noisy greeting. After an exhibition of reading skills and a song there is discussion of whether Joe could take them on an outing: they have not left the village since the tsunami and are due a break and some fun. Outside in the midday sun, workmen are heaving bricks for the foundations of a second building for the school. The PDA is supposed to be funding this, but Joe admits they do not have the money to complete it, so he is not sure what will happen.

Velunthamavadi story

We drive on to Velunthamavadi (north), a village of about 30 families where all the houses were destroyed and everyone lives in temporary blue huts erected by the PDA. Seven children and one woman died here. We sit in a hut with twenty women and two men, the walls around us hung with bright material and beside us four treadle sewing machines provided by the PDA to give the women work and training while they cannot sell fish.

I ask if they will carry on sewing once the boats are working again and a half hour explanation ensues of how the fish are brought to shore, auctioned and sold, and what drives the prices. These are fisherfolk and this is what they know and what they do. The villagers insist we have a lunch of fish curry and crab and rice – an act of great generosity while they are surviving on so little – and a gently-spoken man talks to us about the village and tells how he lost his three children in the waves. Here too no boats are back at sea.

I go with two of the women to a small, fenced-off space just beyond the temporary huts on the way to the beach: the memorial to the dead children. There are seven small plots, each with a baby palm in a carefully marked circle, while in the sand a marble carved monument lies waiting to be fixed to the concrete plinth. One of the women lost two children. I cannot speak her language and have anyway no words – I touch her shoulder.

We move on to the larger southern section of the village, jolting along the sand for a kilometre or so. There, up from the beach, about twenty men are at work under bamboo awnings, repairing the boats with support from the PDA. We sit facing the four leaders, sitting like some tribal council, while they discuss with Joe how they are getting on. Again the talk is of uncertainty about when they will get the government cash for boats and government permission to start rebuilding houses. It seems the government initially was keen to put a number of families into three-storey houses but these people are used to their own simple one-storey, often one-room house. Anyway, no one believes they can start to rebuild until the government has made up its mind, on finance, on planning, on location.

And while the idea of relocating houses back from the beach may sound sensible to an outsider, the fishermen explained to me that they need to be near the water to see the conditions, to see what sort of fish are likely to be out there and so which nets to take. And most of the fishermen use smaller boats – either the most basic wooden katammarans (the word is originally Tamil) or fibreglass vessels – which are launched from the beach and cannot be kept far from the shore.

In the gathering dusk we return to Velunthamavadi, where in a village “square” of sand the women talk before preparing dinner and the children play and stare at the foreigner. I am brought more tea and a distraught man attempts to communicate his loss to me. The women gently lead him away. They have mostly built thatched porches in front of their temporary huts. It is a deceptively calm and gentle environment.

Velankanni scare

We return to Velankanni, where Joe leaves me for the night at my hotel a short way from the church. At 11.30pm there is an urgent knock at my door. There has been another earthquake off Indonesia and a tsunami can’t be ruled out. We must move inland. I climb into the Land Rover and we head off, first to some of the villages to make sure they have been warned. The roads are lined with people, some on bikes and in cars, most walking, carrying a few possessions, or with children in their arms.

There is no panic, just a great sense of weariness, of ongoing shock and fear but also of stoicism and resilience. Some stop and sit on the roadside verges a few kilometres inland, one group of about fifty people sitting and later sleeping on the dusty ground in front of a Hindu temple. It seems an informal 21st-century warning system has swung into action. CNN and BBC have reported the earthquake, others have leapt to their mobiles, often from abroad, to call people in the area, and so the modern bush telegraph has done its job hours before the government sounds its own alert.

We finally return at 3 a.m., assured there is no tsunami. A little weary next morning, we head off to some larger villages on the edge of the town of Nagapattinam, an area at the heart of the tsunami damage here. Here the mood and conditions are much more sombre than in the smaller villages.

“We are very poor”

We drive across a rusty temporary bridge in Akkarapettai, a district of Nagapattinam and in the harbour below the effects of the tsunami are all too visible, with many larger boats crushed, jostled on top of each other and poking into the sky at strange angles. Beyond, we are told, was the fish market, right by the sea, but nothing remains of it. We go on to a camp where hundreds of families are living: half a dozen lines of long low buildings, each split into one stuffy room per family, with narrow lanes between – not unlike a prison camp.

There are no trees, no shade, nowhere for the children to play. These huts were set up by a Japanese NGO, but when the PDA got there they found no proper drainage or water or waste management, so they stepped in and dug trenches and drains, provided rubbish containers and concrete areas for washing and water collection. Even so, conditions are grim.

In a temporary hut nearby it is hot and dark and flies are everywhere. Some teenage women are working on treadle sewing machines, making square white cotton bags that the PDA will use for its rice shipments. This is alternative employment and training but the women do not look happy. Some men come in and sit on the floor for a chat with Velu. They used to work as hired labour on the larger boats and so now have nothing to do, and since they didn’t own any boats or property, they are due no compensation: the poorest had nothing, so get nothing. They want advice, but Joe is not a miracle worker; there is no simple solution.

A few kilometres further and we come to a very large camp. Children are following school lessons in one building but women and children soon start to gather in the dusty open space as word spreads that a rice shipment from the PDA is coming. As they wait, they are keen to have their photos taken, to see the results on the back of the camera, some light distraction. After an hour or more the lorry finally pulls in, loaded with 5-kilo sacks. The women form a long queue, pressed up against each other with mostly good-natured pushing and shoving, while a smaller number of men form a smaller queue.

It is slow, checking each person’s paper entitlement slip against hand-filled ledgers before handing out the rice. The women balance two or even three sacks on their heads, and little children struggle gamely to get one home. One woman in the queue seems to speak a little English. I ask her how difficult it is. She pauses – what can she say, to such a crude question? – but finally, simply and without complaint replies: “We are very poor.”

A little boy with a T-shirt bearing red double-decker bus above the word London walks around us, his eyes fixed disconsolately on some sad, distant point. Not all the individual traumas are so obvious, but he is a reminder of the psychological as well as physical suffering. A thin beggar woman with red eyes and rough messy white hair comes and sits on the ground nearby. She stays through the hours it takes to unload the supplies – but gets nothing, she is not from the camp and does not have the paper slip the rest have showing their entitlement.

The next day we drive for six hours down to Madurai. The PDA’s regular work is calling: helping poor children and fighting child labour. We visit slums and 19 th-century workshops, and are taken by two bright-eyed and gorgeous 7-year-olds to a vast quarry where they work in the daytime. They show me the small hammers they use to break stones – the rate is 25 rupees (about 30 pence) for a basket of stones, so perhaps the family as a whole earns 100 rupees in a day. It is a reminder that besides the enormous task of rehabilitation left by the tsunami there is another great task to be done here: fighting human cruelty and mistreatment.

Since my trip, I have had an email from Joe Velu. In three of the villages we visited, the boats have finally gone back to sea and the people have celebrated their first catch. And it seems they have permission from the government to build 600 houses. For those tough people, in whom I never saw a hint of self-pity, the logjam seems to be breaking. Perhaps the future can start to offer some hope again.