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News & Events
And now a wave of compassion
The Hindu - Thursday, Jan 06, 2005
Students, lawyers, doctors, slum-dwellers, IT professionals... help is pouring in from all quarters for post-tsunami relief works, reports SHONALI MUTHALALY

CHENNAI HAS never seen anything quite like this before.

Lawyers, doctors, IT professionals and chartered accountants are taking one and two months of leave to clamber on trucks piled high with relief material and head to remote tsunami-struck villages to help volunteers find, lift and bury rapidly decomposing bodies. Young people are packing knapsacks and hitching lifts to the coast to offer both brains and brawn in an attempt to help devastated villagers. Students from city schools and colleges are sitting up late, sifting through and meticulously cataloguing the never-ending flood of food, vessels, clothes and money, coming from all over the world, everyday.

The most amazing part of the story is, perhaps, the fact that, in this current time of trouble, everybody is pitching in. "The city has risen up magnificently to face this tragedy," says one volunteer, just back from Nagapattinam. "All along the coast, in all the villages I visited, there was an overflow of aid. Stacks and stacks of clothes, more-than-enough cooked food, volunteers on call... All class, caste, religious, social and economic barriers have simply faded away as people stand shoulder to shoulder helping put villages back on their feet."

Many volunteers

After the tsunami hit the coast, tea stalls stayed open day and night to feed survivors for free. In Chennai, and the villages, house owners have thrown open their homes for those who have lost theirs. "My maid and 15 of her friends left for the villages with stoves soon after the tsunami," says one lady. "They went there and cooked sambar and rice for the victims." "Nobody asked any of these people to do all this," says another volunteer, "In a number of villages, volunteers from the city have just come in, and started to cook for everyone. We even get calls from Mumbai and Delhi from people who are begging to come and work with us."

In the slums, men and women, who can barely afford a daily square meal, are collecting Rs. 5 per head to help the tsunami victims. Teenagers from poor housing colonies are going from door to door, raising tens of thousands of rupees in the process. Along the coast, in every colony, people are collecting money to help neighbours who have lost everything.

Meanwhile, under the direction of relief organisations, many set up overnight by concerned citizens, campuses are being flooded by hundreds of cartons of products for the victims, from practically all the major companies in the city, some of which have also volunteered to supply 20,000 to 40,000 litres of vital drinking water to the villages.

In the Indian Red Cross Society's sprawling Chennai headquarters (044-2855 4548 /4425 /4117 /2858 6997), for instance, every single room is crammed. Their rambling campus, now overshadowed by looming bundles of clothes, is abuzz all through the day, with volunteers working overtime, putting together emergency packages for villagers. Lorries, loaned for free by corporates, are constantly being loaded to be sent to the coast. Meanwhile, the steady stream of Chennai-ites bearing aid whether it's an old man in an auto rickshaw crammed with bread, or five well-gelled hipsters in a car loaded with blankets never seems to cease.

"The public response is tremendous," says Sarojini Varadappan, president, Indian Red Cross Society, Tamil Nadu branch. "There is such incredible generosity." A quick look through their ample stockpile of food and other supplies is proof enough. One room is packed to the ceiling with cartons of milk from Aavin, "because the children need milk, and these cartons stay good for 120 days," says Bhargavi Devendra, honorary secretary of the state's Indian Red Cross Society. There are hundreds of cartons of instant noodles, biscuits and medicines. Another room is practically bursting with new clothes saris, dhotis and bedsheets. The corridors are full of tightly rolled grass mats, buckets, mugs, stoves, candles, matches and a number of other items, all packed up and ready to go. "We are even receiving calls and letters from people who want to adopt children who lost their parents in the tragedy. An adoption agency called recently offering to adopt all the children," she says.

The scene at the villages, however, especially the smaller ones, is still frighteningly unchanged. "We've been visiting a lot of the small villages dotted along the coast, and they're still finding bodies in these places," says Balaji, who's co-ordinating the NGO AID India's work (044-28350403/ 55615629. www.aidindia.org) . "Our volunteers are finding still children trapped in fishing nets, whose bodies are decomposing... You can't blame the Government, they're doing what they can. But they need help," he says, adding, "In remoter villages there are, even now, a huge number of dead bodies that need to be cleared."

AID India has divided the belt into five main areas, he says, and "taken up a few villages in every point." There are apparently eight clusters where bodies have not yet been removed. And yes, most of their manpower is fuelled by everyday citizens from Chennai. "We just give them gloves, and they carry the bodies - voluntarily. It's a terrible job, but, amazingly, people are willing to do it."

Praveen, for one, has been working ceaselessly in Kovalam ever since the tragedy, along with a group called the Youth Employment Summit. "These people need help from us," he says. "It's probably going to take more than three months for things to come back to normal."

At the Bhoomika Trust Office (9444451268, 52041505), Jayendra Panchapakesan and his team of volunteers are putting together emergency kits, each of which should answer the needs of a family. Besides having a huge and enthusiastic pool of volunteers to do the packing, he says there are also a number of people coming forward to sponsor kits, make cash donations and bring actual supplies.

"These villages have lost their means of livelihood. They need to get back their nets, and have their boats repaired. They need food, water and medicines," says Nandakumar, a pilot, who has been using all his leave to work in the villages. Nandakumar, who has been co-ordinating with `Trust Children' (55712040, 55712030) and the city's students, says people are now travelling to the tsunami affected areas along with the rations, because they want to ensure it reaches the needy. "We have got to ensure that they aren't taken away by the local dons in the villages," he says.

Students pitch in

The students, meanwhile, who are working under the `Students for Society' banner, help by finding funds, and sponsors. "We're not skilled, or equipped, to deal with the horror there," says Priyanka from Stella Maris. "So we help by targeting people who can aid us in a proactive way." They get daily updates from AID India, which has volunteers on the field, and then find a way to supply them with what is required: whether it's medicines, painkillers, bedding, food supplies or utensils. "We hope to set up a water network eventually," she says. "But right now, they're still separating the living and dead."

Although there was some confusion in the beginning, most organisations now coordinate with one another and the government to find out what is needed where, so they can then send the appropriate supplies and volunteers. As well-stocked lorries ply in and out of the city, additional information keeps coming in from the field, so organisers can equip themselves for the next day. And meanwhile, help continues to pour in ceaselessly.

"It's amazing," says Ishwarya from the Ila Kitchens Rescue Team (24985515), "We are getting calls from the general public, from people of all ages, from all walks of life. This is a first time experience for me... I never thought the world was so helpful. Or that people were so wonderful.

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