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Perspective
February 26, 2005
From relief to rehabilitation...back to relief (26/02/05)

It has been exactly two months since the devastating Tsunami hit the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu. Much has been written about the outpouring of aid to the devastated areas, and the speed with which the government, civil society groups, and international agencies came together to provide emergency relief to the affected communities. But a few critical questions about relief and rehabilitation have now come to the fore, and people are anxiously awaiting answers that may well hold the key to their futures.

Bhoomika is aware of intense discussions underway at many levels, among NGOs and advocacy groups, community based organizations, and the Tamil Nadu Government; and we hope that clear answers will be forthcoming soon, before various agencies can earnestly begin the process of reconstruction and rehabilitation. Here are areas of concerns, as Bhoomika sees them, and our current interventions:

    Is the Relief phase really over, as many of us had previous reported?
    In spite of many consultations about psycho-social support and 'train-the-trainer' programs that are underway, has civil society failed to meet the immediate need for companionship for traumatized women and children?
    Will there be a comprehensive Rehabilitation Policy, which will include agricultural and other non-fishing peoples who have also their lost livelihoods?
    What is the government's position with respect to the location of new habitats to be built per G.O. 25 and 26, especially in terms of permissible distance(s) from the shore?
    How can we ensure that the lacunae in temporary shelters--e.g. inappropriate material, inadequate sanitation and the potential for epidemics, suitability of land, inconsistent design by various NGOs, etc.-- will not be repeated in the construction of permanent habitats?
    If the government is planning to award 100% grants for fishing nets and boats, what is the role of private agencies which are also planning to fund fishing gear?
    While there is a tremendous level of interest in supporting schools and children-especially orphans--how can potential donors obtain a reliable and comprehensive report of needs?
    Is there a real risk that the perceived lack of clarity on certain critical issues could lead to increasing disaffection along the coast? And how can Tamil Nadu continue to retain the enormous reservoir of goodwill from all across the world, unless these issues are speedily sorted out?

    Is the Relief phase really over, as many of us had previous reported?

    It has become painfully clear that vast numbers of affected families have been left out of government relief, especially in North Tamil Nadu, where relief was apparently provided by the Department of Fisheries.
    As reliable reports have been coming in of families often mislabeled as 'not directly affected,' Bhoomika felt the urgent need last week for a humanitarian response, and made the decision to briefly get back into a 'relief mode': We undertook the assembly of 4,300 ration kits on a war footing, at a cost of about Rs. 20 lakhs, destined for communities near Chennai, which had been neglected in our earlier efforts. These kits are now being distributed methodically by the Unorganized Workers Federation in areas such as Mattankuppam, Kasimedu, etc.
    Our volunteers at the scene report that multiple families were often sharing ration kits intended to sustain only one family for ten days--with even oil sachets being cut open to be shared! Admirable though such community sharing may be, it also means that many families will once again run out of rations in a few days.
    NGOs can't possibly continue such large-scale relief operations, and the key question is: How can the government be persuaded to ensure 'food security' for such families, until their livelihoods are restored? Nonetheless, Bhoomika plans to continue to help smaller numbers of families 'falling through the cracks' on an ongoing basis, with the help of our donors.
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    In spite of many consultations about psycho-social support and 'train-the-trainer' programs that are underway, has civil society failed to meet the immediate need for companionship for traumatized women and children?
    "Even in the villages closest to Nagai, people need trauma counseling. Children appear joyful and playful, but the younger ones very casually tell us that their mother or father died, and then continue playing. Some children are not eating or sleeping well. I met one 17 year old girl whose mother died who has not eaten or slept properly since the Tsunami. Adults are also in need of serious counseling. I ran across a man who refuses to sleep in the temporary shelter and sits listlessly on the spot where his house once existed. When I met him, he described every detail of his house to me. I don't think it is absolutely necessary for professionals to go, as long as SOMEONE [Tamil-speaking] visits these people for a while and listens to their stories" - From a Bhoomika volunteer
    Bhoomika Trustees and volunteers continue to participate in individual counseling efforts and medical camps (e.g. camps in North Tamil Nadu and a four-day support visit to the Velankanni hospital, with two doctors and a trained physical therapist).
    The Banyan (www.thebanyan.org), a well-known Chennai home for mentally ill destitute women, whose founders and staff have been part of Bhoomika from the very start, are now directly working in the Tsunami affected village of Kovalamkuppam, where a health center will be operated by them starting next year, to address the needs of the surrounding rural communities, including mental health.
    One possible area of intervention being suggested from the field is to financially support couples whose weddings had been arranged prior to the Tsunami, but the girls' families are either dead or don't have money, leaving them with nothing. We understand that one such mass wedding is being organized in Kallar for about ten couples; the other is being organized in Nagai by the Lion's Club. If you are interested in participating in such gestures, which in of themselves could be therapeutic to the community, please drop us a line. The Nagai Collector is reported to be taking a personal interest in assisting such cases.

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    Will there be a comprehensive Rehabilitation Policy, which will include agricultural and other non-fishing peoples who have also their lost livelihoods?
    All indications are that the impact of the Tsunami upon communities that depend upon agriculture and other coastal livelihoods-such as back-water fishing, vending, basket-making, choir-making, tailoring, etc.--has been vastly understated and poorly understood. Initial emphasis on the fishing sector, and the lack of a comprehensive formal damage assessment of all the affected communities, has left only anecdotal evidence and community representations as a guide to planners and donors.
    Bhoomika has decided to initiate a livelihood restoration project for such under-represented communities, who are unlikely to receive livelihood compensation from the government. The plan is to support groups that:
    • Plan to run tailoring centres and other small business enterprises.
    • Start new brick kilns and train masons for shelter construction.
    • Advocate the use of local labor for construction and desalting of land. If you are interested in participating in such a fund, please let us know.

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    What is the government's position with respect to the location of new habitats to be built per G.O. 25 and 26, especially in terms of permissible distance(s) from the shore?
    Even though Bhoomika is not an advocacy organization, we have been participating in various forums discussing the importance of clear policy statements from the government on the issue of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), to prevent continuing uncertainty and unsettling rumors, fueled by reports of evictions in North Tamil Nadu.
    We recently participated in a Digital Video Conference with representatives of the U.S. National Weather Service/ National Tsunami Mitigation Committee and the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate. In response to a question about coastal regulations in the U.S., the participants' view was that in a democracy the government can't tell people where they should live; instead, its responsibility is to mitigate the consequences of a disaster upon vulnerable communities by proper planning, early warning systems, and evacuation procedures.
    Some of the groups in Tamil Nadu are actively advocating on behalf of fisherfolks' traditional right to the beaches, and they plan a consultative meeting in Chennai on Monday, February 28, 2005 Click here.

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    How can we ensure that the lacunae in temporary shelters--e.g. inappropriate material, inadequate sanitation and the potential for epidemics, suitability of land, inconsistent design by various NGOs, etc. - will not be repeated in the construction of permanent habitats?
    Bhoomika has been voicing to the government, along with other NGOs, that it should provide minimum technical and social criteria (e.g. use of local labor and materials) to be strictly adhered to by all the agencies planning to build habitats.
    With the view that there is no better way to demonstrate the application of community-driven criteria than to actually participate in a 'model' habitat, Bhoomika has decided to fund the construction of up to 200 homes, in either in Nagapattinam or in Villupuram District, which will include supporting infrastructure facilities, such as a community center/storm shelter, and a pilot project for training in alternative livelihoods.
    We plan to work with an Implementing Agency on the ground and a Technical Agency to guide shelter design and architectural/environmental aspects of the habitat, with Bhoomika providing oversight. If you are interested in participating through Bhoomika in this project, please let us know right away.

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    If the government is planning to award 100% grants for fishing nets and boats, what is the role of private agencies which are also planning to fund fishing gear?
    Given the level of aid being offered to the fishing sector by the government and other donors, Bhoomika does not plan to participate directly in funding boats and nets; however, we will continue to network interested donors with the requirements and opportunities on the ground.

    But we also share the concern that 'ad-hoc' giving of fishing gear by private organizations, which have neither the knowledge of the fishing sector, nor an understanding of the environmental consequences of trying to 'upgrade' every fisherman, could bring undesirable results in an already over-fished area.
    We continue to hear from some prospective donors that Tamil Nadu may be missing an opportunity to fund massive 'upgradation' of the coast, which could 'take the communities to a much higher level than they were before the Tsunami.' We repeat what has been said before that we must not allow the 'desire to give' to overtake the ability of the community to absorb aid at this early stage. The social costs of 'adding massive assets' to one section of the community without a proper assessment of its impact upon their neighbors could be enormous. A better mechanism would be to set up long term funds that could finance such upgradation over 3 to 5 years, as and when the communities are ready for it. We will be happy to provide more details about our plan in this regard.

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    While there is a tremendous level of interest in supporting schools and children-especially orphans--how can potential donors obtain a reliable and comprehensive report of needs?
    "[One need is] temporary housing for children from Kallar village to stay in during the days until life becomes more normal. Parents are hesitant to go to work and leave their children at home alone because they are afraid of another Tsunami. Even if we provide counseling, at least in the interim, some of these families want to send their kids inland. I told one such parent that the last thing his children want after the Tsunami trauma is not to see their parents. So such shelter may be offered on the condition that the parents see the kids often. I think one idea is to rent a house just a kilometer inland and run a day care center for children while their parents are fishing/selling fish." - Suggestion from a Bhoomika volunteer

    Material needs being identified are secondary supplies such as school bags and lunch boxes, geometry sets, etc., which the parents normally buy-the government has already supplied books and uniforms in most places, and has even waived fees in some places, we understand.
    Some of the continuing needs being identified are groups who are willing to travel to schools and other areas to organize activities such as sports and games; puppet shows; cartoon shows, etc. One Bhoomika volunteer has started a tree planting process in Akkarapettai in memory of each child that died in the Tsunami. Bhoomika also hopes to bring messages from India's sports legends to the children in the area.

    There is no authentic survey of schools and children affected by the Tsunami to assist potential donors from afar--interested agencies are making personal trips to the area to identify specific needs on the ground. Bhoomika has been referring all queries with regard to children to one of three agencies identified as doing a good job on the ground. We give below their contact information:
    SOS Children's Villages, Ms. Uma Narayan, www.soscvindia.org, soscvi@vsnl.com, chatnath@vsnl.com, 044-2239-5061
    Avvai, Mr. Somasunder, www.avvai.org, avvikk@rediffmail.com, 04365-248998
    Suyam Charitable Trust, Ms. V. Uma,www.indiavision2020.org suyam_awake@yahoo.co.in, 093821-25905
    Similarly, all queries related to orphans and adoptions are being referred to the T.N. Department of Social Welfare, dsw@tn.nic.in, 044-2852-4499, or to the Social Defense Directorate, which has excellent information on its website at www.tn.nic.in/socialdefence or contact Mr. Hitesh Kumar Macwana, Director of Social Defense at dsd@vsnl.net, 044-2642-5082, or the local Collectors, whose websites are listed at the end of this report.
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    Is there a real risk that the perceived lack of clarity on certain critical issues could lead to increasing disaffection along the coast? And how can Tamil Nadu continue to retain the enormous reservoir of goodwill from all across the world, unless these issues are speedily sorted out?
    Over the last eight weeks of Tsunami work, Bhoomika has come across many anecdotes that may best be labeled as 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly' sides of disaster management. Here are some of them, in no particular order:
    People remembering the finer details of relief that others had forgotten: e.g. sanitary napkins, ammi kal (grinding stones), petticoats (being stitched in thousands by a Gandhian institution), tiffin boxes, flash lights, and even jewelry for a bride whose dowry had been washed away just before the wedding!.
    Families who are in a position to resume their livelihoods--thanks to an outpouring of assistance-but are unable to do so for either fear of losing compensation, or because of intimidation by neighbors; and no clear-cut assurances from the government to persuade such families to go back to work.
    The owner of a damaged home resigning her job in the city so she would be home when the government assessor finally came by!.
    Vulnerable communities who received some aid after considerable delay, but having to still 'negotiate' a sharing arrangement with their powerful neighbors, who had already received aid.
    Overwhelming offers of help for orphans; and a boy requesting that he be sent to an orphanage so he could study in peace, free of his parents' demand that he work full time.
    A request for orphans to be flown to a distant city, to be showcased in an elaborate fundraiser, 'all expenses paid'! (Bhoomika politely suggested that they come to where the orphans are.)
    The fishing communities' obsessive need to share everything equally amongst themselves; and some of the same communities blocking aid to nearby Dalit and Irula hamlets, or stopping highway traffic to intimidate city dwellers in order to 'send a message' to the authorities.
    Most widows still awaiting death compensation; and out-of-town affected people having to deal with their far away home-town Collectors to receive their compensation.
    Visitors not wanting to drive all the way to Nagai, but complaining that they had not seen 'enough damage'!
    Vulnerable parents willing to 'send away' their children for their own 'safety and well-being'; and others possibly misinterpreting this as their readiness to relinquish their off-spring.
    Owners of damaged homes taking away the compensation from the tenants; and then taking away their tools of trade as well, for fear that they won't be able to pay back their loans!.
    Numerous daily reported humanitarian interventions by Collectors to hear out and help the victims vs. some communities stopping government officials from conducting damage assessments in their neighborhoods.
    One religious/spiritual group accusing the other of 'questionable intent' and physically evicting them from a village; and other groups wanting to help fishermen, but not to fish!.
    Officials who are genuinely concerned that thousands of undeserving people demanding compensation could swamp the system vs. rights groups who say that it is important to locate and serve all the victims, even if it means that some undeserving people may receive aid.
    We conclude this report with a word of thanks to our many well-wishers and donors across the world, and with sincere thanks to our 'virtual staff' from India and abroad for their daily insights from the field and for the pictures presented in this report.
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    For the Bhoomika Team
    Raju Rajagopal
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