Learning from disasters

Crores of money pours in after every disaster. But only a fraction reaches the people for whom it is meant

By Mari Marcel
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

Crores of money pours in after every disaster. But only a fraction reaches the people for whom it is meant

Uttarkhand is a long, long way from our little valley in Gudalur. But mountain problems are the same everywhere in India. And all of us face flooding, landslides, earth slips every monsoon, with relentless regularity. I think with great sadness of the people of Uttarkhand, Himachal and other mountain regions. Post-disaster,  money will pour in, crores and crores of rupees. Will it reach the people its meant for? Very likely, only a fraction of it will. 

In 2004,  we were drawn into the tsunami relief work in Nagapattinam, because of friends working with the fishing community there. People hate giving credit to the government. But there was a superb team of mostly IAS women officers headed by the formidably efficient Joint Director, Santa Sheela Nayar. They were a team that made us truly proud. They worked like maniacs in conjunction with SIFFs, the South Indian Federation of Fisherfolk. It made us proud of the government.  Then the rest of the world poured in. There was the  disaster tourism crowd, people  who came to stand  and stare. The schadenfreude crowd. And NGO's and INGO's of every creed, shape and size arrived to help the people. The fishing community are not poor people.  And would not be treated like beggars even in the aftermath of one of the worst disasters imaginable. They are proud and fiercely independent, something we learnt in our months on the coast. The roadside was filled with strange garments, totally inappropriate clothing like nylon stockings, mini-skirts, and  weirdly, woollies in blazing east coast heat.

I've a half written book on the aftermath of the tsunami, but at the  end of it all, the sad thing was a comment from a local fisherman. He  said 'the money that poured into this area could have transformed it into Singapore or Dubai. But how much of it  reached us?'  It was shameful to watch NGO's and INGO's throwing money around, hiring entire hotels, plush cars, the works.  All in the name of the tsunami victims.  Worst of all are the consultants -  paid exorbitant fees, producing very little, much of it drivel.

Thankfully, there were heartwarming stories to keep everyone going.  A woman drove in with a lorry-load of onions and potatoes donated by the farmers of Maharashtra. It was a gift straight from the heart. From the ordinary village people of Maharashtra to the tsunami affected in Nagapattinam. Students poured in. They didnt know what  they could  do, but they came with their hearts in the right place ready to do anything to help. We saw young Maharashtrian students playing ball with village children. They were helping, without a word of Tamil. They kept  the kids occupied while the parents sat around numb with grief.  A huge gurudwara group arrived. The people of Nagapattinam had never seen anything like it in their lives. As  the Sikhs strode down the street complete with kesh, kara and kirpan, people gawked open-mouthed.  With the spirit of generosity so typical of them, the Sikhs began the langar. They invited all and  sundry to come  and eat. They learnt quickly that Tamils dont  eat sukha rotis  and changed the diet  to huge cauldrons of steaming rice. Many people came more to see these 'foreign totally different, northern brothers.' One of the best ways to build India, bond India, in my experience.

From the 2004 tsunami, from Bihar in the '60's, to Andhra in '77, the super-cyclone in Orissa '99, or  Latur,  people  who went there with nothing except goodwill and a desire to help with all their hearts, were transformed. Many stayed on because  they found a new meaning in their lives. Many developed long term relationships with the communities they'd worked with. And many felt, this was  the place  they wanted to spend  the rest of  their lives in.

So I repeat my message, from last week's blog. Go where your  heart  takes you. Go to Uttarkhand  and work directly with the disaster affected. You will find more meaningin this than all the money, cars, fancy foodie parties or touristy trips  abroad. The people of Uttarkhand are lovely. Go to them. I promise you, you will have no regrets.

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