Still life in waves

The visual media is into the business of producing images. Sometimes, just sometimes, they become iconic. For disasters there is a recognisable visual trope -- hungry people chasing, looting or scrabbling when a relief convoy happens by. Just as the hands-folded image of a man facing death became the final representation of the Gujarat riots. In the first case, just stop and think: yes hungry, deprived people are desperate -- but that doesn't make them the creatures television makes them out to be. The protagonists of the following story are the fisherfolk of Tamil Nadu, the state hardest hit by last year's tsunami. They are among the poorest of people in the country -- their sources of livelihood amongst the most fragile. They cannot afford to keep their lives on hold, whatever the magnitude of the disaster that befalls them. And as it happened, they didn't. Life didn't magically return to the tenuous normality that is their lot anyway -- it still hasn't. But pretty much from day one, they started picking themselves up -- by themselves. This is also a story about those who helped and those who hindered -- wittingly or unwittingly. The state government made honest efforts to dispense relief and to rehabilitate those struck by lightning. They were hampered by a lack of perspective, the inability to plan and by the rigidities of rules. ngo s tried to help. In some places they succeeded -- especially when they tried to forge genuine partnerships and build bottom upwards. Often they failed -- especially when in imitation of leviathan bureaucracy they took the top-downwards approach. For a variety of reasons, mostly systemic, the rehabilitation agenda was denied the expertise of groups -- like scientists -- who could have made a difference. And so, a great opportunity to rectify a lot that was wrong was lost. But this story is not principally about them. It is about the people who are still picking up the pieces. About the people who are still not completely at ease with themselves or the hunting grounds they knew so well -- and into which they cannot venture without trepidation. Report by T V Jayan; Photographs by Pradip Saha

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

Still life in waves

<b>Keechankuppan:</b> One of t After the deluge, it's us
The bustle's gone out of Tharangambadi. The once-prosperous Dutch-controlled port was before last year's tsunami a contented fishing village -- albeit a pretty big one. Then it was ravaged. If you walk its street today, you will see the signs of devastation -- the pile of historical rubble -- in your face. But if you want to see through the lens of television -- screaming victim, victim -- sorry, you need a new pair of glasses. The bustle's still there -- the morning fish market, the children in the street wanting to be photographed and the old man selling odds and ends in a shop financed by an ngo. They're all there, must we say it, because they survived -- in spite of, most of the time.

A year on, Tamil Nadu, the state hit hardest by the tsunami, is still struggling to put rehabilitation programmes on a secure footing. The magnitude of the task is not in question, but the progress made by the government is. The tsunami destroyed or damaged about 130,000 houses -- about 9 lakh people were affected.

In March 2005, the state government announced a plan to reconstruct all the 130,000 houses. But a note released in November had a revised target of 92,000 houses in two phases: 45,000 by March 2006; and the rest by September 2006.To meet its target, it pushed the programme hard, especially because an earlier target for building a significant number by the year-end -- the first anniversary -- was washed out by the floods and cyclones that hit Tamil Nadu in October and November. But this unseemly haste -- according to workers on the ground, driven partly by the fact that assembly elections are due in the state in 2006 -- made the government ignore factors that damaged the rehabilitation plan.

Poor site selection
"Poor selection of land is certainly one of the problems," says Sandeep Virmani, of the Bhuj-based Honnarshala Foundation, who is coordinating with a number of ngo s working on the ground. The recent floods exposed this brutally, by flooding many houses that had been built in low-lying areas. The government has now gone into a damage-control mode by trying to fill up these areas to raise their level. But this plan too is fraught with danger. "This will only add to the problems. The low-lying areas may be drainage channels, natural or otherwise, considering that the sea is so close," says Prashant Hadeo, an ecological planner with Auroville, in Pondicherry. "Blocking these channels will mean flooding neighbouring areas."

Criticism has also been directed at the lack of imagination in designing the houses and laying out the settlements, but there are more fundamental concerns about the suitability of the materials being used to make them. "Most newly built houses are made of reinforced concrete. If one is going to have concrete houses in coastal areas, then the cement and steel should be of high grade," says K S Jagdish, emeritus professor, department of civil engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He says that the salt in the air could corrode them. Jagdish says brick houses would have been more suitable.

A large number of the problems could have been avoided had there been a genuine attempt to involve beneficiaries, following the Bhuj model, in which they were given the responsibility of rebuilding their houses. This ensured that the houses were more habitable and of better quality. Indonesia and Thailand followed this model, as did Jammu and Kashmir after last year's earthquake. But, as Virmani observes, Tamil Nadu did not (see box: Fishing villages redefined).

But there have been some bouquets for the government. Annie George, coordinator of ngo Coordination and Resource Committee (ncrc) from Nagapattinam, thinks that the government is doing a balanced job, given the constraints. "It is not that they aren't amenable to suggestions. For instance, many fishing hamlets in Nagapattinam district did not like sites acquired for relocation. The authorities were ready to change them," she says. Also, the government relented on coastal regulation zone (crz) rules, allowing rebuilding of houses within 500 metres of the high-tide line, after ngos convinced it that fisherfolk needed to live closer to the sea.

The government has, to be fair, tried to decentralise work by encouraging the involvement of ngos -- they are slated to build in excess of 40,000 houses -- just laying down the basic guidelines. Houses have to be disaster-proof, occupy at least 28-30 square metres and be at least 200 metres from the high-tide line. The government is giving 121.45 square metres in rural areas and 60.70 square metres in urban areas. But involving ngos has not worked wonders. In most cases, they entrust work to contractors, defeating the purpose of decentralisation.

But some ngos have scripted success stories. The South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (siffs), which is building 1,050 houses in Tharangambadi in Nagapattinam district, has ensured the participation of houseowners. It convinced the government to let it select sites and then made certain that people had the choice of where to relocate, if at all.

Bargaining for a start

<b>Flying fish:</b> Bringing i Rebuilding lives. That's an even tougher call than rebuilding houses. A lack of planning and coordination has bedevilled efforts at restoring livelihoods both on the part of the government and ngo s -- but unexpected fallouts have given people the space to negotiate changes.

Take the situation with the fishermen's boats. ngos, mainly, jumped in to distribute boats. This was partly because boats are tangible assets that can be showcased as successful rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the ngos ignored issues relating to coastal and marine ecology and the social structure.

Sail away
Thaddeus Koriya of ncrc points out that there has been an exponential growth in the number of boats in Nagapattinam, district, which was worst hit. The same is true of the two other badly-hit districts -- Cuddalore and Kanyakumari. This is not good news -- fish catches have already been dwindling and more boats mean more intensive fishing and smaller catches per boat. A state fisheries department document, 'Endeavour and Achievements, 2002-2003', shows marine fish catches in Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari fell from 70,212 tonnes and 46,440 tonnes respectively in 1997-98 to 43,974 and 19,643 tonnes in 2002-2003. "Replacing the fishing fleet to the pre-tsunami levels, without matching fisheries resource availability to fishing capacity, may prove may prove to be counter-productive in the long run," Sebastian Mathew of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers had warned soon after the tsunami struck.

It's not just numbers. The balance between mechanised trawlers, small fibreglass boats and traditional catamarans has altered drastically. With the explosion in the number of fibreglass boats catamarans are going out of business. It's a good thing that neither the government or ngos are distributing free trawlers -- that would have completely destroyed the balance. Given that small fishermen operate on really small margins, they could have been all but wiped out. Look at these figures. Lakshmanan, a fisherman from Sonankuppam village in Cuddalore, says a fibreglass boat with a crew of five gets Rs 500 to Rs 800 a day. That means a crew member gets Rs 50 to 100 a day after the owner keeps operational costs and his share.

That's just one part of the story. The other is that the traditional occupational arrangements in the fishing community are being badly disarranged. The balance between labour and boats is now heavily tilted -- too many boats, too few people.

Moreover, the attempt by ngos to force equity into the scene backfired because they did not know how the fishing operation worked. Earlier, the crew members of a fishing boat would share the day's proceeds after deducting operational expenses. In the new situation, where boats have been given to groups, fishermen are likely to revert to old arrangements -- sell their shares to one member and resume business.

But if this sounds like a completely unredeemed scenario, there's a bright side. A lot of fishermen are happy, even if their boats are at the moment being put to completely non-marine uses. The boats can be a valuable fallback option for fisherfolk -- they could always sell them. "I wouldn't be surprised if most of these boats landed up on the Orissa and Andhra Pradesh coasts," says Anthony Benchilas of ncrc.

Social churning
The way livelihood restoration has gone about has brought about a social churning of sorts. The fishing community has always been known to keep to itself and manage its own affairs. Caste panchayat s are very powerful. But with ngos coming in with their largesse, power is a commodity that can be negotiated -- in many places those with better bargaining skills have usurped the position of the old panchayats. In Akkarapettai and Nambiar Nagar in Nagapattinam, crew formed unions to negotiate with ngos. In Tharangambadi, a panchayat gave way to a new one because it couldn't drive a hard enough bargain.

Bargaining skills were important. Despite an agreement between the government and ngo s that those who got boats wouldn't get compensation, some got both. But some people got nothing. Most people in ancillary trades -- fish vendors, merchants, small ice-plant owners -- received little. A large population of dalit s engaged in inland fishing, pearl and algae collection and ornamental shell-making were even worse off. Farmers are being compensated, but the landless are not.

But despite everything, despite the sometimes eerie stillness, most people have picked up the threads of their lives.

Science disconnected

<b>The Wall: </b> Bearing the< The tsunami caused extensive damage in fragile coastal ecological niches:mangrove forests, coral reefs, sand dunes supporting unique vegetation were swept away. Soon, investigation and research turned its attention to these phenomena.

People living near mangrove forests have always known their worth as screens against forces of nature: floods, storms and cyclones, among others. After the tsunami, an international research team discovered just how important mangroves were in a dramatic way. In a recent paper published in the October 8 issue of the journal Science, they showed how three villages shielded by the Pichavam mangrove forests in Cuddalore district escaped without a single death, while two fishing hamlets on either side -- Pillumedu and MGR Thittu -- were devastated. Other studies showed that several villages shielded by mangrove forests in Indonesia suffered much less damage than neighbouring ones. The Science paper confirmed earlier laboratory experiments which showed that 30 trees per 100 square metres could reduce the intensity of a tsunami by more than 90 per cent.

The same went for coral reefs. A report published in National Geographic showed that settlements behind a bank of intact coral reefs in the Maldives similarly escaped the worst effects of the tsunami.

But it wasn't just looking back that was going on. People have also used their expertise to nurse ecologies that have been severely damaged. A team from Auroville that had been documenting trees and shrubs native to different coastal zones in southern India set out to work on the unique vegetation supported by sand dunes. Such vegetation is unusually tolerant to saltwater spray from waves, can withstand saline air, high daytime temperatures when the sand gets very hot and has roots that can find a footing in loose sand and reach the soil underneath. The Auroville team is using its expertise to revive sand bushes and trees.

Elsewhere, sand itself was the problem. Coastal vegetation that lined the seashore in many tsunami-affected areas were pulverised as the tsunami deposited tonnes of sand on nearby agricultural fields and water bodies. In Nagapattinam district, sand deposits and percolated saline water made fertile land up to three kilometres from the seashore uncultivable. The Tamil Nadu Organic Farmers' Movement (tofm), which was involved in reclaiming almost 2,350 hectares of land with the Conevant Centre for Development. tofm cultivated daincha, a plant that helps remove salt from the soil. The process lasts between four to six months, says Revathi, head of tofm's team.

Not in concert
But these attempts were, unfortunately, sporadic attempts at engaging with the post-tsunami scenario. The government made no concerted attempt at harnessing its not inconsiderable scientific arsenal for planning the rehabilitation drive. One reason was that most of the institutions that were working on tsunami-related were central government institutions, while rehabilitation was the state government's patch. Another reason was lack of initiative. In some places, individual administrators made the effort -- as in Nagapattinam, where Jagdish's expertise was drafted.

V Vivekanandan, chief executive of siffs, noted this disconnect. "It is really sad that the scientific institutions in the country had very little role in the rebuilding process," he told Down To Earth. Though several scientists individually came forward offering technical expertise, there wasn't any plan either on the part of the state or the centre to get them involved constructively.

Institutions like the Chennai-based National Institute of Ocean Technology and various Indian Space Research Organisation research centres working in areas like remote sensing could have provided ngos working in coastal areas with contour maps. This would have improved the planning of new settlements. The same goes for agriculture. The country has invested so much in agricultural research. But the contribution of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in salvaging salt-affected agricultural fields was non-existent, Vivekanandan bemoans.

Vivekanadan's grouse is that students from the network of engineering colleges and polytechnics in the state were not involved in rehabilitation work, which could have given them invaluable experience and contributed to creating a nucleus of engineers and scientists who could later have contributed in similar situations. An opportunity was lost, Vivekanandan said. "All these show how disconnected our scientific community is when it comes to dealing with real-crisis situations."

It has to be noted, however, that though the scientific establishment did not contribute to reconstruction, it generated a lot of research on tsunami-related phenomenon.

Shadows of doubt, slivers of light

<b>Dropping anchor: </b> The  Post-disaster rehabilitation programmes have never got the greatest of presses in this country. In recent times, the Latur earthquake and the supercyclone in Orissa were followed by shambolic attempts to provide relief. Things started to change with the reconstruction paradigm in Bhuj, after the Gujarat earthquake of 2001.

Tamil Nadu did not follow the successful Bhuj model. There were many areas in which it went wrong: fundamentally in not being able to draw the people for whom programmes were meant into the process of planning and execution. But, as has been noted with appreciation across a wide cross-section, there was much that was admirable in the way that the government reacted. First, it is widely acknowledged that corruption was minimised: the funds earmarked for relief and rehabilitation, were used for those purposes. Second, the rehabilitation programme was entrusted to a set of good bureaucrats, who, by and large, did their job competently and conscientiously, and who kept fingers that were not meant to be in the pie, out of it.

Another plus point was that the regulatory mechanism was strong enough to ensure that the non-governmental agencies entrusted with working on programmes had to stick to defined parameters and deliver on promises.

What this all adds up to was that the regulatory mechanism did a good job -- but in the end it didn't count for that much because the planning process was out of kilter. Before embarking on large-scale reconstruction no one was sitting down to define roles, no one was working on technical details of engineering, ecological or social context -- so, for instance, those who could have contributed never even came close to the loop.

The result: Settlements built in low-lying areas, consisting of houses made of inappropriate materials and laid out with about as much empathy that would be expended on a penal colony; or, boats supplied indiscriminately and in profusion, without any thought about what use they could be put to, by whom and how. A mess, in any language.

This mess caused collateral damage. Fishing villages expected to move so far inland that fishing would no longer remain an option or dwindling catches being distributed between increasing numbers of boats and their crew, creating livelihood crises.

If one were to look for positives, there are some. The scientific establishment woke up to a threat that was unfamiliar and started piecing together an early warning system for tsunamis: it's probably early days to make any definitive judgments on what's going to happen in that direction, but there is room for guarded optimism.

Morning alarm

-- When India was hit by the tsunami, it was in uncharted territory. The last one had occurred in 1945 and even general knowledge, leave aside scientific research, was hard to come by. The scientific establishment reacted fast to set in place warning systems.

The government drew up a plan last year that envisaged putting in place an indigenous tsunami warning system by September 2007. A prerequisite to doing this was upgrading its nearly moribund seismic stations so that they could transmit seismic data to a central location with the briefest of time-lags. Then would come deep-ocean sensors which detect any activity on the ocean bed. The third element in the trinity would be gauges that would record tides along the coast to monitor surface manifestations of subterranean activity.

The progress hasn't been bad. The seismic monitoring time-lag is down from 40 to 15 minutes. The currently analog tide gauges are being replaced with digital versions which can transfer data instantaneously to a central location through satellites -- the time-frame as of now is three months. The sensors will be the last to fall into place.

"We already have a preliminary tsunami warning system in place based on seismic recordings," says V S Ramamurthi, secretary, department of science and technology. But come September a couple of years from now, there is room for optimism that if a tsunami strikes, alarm bells will jangle early enough for preventive measures to prevent loss of lives, believes R K Sharma of the department of ocean development, who is coordinating the setting up of this composite system.

Whether or not this optimism will be borne out remains to be seen, but certainly for the moment the government seems to be banking on results. It did not join an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system planned under the aegis of the un. Officials said other countries would be welcome to join the Indian system and India would be only too happy to help countries in the region in the event of an impending tsunami.

But that was not where New Delhi drew the line. It politely told the us that it would not allow it direct access to the seismic data recorded by its networks, but would pass them on after processing them. The us was not amused.

Even if the warning system debuts at the right time, endorsing such shows of strength, a concern remains:what's in it for us, will satellites and gizmos translate into action when the time comes, so that lives are not needlessly lost?

For detailed report log on to

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.