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

Published: Sunday 15 January 2006

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.

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