India Uncut - The Tsunami Posts

At the end of December 2004 and the beginning of January 2005, I travelled through the tsunami-affected areas of Tamil Nadu, India. These are the posts from just before, during and after my trip that I wrote for my blog, India Uncut.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Post-tsunami thoughts 4: Lessons from a disaster

The hardest part about any tragedy is that it need not have been so bad. Sure, the earthquake in the Indian Ocean was one of the worst ever, and the tsunami was devastatingly powerful – still, thousands of deaths could have been avoided with some basic precautionary measures, and the relief work could have been smoother and more effective.

I’m speaking in hindsight, of course, but before the next event – for no disaster is ever the last one. From my travels through the tsunami-affected regions of Tamil Nadu over the last couple of weeks, a few measures come to mind that need to be taken before the next calamity. Most of these are relevant to disasters other than tsunamis as well – earthquakes and cyclones, for example – and although they are all drawn from my recent experiences in India, I suspect that many of them will be relevant to the other affected countries as well.

Here goes:

One – Do a census: One of the things we found, as we travelled from village to village, was that no list of residents existed for most of them. In the chaos and confusion, it was hard to figure out how many people were dead and how many were missing. Also, many villages had barriers of caste, as in Thevanampattinam, with one caste often refusing to acknowledge the other, and casualty and compensation lists were affected by this.

Two – Enumerate belongings: More than just a headcount, a census should also enumerate the details of each house, with a valuation as thorough as an insurance policy. This would help during the process of compensation in two ways: one, compensation fraud, which, sadly, is commonplace, would be more difficult; and two, government officials would have less scope to be corrupt while giving compensation, as everything would be in black and white. This process is not as cumbersome as it sounds, with most villages not having more than a couple of hundred households, which is easily manageable.

Three – Build a local emergency warning system: There is much talk of an emergency warning system that will let the government know that a tsunami is on the way. But the hard part is disseminating that warning to all the places in danger, most of which would be villages. Television and radio warnings are all very well, but even the handful of people who do possess them may not have them on through the night or early in the morning, when this tsunami struck.

One solution that comes to my mind is of having automated telephone calls, in a time of disaster, with a prerecorded message, to all affected areas, with a loudspeaker system set up in each village to spread that warning further. The loudspeaker system would allow multiple access and, if possible, would include an option for a central broadcast from the district office.

Four – Conduct disaster drills: As the example of Rajendra Ratnoo’s disaster management training in Sasniyarpettai shows, disaster management drills can save lives. People will know what to do in a crisis, and there will be less panic. If Ratnoo, a sub-collector, can implement them in one village, surely all sub-collectors can be instructed to implement them in all the villages on their beat. To maximise the utility of a local emergency warning system, it is important that local people know what to do in a crisis.

Five – Constitute a central relief authority for each district: We found that all through the Tamil Nadu coast, NGOs duplicated work madly, and there was tremendous wastage of aid resources. Such a situation can be avoided if a central authority – logically, the district administration – is made responsible for coordinating all the aid that floods into their area. But what if that authority turns out to be incompetent?

At Cuddalore the authorities did a wonderful job, but at Nagapattinam, they took more than a week to get their act together. So the setting up of a central relief authority for each district needs to be done with two caveats: one, there is a central government complaint line where anybody can file a complaint about the district authorities, with all complaint logs made available to the press; and two, aid agencies should retain the option to deliver aid on their own if they feel that the central authority is not acting fast enough. The central relief authority, thus, should not be a mandatory port of call for every aid agency, though if they are competent, I suspect that aid agencies will go to them first, and make the process more efficient.

Six – Organise a rating system for NGOs: All through my trip, my inbox was flooded with emails from people asking me, in essence, “I want to donate, but I don’t know whom to donate to. Where should my money go?” This is an important question, because, while some NGOs like Aid India did a wonderful, focussed job, there were many others which were wasting time and money, more interested in brand building and filling up their resume for the next funding season than in actually doing relief work. There is, I have found, as much corruption, politics and inefficiency among NGOs as there is among private-sector companies – but while inefficient companies in the private sector are punished by the market, there is no such mechanism to hold NGOs accountable.

Just as there is an ICRA for the private sector, I recommend that someone – not the government – set up a similar efficiency-rating agency for NGOs. This would serve two purposes: one, donors would have some guidance, in a crisis like this, of who would make the best use of their money; and two, foreign aid givers, who donate billions of dollars every year for various causes, would know which agencies actually do useful work, and which are parasites.

What if the agency is biased or inefficient itself, you ask? Well, in that case it would soon suffer a loss of credibility on its own. The respect such an agency would get would be proportional to the efficiency of the work it did. In any case, their findings would not be binding on anybody, but would be an excellent guideline for those who needed one.

Seven – Assess relief needs, and prepare accordingly: Many of the relief supplies that we saw reaching Tamil Nadu were redundant – old clothes being a case in point. To make sure that relief for the next disaster is focussed, it is important to carry out an evaluation of what kind of supplies came in handy here. Take medicines, as an example: if we have a rough break-up of which medicines were required the most here, which we fell short of providing, and which came in too many numbers, we can plan better for next time. The centre should, in fact, have an emergency store of supplies ready at all times, so that even before donors and NGOs can get into the act, the medicines could be on their way to wherever they are required.

This is also true of something as essential as heavy earth-moving equipment. The post-tsunami mess at Nagapattinam could have been avoided if that kind of equipment was available – it wasn’t for over a week, despite Mani Shankar Aiyar’s plea for it on television a day after the tsunami. Earth-moving equipment is invaluable for quick body disposal and for helping clear the rubble after earthquakes, and I am sure there are many such needs that would have been felt during this crisis, and which can be met in future with planning.

Eight – Stick to regulations: If the laws emanating from the Coastal Regulation Zone notifications (Word file) had been adhered to, a vast number of the deaths resulting from the tsunami would have been avoided. (The rules regulate, and in many places prohibit, any construction within 500 metres of the coastline, where most of the lives were lost.) Fishermen used to ignore these laws – if they knew about them at all – and the government did not enforce them. But the fishermen do care now, and will, in most cases, be willing to keep a certain distance from the sea. It is the government I worry about here – despite the tsunami, land by the sea is still valuable real estate, and the land mafias will no doubt try their best to grab it. It is up to citizens' groups and the media to make sure that this does not happen.

Nine – Fight poverty: Most of the victims of the tsunami were poor, living in fragile thatched huts by the sea. The most efficient way to minimise the impact of a future disaster is to fight poverty. For my thoughts on this, click here.
amit varma, 1:45 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Post-tsunami thoughts 3: Selective compassion

The column inches have come down, the news channels are no longer full of it, and less and less people are coming forward to volunteer for relief organisations: the tsunami is being forgotten by most of us. Only level one of the three levels of relief work is over, but already, the focus is shifting away from this catastrophe. And I keep asking myself the same question over and over again: Why does it take a disaster like this to evoke compassion in us? After all, the needs that we are helping to fulfill now – for food, housing, medicine and livelihood – have always existed in all the affected countries?

I had blogged about this a few days ago (“Despatches 36: The broader, continuing disaster”), and I cannot find any answers. When all is “normal” again, and millions of people are back to scrambling for food and jobs and drinking water in sub-human conditions, will we still care?

For most of us, I think the answer to that is: No. We block out all the misery in the world as we go along our daily lives, building a cocoon around ourselves that excludes the little beggar at the traffic lights, the homeless people strewn across the streets at night, the millions swept away by a vast tsunami of indifference. It takes a tragedy like this to burst that cocoon, and perhaps it gives some of us a chance to assuage the guilt that may have built up inside. Now, the Indian Ocean is calm again.

Or has it changed, for good?
amit varma, 9:11 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Post-tsunami thoughts 2: To hell with intent

Too many of us are obsessed with intent. NDTV 24x7 are having a debate, as I type this, on “We The People”, where a few people have protested the publicity that celebrities have got for donating or helping out with the volunteer effort, alleging that they were doing it just to get publicity, and that their contribution should have been anonymous. This is similar to the protest that I had blogged on earlier (“Despatches 26: Separating politics from social work”), by people who alleged that extreme left- and right-wing organisations were doing relief work only to build political capital for later.

My contention is that at a time like this, it is perverse to consider the intent of someone who is helping with relief work. This is because of two reasons. Firstly, in a time of such vast death and destruction, the good that anybody does is too valuable to turn away for silly reasons like intent. Hundreds of thousands of lives need to be rebuilt, tens of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure reconstructed, and any objections to celebrity culture or the politics of people helping out are trivial compared to the need that they are helping to fulfill.

Secondly, can we judge anybody’s intent? Those who seem most noble may well be doing it out of a subconscious desire to feel good about themselves (see despatches 11 and 37), and a celebrity who doesn’t mind collateral publicity may feel genuine compassion. We all live in glass houses, though human nature is such that none of us will admit it to ourselves. So let us not throw stones but help, to whatever extent we can, in the reconstruction.
amit varma, 8:46 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Post-tsunami thoughts 1: Fighting poverty

Disaster shows discretion – it is always the poor who get the worst of it. All through Tamil Nadu we have seen that it is the poor who have suffered most, a fact that has been so commented upon and so amply illustrated that I won’t bother to elaborate upon it. And from this we come to the simple conclusion: a fight to minimise the impact of a future tragedy is essentially a fight against poverty. This is a battle we are supposed to have been fighting for the last 50 years, but our forays have been so half-hearted that we haven’t come close to succeeding. Poverty is a formidable enemy, and you cannot win a war if you’re wondering what’s for breakfast.

So how do we defeat poverty? I have written about this before, and my answer remains the same: free markets, open economy, more accountable government. (Read “The myth about the rich and the poor” for my thoughts on why only free markets can bring about prosperity.) One of the people who accompanied me on some of my travel through Tamil Nadu, Nityanand Jayaraman, will wince when he reads this, but I think his environmental activities are entirely compatible with the kind of globalisation that I would like to see happen.

Companies, and this includes the chemical companies Jayaraman is fighting against, are neither good nor bad – they are amoral. They act solely on the basis of the economic imperitive, and that is as it should be. It is the responsibility of the government to regulate their activities, and that vast self-propagating bureaucratic machine that Nehru set up fails to do so, and that failure is written into its design. We love to rail against how Enron duped the people of India with the Dabhol Power Project, but should we really blame Enron for that? Shouldn’t the blame rest with the corrupt government functionaries who signed those contracts with Enron? India’s problems are problems of governance, and the vast remains of Nehru’s Fabian socialism are actually corrupting the process of globalisation, and giving it a bad name.

So how do we improve governance? The kind of work activists like Jayaraman do is invaluable – if you shout loud enough and long enough, people eventually take notice – but it is equalivalent to a mosquito attacking a slumbersome elephant. That elephant is not just the government – it is us.

To my mind, democracy and free markets must go hand-in-hand to achieve prosperity. But I would venture to say that the way democracy works in India is not the way it should. In theory, people should elect their leaders on the basis of who will govern them the best, and existing governments should be held accountable on that basis. But governance hardly matters in India, and large swathes of the country vote on the basis of caste dynamics and factors that have nothing to do with governance. Identity politics is still the most powerful force in elections.

Obviously the key to changing this is development, which will lead to more education, which will lead to more discretion in voting, shifting the focus to governance. (This is why entities that depend on identity politics, like the radical right, are against this kind of development, with all their swadeshi rhetoric.) But a vicious circle kicks in here. To get an accountable government in the true sense of a democracy, we need development, but to develop as we should, we need governance. The way in which we are moving now, limping along ineptly towards a globalised economy, is taking too long, and the poor are complaining that they don’t see the impact of globalisation, and so it must be bad.

Apart from limping along, with the pains that it involves, is there any other way out? Well, yes. If an enlightened economist could take over the government, he could accelerate the process. But are we evolved enough as a country to elect such a man? Well, no. By a stroke of good fortune, though, we have precisely one such person leading this government. Manmohan Singh could be that seminal prime minister who will turn globalisation from a negative term to a positive one, standing for equitable prosperity. And perhaps when that next tsunami comes, less people will suffer, and those who do lose their houses will have a bank account and an insurance policy.
amit varma, 1:08 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 46: The Urban Mint

I am back in Chennai, and will be heading back to Mumbai soon, after a week that has been both physically and emotionally exhausting. I have never felt the kind of fatigue as I have felt in the last two days of the trip, barely able to keep my eyes open, mangling my words in conversation, struggling to hold a train of thought. The things we had seen, the misery we had to, as journalists, observe closely and try to document, had become oppressive – but the company we kept got us through the trip.

Dilip D’Souza, who has also been writing about this journey in his mysteriously named blog, Death Ends Fun, was a fount of knowledge and wisdom, having done relief work after both the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 and the Orissa cyclone of 1999. Saransh Mehta, a young software engineer who travelled with us for much of the first leg of our journey, kept us in good spirits throughout. The three of us, from different generations (Dilip is almost 45, I’m 31 and Saransh is 21), found common ground in a category of truly bad jokes that we dubbed “the Urban Mint”. It kept us laughing, and one day I intend to revive the urban mint in a blog.

After Saransh left, we were joined by Nityanand Jayaraman and his wife, Karen Coelho. This was during the fatigue leg of our tour, and Dilip and I, drifting off to sleep whenever there was a lull in conversation, were struck by the energy and commitment of these two. And also their sense of humour, which, as Nity put it, “had stopped evolving in the 6th standard”. Thank god for that.

It was a trip where we watched and learnt, introspected and grew, observed and resolved. What did we resolve? For one, Dilip and I will come back here a few months from now, and revisit all the places we went to during this trip. The air that we have breathed has been filled with good intentions, and we intend to find out how much of the compassion that is so prominently displayed now remains as time passes.

So will I stop writing on this disaster now? No. The pieces I was filing while travelling were a mix of reports and impressions, vignettes lined with passing thoughts. Once I reach Mumbai I shall attempt to do some reflective pieces on all that I have seen, examining aspects of it that one can’t consider during the chaotic whirl of the journey itself. In case you’re interested, do watch this space.
amit varma, 1:01 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 45: The doctor in the atomic city

Much of what we see and do in Kalpakkam reassures us that, contrary to my earlier speculation, nothing has gone wrong here. But we have more reason to feel lucky than to feel complacent. Having an atomic energy plant by the sea, close to Chennai, is still an invitation to disaster – and disaster does not have the manners to knock.

The man we come to meet in Kalpakkam is Dr Pugazhenthi. As we drive through the winding roads of Sadras township, the residential area next to the Kalpakkam reactor, we stop a few times to ask where he lives. Everyone in this town knows him. “Oh, Dr Pugazhenthi!” they exclaim. “You’re looking for Dr Pugazhenthi? No problem, just go blah, turn yada, and when you pass etc, you’ll see his office on the right.”

The good doctor bounds out of his office when we arrive. He is a scruffy man in a brown khadi kurta and off-white trousers, with streaks of grey running through his unkempt hair, and a three-day stubble on a chubby face. He talks animatedly, urgently, always as if he is trying to persuade you of something, even when he is simply saying something as innocuous as “the beach is there”. Well, yes, the beach is there, and we walk along with him as he steps off urgently towards the water.

Dr Pugazhenthi gives us a guided visual tour, from the beach, of where the reactor is. It is right on the shore, he shows us, and he tells us of how the waves penetrated the pumphouse, flooded the motor there – needed for cooling the reactor – and tripped the system. A safety engineer in the turbine room noticed that the system had tripped and effected a shut-down of the reactor. (There were also rumours of a small fire in the turbine room, which was soon brought under control.) No issues there.

“A bigger problem than the reactor itself,” he tells us, “is the waste-management faculty, which is a kilometre from the shore. The waters did not go that far this time [they went much further in Nagapattinam, though], if something like this happens again and they do go that far, it could be a disaster. If the affluents there leak out, marine life across the coast would be devastated. It would be a massive environmental disaster.

“Not that a tsunami is needed,” he continues, “for there to be problems in Kalpakkam.”

“What do you mean by that?” I ask him.

“Well, you see, I have done studies on the effects of radiation on the people here, and I believe that definitely there are problems in Kalpakkam. Have you heard of Polydactyly?”

I have, as it happens. Polydactyly is a condition in which people are born with an extra digit on their hands or feet, and any cricket writer will know that Garry Sobers was a polydactyl. Polydactyly is often caused by genetic reasons – but it can also be caused by radiation.

“I have surveyed a large strip from here both north and south of Kalpakkam,” he says, “and I have found 12 cases of polydactyly within a 16 km radius of the reactor, none north of that and two towards the south – in both those cases, though, the mothers were from the 16 km radius.

“None of these were due to consanguinous marriages or parental history,” he adds, thus ruling out the other possible causes of Polydactyly. He also tells me of similar incidences of multiple myloma, which is widely acknowledged to be caused by such radiation.

As we get ready to hit the road again, and are saying our goodbyes, I ask him, “So, Dr Pugazhenthi, why is it that you still live in a town like this?”

I expect an answer about commitment to his cause, and so on, but instead he says, “Oh, this is the safest place for me to be living in. I find big cities like Mumbai and Chennai too polluted.”

He smiles, and we get inside our car, preparing to head off towards the big cities that await us.
amit varma, 11:52 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 44: The makers of boats

It feels like a surreal dreamscape that we are walking through. When I was a kid I would sometimes look at clouds and try to find shapes in them, and I do that here with wood. Everywhere around me there are giant logs, some of them twisted into the most bizarre shapes, as if they are auditioning for a man in the sky named Dali. One twists and cries for mercy, another gazes serenely upwards, one looks deploringly at me, and one writhes as the wind touches its broken skin. One curves slightly, as if it wants to be a boat, and extends a gnarly arm towards the water. Its dream shall be fulfilled.

This is Thaikal Thonithurai, a place on the way to Chennai from Cuddalore, and the people here make boats. Not small boats, the kind that people go fishing in, but huge ones, in which cargo travels from distant coast to coast. Ganesh is one of the people who runs this place, and he comes forward to greet us as we move through the logs.

“We have 20 master craftsmen here,” he says, “and many apprentice builders. We team up 25 apprentices with one master craftsman, and we can build four boats at the same time. It takes us eight months to build a boat.”

“Eight months,” I exclaim. “Isn’t that a rather long time to build a boat?”

Ganesh smiles and says:. “Come and see the boat.”

There is one under construction by the water, a massive skeleton, with logs crafted into a U-shape, stacked side by side, like giant magnets pointing at the sky. This is the body of the boat. I climb onto a log that extends outwards from it, and walk onto the boat itself. The U-shaped logs have been hammered into perpendicular logs below them with nails that, if I stood beside them, would be knee-high. I do not ask to see the hammers that these guys use, but ask Ganesh how they were affected by the tsunami.

Thaikal Thonithurai did not suffer much damage when the waves came, and no lives were lost there. But two of these massive boats had gone for registration to the Cuddalore port, and were damaged. As they hadn’t been registered yet, no compensation would be forthcoming. The boat-builders had greater worries than that, though.

“Less and less of our kids are learning our craft from us,” he says. “Soon there just won’t be so many of us.”

“Why is that?” I ask. “is it because of the tsunami?”

Ganesh smiles gently at my naïve question. “No,” he says, “it is because the market for these kinds of boats is going down.” It is an ancient craft that they have mastered, but modern machinery and equipment no doubt do the same job better.

We say goodbye to them, and walk out through the yard where giant logs act out silent fantasies. Their masters are these men who know, somewhere deep inside, that the sea that they had helped to tame will not want them for long. And then, they shall build their last boat and go away.
amit varma, 11:47 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Friday, January 07, 2005

Despatches 43: Love story by the river

On the road to Semmamguppam, in Cuddalore district, we stop at one place and walk towards the river Uppanar. There is no village here, but we can see two thatched huts besides the river a couple of hundred metres away.

“These are fisherfolk who are not with any village,” says Arul, a social worker accompanying me, “but they have lost their nets and catamarans. The government is not recognising their loss, or putting them on any of the compensation lists. So we are doing all that we can.”

We carry with us a couple of stoves and relief kits with us. The inhabitants of those huts rush out when we reach there, and seem overjoyed to see us. But that is not because we have brought them things. It is because someone actually cares to see them, and acknowledges that they exist. They don’t get that often.

It is a beautiful place, and the stretch 50 metres from the shore is idyllic, the kind of grassy plain, lined with coconut trees, with a beautiful river alongside, that you’d want to go to for a romantic walk on your honeymoon. And indeed, this is a romantic place in more ways than one.

Palanivel, who stays in one of those two huts, used to live in a village named Pettanagar. One day, he fell in love. The girl, a short, dark, chirpy woman called Selvie, wasn’t from his village, and his community did not approve of his choice. So he left, and brought her here. They made this small hut by the river, and started building a new life for themselves.

Unlike the Irulas, these folks aren’t riverine or estuarine fishermen. They tie together logs of wood and make catamarans with which they go out to the sea to fish. But the tsunami took away their catamaran and all their nets with it.

Palanivel takes the stove we offer him, and the bag of relief supplies, but he does it with a certain reluctance. It is plain to see that there is an internal struggle within him: he needs these supplies to get by for a while, but he is a proud man, and at any other time we would have been his guests, and Selvie would have offered us some tea, or maybe some fish.

Palanivel and Selvie wave goodbye as we walk away, their back to the water. When they came here, leaving their villages and communities behind, all they had was each other and the sea. They’re not so sure of the sea now.
amit varma, 11:42 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Despatches 42: Catching rats again?

The Irulas are a South Indian tribe who were once famous for being rat-catchers. In Cuddalore district, though, they catch fish. Their story is one of the saddest ones I have come across.

The Irulas that I visited were in a village called Sriswaminagar, more than two kilometres inland off the road that leads to Pudupettai, of which about half a kilometre we walked through woods because no car could go there. Most of the affected people in the tsunami are fishermen by the sea – so why are the Irulas suffering? Well, even though they don't live on the shore, their livelihood is fishing, which they do at the nearby estuary instead of in the sea itself.

Their tragedy is that besides losing five of their tribe – three women and two children who were standing by the river – they have also lost all their fishing equipment. Their livelihood is gone, and the government hasn't yet included them on any compensation lists, restricting those to "regular" fishermen, as opposed to this "scheduled community" living on the margins of society. What is startling to us, along with their sadness, is their fear.

"We are always worried that the waves will come back," says Chitra, a young woman holding her two-year-old child, Kamal. "We are scared to sleep in our homes at night."

This fear makes the Irulas leave their thatched huts when the sun sets and retreat to a nearby clearing which is slightly more uphill. Not only is this higher ground but, because it is open, says Chitra, "we can see the water come".

They have made makeshift shelters in this clearing by using sarees hung using sticks stuck into the sand. This is a pathetic way to live – not just the poverty, but this terror of water. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime event," we tell her. The village is so far inland and so protected by trees that the water did not actually reach here, and is unlikely to do so again. "It is safe to stay in your huts, don't worry about the water."

"No," she says firmly, "we have been told by the government that the earth will shake." Her child reaches out a tender grubby hand and touches her shiny nose-ring – they are, perhaps, all that she has. Till she starts catching rats.
amit varma, 1:36 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 41: Standing at the seashore

At Neimelikuppam we get into a conversation with Katyavarayan, who tells us:

"I have been a fisherman for 35 years. But now, after this has happened, I can't fish. When I go to the sea and stand in front of the water, my legs start to tremble."
amit varma, 1:06 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 40: Fishy business

At Neimelikuppam, a small village just outside Chennai, we are told by villagers, all of whom used to fish for a living, that four fishermen from Neelangare were arrested by the police earlier, and their fishing nets confisticated, because fishing has been banned for three months. We later investigate and find out that this is an apocryphal story, but the fact that this rumour exists at all is cause for suspicion.

At Cuddalore, we find that all fisherfolk have stopped fishing not because of the supposed ban on fishing, but because there is no market for their fish. Why is this? It is because of a flyer, which warned the people not to eat fish, and was printed and circulated in large numbers. It bore the signature of the district collector of Cuddalore. On being asked, the collector, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, denied that any such flyer had been issued by him.

It is mandatory for a flier to have the name of its printer on it somewhere, and this one did not. It was clearly a forgery, and what we found remarkable was that it was such a convincing one, and a lot of thought had clearly gone into it. It was essentially a list of what not to do in the aftermath of the disaster, and the one about not eating fish was bang in the middle of it. The rest were all credible instructions, such as "drink only boiled water" and "eat only cooked food".

Why would anyone go to such trouble to destroy the market for fish? If seen in conjunction with the supposed ban on fishing, it could well mean that, as I have speculated before, land mafias are eying the lucrative coastal land on which the fishermen were settled, and their task will be made easy if they can destroy the fishing industry itself, and drive away the fishermen from the coast. The job that the tsunami started might well be finished by man.
amit varma, 1:00 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 39: Brand building

As Dilip points out early in our trip, one of the industries that flourishes during a disaster is the banner-painting industry. Every aid agency that goes out to do relief work wants to advertise the goodness of its heart, and trucks are laced with banners, villages filled with posters, and signage, as I'd call it my my shameful days in advertising, is everywhere.

This is not necessarily objectionable. If an NGO does relief work, it is perfectly entitled to blow its trumpet. But in one village that we went to, we found meticulously positioned banners that said that the relief agency in question, one that I'd never heard of before this, had adopted the village. And what had they actually done? They had come there three days ago and fed the villagers lunch. That's adoption?

Every disaster is an opportunity, both to do good and to exploit. There are plenty of people willing to do both, and sadly, the sharks can sometimes eat a lot of fish.
amit varma, 12:35 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 38: Ironing out the creases

One of the main reasons that affected people don't like accepting old clothes is that they are too proud to wear a hand-me-down. The Rotary Club had told us in Chennai that it intends to get past this by washing and ironing whichever old clothes they find to be salvagable, and segregating them neatly by gender, size etc, before going out to distribute them. This is, they believe, a basic level of respect that one should have for the affected people, and a number of groups across the coast have begun doing just this. Good for them. But there are still way too many old clothes out there.
amit varma, 12:24 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Despatches 37: "The pathology of giving"

As I head out towards Cuddalore again, my companions, in addition to the formidable Dilip D'Souza, are Nityanand Jayaraman and his wife, Karen Coelho. Nityanand has just written an essay for Infochange India that sums up a phenomenon I've been observing for a while now in one lovely phrase: "The pathology of giving". In it, he writes, "Vans carrying relief material and disaster tourists comprised the second tidal wave ... It seems that the greed of giving, and the need to help has overcome the need for help."

He tells me about an interesting experience that illustrates this perfectly. He was at some relief site, he said, when a group of volunteers arrived with material they had collected to give away. When they found that the affected people already had all those things, they were visibly distraught. The fact that the need of the affected people had been fulfilled meant less to them than their own need to give.

This need is fulfilled most easily by donating old clothes. We all have old clothes in our cupboards which pile up, and emergencies like this give us a chance to both get rid of them and to assuage our conscience. Nityanand points out, and I and others have mentioned before, that giving old clothes is counter-productive, and they now constitute a particularly irritating form of garbage, lying in dirty heaps along most roads in coastal Tamil Nadu.

As Dr Mahendra, the gentleman from the Indian Red Cross whom I had chatted with a couple of days earlier, had told me, over-enthusiastic volunteers, with a desperate, selfish need of their own to fulfill, the need to give, can actually make things worse in disaster areas. Of course, there are plenty of volunteers who work selflessly and untiringly, and those guys are the reason that India is limping towards recovery. The rest of us should not get in their way.
amit varma, 11:50 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Despatches 36: The broader, continuing disaster

One thought has struck me again and again through this trip: hasn’t this been a disaster region all these years? Much of the relief work that aid agencies are planning, and that millions of dollars are pouring in to enable, is to fulfil needs that have existed in all the affected countries for decades. Millions of people in these countries have lacked proper housing, a livelihood, often food and the means to buy medicine. Surely the lack of all those things is bad in itself. Why does it take the context of a natural disaster to evoke compassion?

These needs will remain, and this ongoing disaster will continue, long after the media stops talking about the tsunami, and we have pushed it to the back of our minds. Will we still feel, as so many of us have, the responsibility to do something, anything, to make things better?
amit varma, 8:12 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 35: The fisherman’s mafia

Nityanand Jayaraman, an independent journalist and activist, has been working on various projects in Cuddalore for the past few years. He enlightens us on what is happening in one of the worst-affected areas there, Thevanampattinam.

First, some background. In many of the fishing villages around, Jayaraman tells us, the locals don’t trust the local justice system, so they have their own internal mechanisms to deal with disputes and crimes – even murder. When problems cannot be sorted out in the village concerned, they go to Thevanampattinam, which is a sort of Supreme Court in this system. But the dispute resolution process in Thevanampattinam is run by a local mafia, which basically consists of thugs.

What has happened now is this: World Vision and the Bollywood film star, Vivek Oberoi, who was on the flight to Chennai with me when I came here from Mumbai, arrived here some days back and announced that they were going to “adopt” the village. Then they went off. And as soon as they did so, the local mafia took over. They beat up a local policeman who was trying to direct relief supplies, and took charge of all supplies themselves. Now, normally it would help a village if all supplies went to a single source and were given out, methodically, from there. But here, things are different.

Thevanampattinam is a hotbed of caste problems, with four different castes here that do not interact with each other. The mafia, as you’d expected, is diverting all aid to its own caste, its own people. Even the relief lists that the administration is getting, for purposes of compensation etc, are skewed because the mafia is making these lists. Jayaraman has prepared alternate lists that are comprehensive and intends to hand them over to the district administration, but even they will have a tough time navigating these waters.

“Tell me,” I ask Jayaraman, “haven’t the people from different castes come together at a time of crisis like this?”

“No,” he says, “the tsunami has, in fact, worsened relations. Earlier they were getting by just doing their own thing, and they could afford to ignore each other. But now they are competing for the same resources. It’s getting worse.”
amit varma, 8:08 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 34: Something to hide at Kalpakkam?

Actually, there could only be one plausible reason for the warning to everyone to not eat fish: the sea being contaminated with nuclear waste from the Kalpakkam nuclear reactor near Chennai. The authorities have so far denied that the nuclear plant was damaged at all, but rumours keep coming of a cover-up. If there was a leak from there, you can bet the government would try to cover it up – or they’d be slaughtered in the next elections. And if any nuclear waste did enter the sea, the only way to stop common people from finding out would be to stop them eating fish.

I’m sure environmental groups are monitoring the situation anyway, and I’ll take this speculation no further. At the moment, the benefit of my doubt goes to the government – but if a cover-up is indeed found to have happened, there’ll be hell to pay.

And a nuclear leak would mean hell. Many people are now questioning the wisdom of locating the plant right besides the sea, where it is vulnerable to a tsunami or even a naval attack, but what is even more ludicrous is that it is just an hour’s drive away from Chennai, a mejor metropolis with five million people. If nothing has gone wrong at Kalpakkam, it is not because of foresight, but due to sheer luck.
amit varma, 8:04 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 33: The hoax about contaminated fish

Warnings have recently been released, all along the coast, asking people not to eat fish from the Tamil Nadu coast as they may be contaminated, having possibly eaten dead bodies. This is a ridiculous warning, says Nityanand Jayaraman, an independent journalist and activist. “They [the government] routinely dump nuclear waste, toxic waste and the city’s shit into the rivers, and they’re worried about fish that have eaten people? It’s ridiculous.”

Jayaraman points out that in any case you can’t be sure that any fish you’re eating hasn’t eaten a body, as bodies float out to sea all the time anyway, and the Ganga is, in fact, a reservoir of dead bodies. Also, 2000 or so bodies floating out into the sea, dispersed along the coast, hardly constitutes a reasonable reason to assume that fish could be contaminated. Scientifically, this belief does not hold water. Could there be another motive for the warning then?

Well, yes. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalitha, has long been known for her desire to own coastal land, and this represents a great opportunity for both her and her government to acquire large quantities of coastal land, which would make for extremely valuable real estate. But how does one usurp it if the fishermen are to be rehabilitated? One way could be by diverting them elsewhere so that they change their livelihood. A small number of them may already want to do so, and this number can be increased by destroying the market for fish, or by not allowing fishermen to fish for an extended period of time, which is also being done by the government as a “precautionary measure”.

This is, at the moment, just a conspiracy theory, and I normally ignore those. But some conspiracy theories do turn out to have some truth in them, and the warning about contaminated fish, coming from the government, make no sense.
amit varma, 8:00 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 32: No more fishing

“Some fishermen,” says Dr Ramachandran of the Rotary club, “come and tell us, ‘we don’t want to go near the sea anymore, we don’t want to fish. Give us something else to do.’ So giving the fishermen a livelihood does not just mean giving them their boats and fishing nets back."
amit varma, 7:58 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 31: No knives, some payment

We meet with Dr CS Ramachandran, a former governor of the Rotary Club. Rotary, with a network of Rotarians all along the coast, has been doing a fair amount of relief work all along the coast. Dr Ramachandran shares a couple of his interesting learnings with us.

One: “In the relief packages that we give the affected people,” he says, “we make sure that there is no cutting knife. We have seen villagers fight among themselves for anything, and those fights become more common at such times, when there is scarcity of resources and everyone is on edge. So we do not give anything that could be used as a weapon.”

Two: “After the initial phase of relief, we put a price on the medicines we give out. I have noticed, in the past, that when we give medicines for free, people are reluctant to accept them, thinking ‘ if it is free, it cannot be good’. But if we put a value on it, any value, they are willing to accept it. So some days after the initial emergency phase, we start selling medicines at one rupee. They may cost Rs 100, but the people don’t view it as charity, and place some value on it. Later, we may start selling medicines for two rupees. People start valuing it even more, and buy even more.”
amit varma, 7:55 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 30: Uncivil war

One of the saddest things I have seen in my journey through Tamil Nadu is that in village after village, the villagers fight with each other to get hold of relief material. Say a truck comes with food handouts. Immediately crowds gather around it and fight to get the supplies being given. Many of the relief organisations that drive down don’t bother to actually spend time in a village and assess its needs – they simply thrust things into the hands that reach out into their truck, and then they drive off.

The consequence of this is that the strongest people end up getting all the goodies, and this happens time and again, as truck after relief truck passes by. The regular winners of booty may even start hoarding the supplies they get their hands on. This, naturally, leads to fights, as those who don’t get any relief, or who get too little of it, start fighting with the ones who do.

The irony in all this is that often the people who are most affected don’t even go to the relief trucks to get help, they just sit in what is left of their huts, often in a state of shock. They think of what has passed, and not the truck that passes, while outside, people fight.
amit varma, 7:52 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 29: The government can work

I had written earlier about the government apathy at Nagapattinam, and about the diversion of government resources to look after VIPs, but the government is not so useless everywhere. I have heard from various accounts that the collector of Cuddalore, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, is doing a fantastic job. He swung government machinery into action as soon as the tragedy happened, getting roads and debris cleared up, repairing damaged bridges, all within a day. He also did away with moribund processes such as the requirement to do post-mortems on dead bodies, and speeded up aid substantially. Rajendra Ratnoo, whom I have spoken of before, was one of the men who worked under him.

That, and the fact that the government has suddenly swung into action at Nagapattinam, indicates that the system is capable of providing good relief work, both in the short term and over a longer period of time. But the individuals running the show have to be able to spur the system out of its routine lethargy. Bedi and Ratnoo have certainly done just that.
amit varma, 7:48 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 28: The problems of adoption

There has been a flood of people from all over the world who want to adopt children orphaned by this tragedy, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Ravishankar of AID India tells me that the government had stopped all adoption processes for affected children, and is taking the responsibilty of looking after them on itself. They are worried, and rightly so, about the process being misused and an adoption racket springing up. That could result in a terrible human-rights disaster, with a huge amount of child trafficking taking place.

“But how can the government look after the kids?” I ask. “Surely anything the government does will also be laced with ineptitude, if not corruption.”

“Well,” says Ravishankar, “that is why we want to try out an orphan resettlement program in the affected villages itself. There are many children who have lost parents, but there are also many parents who have lost children, and we want to try and bring the two together.”

It seems an ambitious thing to try and pull off, but if it works it is the perfect solution, as it does not remove the kids from their local culture. It would need monitoring, though, to ensure that such resettled children are treated well. A system and an infrastructure would need to be set up to look after the process. It’s going to be a long haul – and a tough childhood for some of these kids.
amit varma, 7:45 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 27: The trouble with houses

I am back in Chennai – though I will soon head back down the coast – sitting in the AID India office with one of their main coordinators, A Ravishankar. Ravi is a soft-spoken, intense man who speaks and thinks lucidly, and is filled with energy whenever you run into him, despite the long hours he is on his feet, coordinating relief work.

I intended to interview him about level three of the relief work that they are planning – as I’d written about before, that is the phase in which they carry on long-term rehabilitation, getting farmers back their livelihood, helping them compete in the marketplace by forming cooperatives, and so on. I had assumed that level two, building houses etc, is relatively easy work, if the funds are there. But Ravi tells me otherwise.

“Level two actually has three phases,” he tells me. “The first phase consists of fulfilling their immediate need for shelter, and we build them tarpaulin shelters for this purpose. It suffices for a very short term, after which we move into phase two and the problems start.

“In phase two,” he continues, “we build skeet shelters [a kind of thatched hutment] for them. But we have to abide by the coastal regulations for this, which state that no permanent houses can be built by anyone within 500 metres of the shore.” These laws were being flouted earlier, which was responsible for many of the deaths, but they obviously should not be flouted again. “But these men are fishermen,” says Ravi, “and they want to live near the sea. If they live too far inland, it becomes a problem for them.”

Phase three of level two involves building permanent housing for the affected families, which involves moving them out of the skeet shelters into proper houses, built using low-cost housing technology. The planning is fabulous, but quite apart from the coastal regulations, the big question that arises is of the land on which these are built. If it is on government land, who do the land titles go to? And will the government part with this land easily? Will it be close enough to the sea for these families to resume their old livelihood? Won’t villagers unaffected by the tsunami and living in humbler housing resent the level of aid that the affected villagers are receiving?

There are many thorny questions that are hard to resolve, but looking at Ravi in front of me, I’m confident that there are good determined people who are not going to turn their backs to these issues.
amit varma, 7:41 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 26: Separating politics from social work

I hear at the AID India office that a number of people who support the organisation have protested their tie-up with the Democratic Youth Forum of India (DYFI) at a grassroots level. Yet others are complaining about the relief work that the RSS is doing in the villages. They are all afraid that these organisations – DYFI has a communist affiliation, and RSS, of course, propagates Hindutva – will make political capital out of their social work here.

Such criticism is unjustified. I am against both communists and religious fundamentalists, but not in this context. On the political and economic arena, I think the ideas of the extreme right and well as the extreme left are misguided and bad for the country. But on a social level, the work they do is exemplary, and at a level of commitment that few others can match.

The RSS did outstanding relief work during the Bhuj earthquake and the Orissa cyclone, and no praise can do justice to the work that I have seen DYFI do during my trip through Tamil Nadu. They have walked through slush and lifted decaying bodies to burn them, they have worked tirelessly, not bothered about day or night or aching body, in village after village on the coast.

The main reason AID India tied up with them was because they simply do not have the kind of manpower at the grassroots level that they need to implement their ambitious developmental plans, and DYFI does. Many of AID’s volunteers are city-based part-timers (or one-timers, as in the case of so many who have volunteered to help out in this catastrophe), and they need grassroots people. DYFI has the manpower but not the funds or the planning ability of AID India. But they are working towards the same social purpose, and theirs is a perfect symmetry.

To those who are worried that DYFI or the RSS might extract political gain from their work, I have only one thing to say: if you oppose them in the political arena, nothing stops you from going out to the villages yourself and working as hard as they do to neutralise the goodwill that you are so scared they’re getting. That kind of competition, in doing good, would surely be healthy. But complaining about people who are saving lives and helping survivors rebuild lives is just plain wrong.
amit varma, 7:36 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 25: Things are better at Nagapattinam

On my return to Chennai, I go straight to the AID India office, where I run into Priya Ramasubban, a volunteer from Bangalore whom I had helped, rather ineptly, sort and pack cartons of medicine before I left Chennai on my journey through Tamil Nadu. Priya has just returned with a team of AID volunteers from Nagapattinam, where she says things are much better than when I was there last. The teams disposing of bodies finally did get their kerosene, and the government has just stepped in there to take over body disposal. And they have, finally, got earth-moving trucks with them.

“I have heard that they have been given a deadline to dispose of dead bodies,” she says, which, if true, means that someone higher up in the administration has finally got his/her act together. Let’s hope the government stays as committed through the process of long-term rehabilitation.
amit varma, 7:32 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 24: The receding waves

“We could see two kilometres into the sea,” Kumar tells us in Bommaiya Palayam. His hut, which was washed away, was right by the sea. He says that it wasn’t swept away when the waves came in, but when they receded, furiously sweeping away houses, boats, trees and people with them. They receded so fast, as if something at the heart of the ocean was sucking it away, that the villagers could see land for two kilometres beyond the coastline.

“And what of everything that was swept away,” I ask.

“Oh, we found a lot of it on Auro Beach,” he says. Auro Beach, we gather, is a couple of kilometres from here.

In most of the places that we have travelled to in Tamil Nadu, people tell us that it is the receding waves that have done the greatest damage. There is plenty of visual evidence of this. In Silver Beach, Thevanampattinam, just outside Cuddalore city, we noticed that all the structures that were still standing were leaning conspicuously towards the sea, indicating the powerful force that uprooted them was on its way back towards the ocean. There was a large circular water fountain that looked as if it had dropped a tap towards the sea and was just bending to pick it up. There was a large platform that looked as if it was leaning over and scanning the horizon for the statue that had, till December 26, been on it.

There were also roofs without a house lying on the beach, small pyramid-shaped roofs by themselves. We never did the see the houses they were from, though we presumed they must be somewhere further inland, exposed to the sun.
amit varma, 7:27 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 23: Cold drinks

You would think they were touts at a tourist place. As soon as we reach Bommaiya Palayam, a small fishing village near Pondicherry, three men, Thirumurugan, Natarajan and Sundar, rush towards us and begin speaking to us simultaneously. As we stand there bewildered they start arguing among themselves about who will “show us around”. Thirumurugan seems to win, though Natarajan follows us around, and keeps butting in to contradict his fellow fisherman.

As we start, Thirumurugan asks us for money. We tell him, patiently, that we are journalists, and we have no money to give him, we just want to write about what has happened here so that more people know about it. He nods.

Bommaiya Palayam is right by the sea, and there used to be a line of huts about 30 metres from the shoreline, and then a road, and then more huts. That first line of huts has been decimated. We wouldn’t know there was one there if we hadn’t been told. Thirumugan takes us one by one to a large number of damaged huts, where people tell us what happened to them. He takes particular care to carefully enumerate everything that’s been lost in each house, as if we are government suveyors.

We see some boats in a clearing that are packed with mattresses, blankets and utensiles. “Whose boats are these?” we ask.

“Oh, these are not our boats,” Thirumugan say. “Our boats were all washed away. These came in with the waves. All our boats are gone. Please write that down.”

Somehow I don’t find Thirumugan to be particularly credible, so as Dilip sticks with him, I walk around on my own. I start a conversation with a gentleman named Kumar.

“I was in Dubai for seven years,” he tells me. “I saved some money there and came back here, but now it’s all gone. Boat is gone, house is gone, everything is gone.” Men like Kumar often don’t keep their savings in a bank – he just had some gold at home, and that was taken by the sea.

“Have you received any relief so far,” I ask him.

“Government came and gave 4000 [rupees] to each of the affected people,” he said. “They also said that will give boat later. Let us see.”

They have, however, received aid from Auroville, in nearby Pondicherry, who came everyday and fed these people. “If not for Auroville,” he says, “we would have died.”

Dilip now approaches me with Thirumugan in tow, who asks him, again, for money. We start heading back towards the road. Then Kumar runs up to me from behind and touches my shoulder.

“Would you like some cold drinks?” he asks.

We say no. We shake his hand, wish him luck, and then we’re on our way again.
amit varma, 7:22 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 22: Just listen

Time after time, at village after village, people rush up to us and start telling us of their loss. When that happens all day, it begins to get tough. But my travelling companion, Dilip D’Souza, teaches me an important lesson.

“These people have so much inside them,” he says, “that they just want to unload. That is why they tell you their story. Some of these stories are so sad that I know that I can do nothing to help them – except listen to what they have to say. So I listen.”
amit varma, 7:19 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Monday, January 03, 2005

Despatches 21: The marriage

December 26 could have been the happiest day of Rafiq’s life if the Tsunami hadn’t struck – he was supposed to get married on that day. His nikah was fixed for noon, but the waves came in while it was still morning, and the marriage was cancelled. Rafiq was in the village of Parangipettai, close to a number of affected villages. Instantly, all the men of the community mobilised themselves under the Jamaat, their local organisation, and swung into action.

They took all the veg biryani that had been prepared for the wedding feast, and went and fed it to the affacted people. From that day until the day we met them, a week after the tsunami, they fed breakfast and lunch to the affected people, making either lemon rice or veg biryani. They mobilised their funds superbly, and were well networked through mobile phones. If any village ran short of food, one phone call was all it would take to bring a volunteer rushing over with more food.

Interestingly, even after the government set up its own operation, a few days late, the local people still requested the Jamaat to keep feeding them, and the Jamaat agreed. A deep bond had been formed between the villagers, who were all Hindus, and these Muslim men who rushed to help their neighbours because they believed that to be the way of their religion. Anybody who does not believe that Islam can be moderate is invited to go to Tamil Nadu and check out the work they are doing.

For all the scepticism I have about organised religion, in times of a crisis like this, groups based around religion can provide sterling service. The Church at Vailakanni was an example of this, the Jamaat of Parangipettai is another, and the RSS did excellent work during the Bhuj earthquake and the Orissa cyclone. Faith, that can be so divisive in times of peace, can also bring communities together in times of strife.
amit varma, 2:36 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 20: Empathy from within

At Panjakubbam I meet a gentleman named Kumaraguru, a volunteer for SFI. He is living with the villagers, and here is what he says about it:
The government comes here and gives money, food, but those are hand-outs, and a lot of people resent that. They do not speak out about what they really want, they feel embarrassed to speak about their loss. But if you come and live with them, become a part of their lives, then they begin to trust you. They tell you what they need, what they are going through, and only then can you really help them. You have to be one of them.

I can vouch for the truth of what he is saying. The government comes and goes, aid workers come and go, a large number of volunteers come for an extended weekend, give out aid, and are gone. But some stay back, like Kumaraguru, and not only “adopt a village”, in the terminology of some NGOs, but are adopted by it. That human touch makes so much difference.
amit varma, 2:18 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 19: The three levels of public aid

Dr Mahendra, after I finish speaking to him about the government, tells me about the private aid workers.

“If you come here without a plan and a vision for what you want to achieve, there is no point in coming at all. Volunteers who just land up wanting to help but not coordinating their efforts may end up doing more harm than good. They could actually make the situation worse.” I think of Srinivasu and nod.

“Thankfully,” he continues, “there are some NGOs that are doing wonderful work. They have come here with a purpose, and it shows in the way they go about their work.”

The organisation he refers to in particular is DYFI – the Democratic Youth Federation of India. DYFI is a grassroots level organisation, and it has hordes of volunteers who have panned out all across the state. Dr Narasimhan, the doctor who was doing such a brave job at Nagapattinam, is one of them. DYFI suffers from the drawback of not having a high profile and, consequently, having rather low funds. But AID India takes care of that. [Update (Feb 4, 2005): Please read this clarification.]

AID India, an organisation I can’t praise highly enough for their unflagging relief work in the state, have taken a pragmatic approach, tying up with anyone who shares their vision and work ethic. They have adopted two villages in this area, Pudupettai and Pudukubbam, in association with DYFI and another group called SFI – Students Federation of India. One of their coordinators, Muthu Kumar, showed me a document all the team leaders have been given, the text of an email from their leader in Tamil Nadu, Balaji Sampath. The document lists three levels of relief work. I don’t have a copy of that document, but let me briefly paraphrase what those three levels are:

Level one – Providing immediate emergency necessities like food, drinking water, medicine, shelter etc.

Level two – Building them huts and houses to live in and looking after their health needs.

Level three – Giving the affected people back their livelihood, which could involve buying boats for the fishermen who have lost everything, forming cooperatives so they can compete better in the markerplace etc.

AID’s work at the two villages has now reached level two – although much of the affected areas are still struggling through level one – and they intend to keep at it until level three is completed. “How long are you guys planning to stay here,” I ask.

“We have planned for six months,” says Muthu Kumar. “But we will stay for as long as it takes.”

Note – In case you plan to donate, note that level three is the critical phase of relief work, without which these people cannot be said to have been truly rehabilitated, and very few organisations have that kind of long-term vision. AID India is the organisation to support, and if you are anywhere in India and wish to volunteer, get in touch with them. Their website is here.
amit varma, 2:10 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 18: “This will also slip away”

“When the pressure on the system is so high that it cannot cope, that is when it breaks down,” says Dr Mahendra. “And that is where the NGOs come in as a prop.”

Dr Mahendra says this in the context of what we have told him about the chaos at Nagapattinam. Of course, a breakdown of the system does not mean that the components of it don’t try to put things together, but that is exactly what is happening in many parts of the state, where government officials are busier looking after VIPs than with relief efforts. But not so here.

Dr Mahendra, who works for the Indian Red Cross, is the first aid worker we have come across so far who has good things to say about the government – and it all is all because of the man in charge, the sub-collector Rajendra Ratnoo.

“Ratnoo is doing a wonderful job,” says Dr Mahendra. “He is focussed, clear about what he needs to do, and is coordinating the NGOs very well, providing everything we ask for.”

So is Dr Mahendra optimistic about long-term rehabilitation, if the government, at least in this district, seems serious about it? He shakes his head.

“I have been to Orissa [where there was a cyclone in 1999], I have been to Bhuj [earthquake in 2001], and from those experiences I can tell you, long-term rehabilitation is a problem. See, now the tsunami has just happened, there is the press everywhere, the government everywhere, volunteers everywhere. But as time passes, after the immediate emergency needs of the survivors are taken care of, most of them will go away.

“This will also slip away from public memory.”
amit varma, 1:35 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 17: Sleeping

On our way back towards Cuddalore, we stop again at Pudupettai. Here, we see a group of people from the Ananda Marg, a Hindu sect, distributing medicines. We go over to them and start chatting. They are doctors from West Bengal, and have both allopathic and homeopathic medicines with them. I ask them about the common aiments that people have, and how they treat them.

“Sleeping,” says one of them.

“Sorry,” I ask. “Sleeping?”

“Yes,” he says sadly. “They come and they tell us, 'we can’t sleep, please give us something that will help us sleep'. We give them Avil 25, an anti-allergy tablet that produces sleep as a side-effect.”

For days I have been hearing talk of vaccines and paracetamols and ORS until all of those have become almost meaningless words to me. But now I am jolted into attention. These people are not able to sleep. For now, the pills help. How long will it be before they can sleep on their own? And what will they dream of?
amit varma, 1:11 AM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Despatches 16: The island of the goddess

At Killai we meet a gentleman called Tamilarasan. He lives in a village called Chinnavaikal, which is at the end of a narrow strip of land that curves outwards into the sea, and is effectively an island at high tide. He tells us that the village has been wiped out. He offers to take us there in a boat.

We walk to the shore as he tells us about the waves. Killai escaped relatively unscatched, but only because of the mangrove forest that lines the shore. The waves were neutralised by the trees, in a battle that does not take place so often. We reach the shore. The sea near us is blue, but turns green at the horizon. The waves were black when they came, says Tamilarasan, a description we have heard all across the coast. We wade over to the boat.

I think of that famous scene from Swades as we sit on the boat. Dilip is sitting in front of me with his back to me, Saransh in front of him facing us, and behind him the hull of the boat and the blue sky. Would Mohan Bhargava have been here? It doesn’t matter. Thousands of people are, working madly to ease that pain, without a back-story that will make it to Bollywood.

The water sparkles under the sun as Tamilarasan starts the motor, and we cut through the waves. All around me I see tiny glimmers of light in the water that seem to jump out of it, and realise that those are actually flying fish, all around us in the sea. As we approach a shore ahead of us, lithe white birds, perhaps terns, swoop down from the air to capture flying fish in their mouth in one deft move. There, a flying fish is dead. There, one more. And one more. Soon, they are statistics.

That shore is not the one we have to go to, though. It is just a strip of land that curves away as we go around, and keeps curving, as if the land is a snake being eaten up by the water. We turn, and turn, until we finally reach Chinnavaikal. We step onto the beach, onto beautiful soft sand. Ahead of us is a patch of coconut trees that runs across the length of what is, at the moment, a narrow island – when the tide goes down, we can walk across to another patch of land, and from there wind our way back to the mainland.

It is astonishing, and a blessing, that the tourists haven’t discovered Chinnavaikal. It is a beautiful virgin beach by the sea, with electricity poles the only sign of modernity. The villagers lived in thatched huts in the patch of trees. Every single one of them has been flattened. About 150 people lived here. Fifteen of them died, and the others survived partly because of the trees, which both fought the waves and gave the villagers something to hold on to. When the waves receded, the locals from Killai came over to rescue the survivors.

After walking past the remnants of many thatched huts, we come to a concrete structure – or rather, two walls on the ground. One of them has sunk into the mud, and a boy is on his knees there wiping it clean, trying to pull it out. “What are you doing?” we ask him.

“This is a shrine,” he says, “to the goddess Mariyamman. I am keeping it clean.”

Goddess Mariyamman is a goddess who is known for both her benevolence and her rage. Some compare her to Durga, but of all the Hindu deities, she is closest perhaps to being a female version of Shiva, who contains the same extremes. Benevolence and rage. Island paradise and tsunami.

I am an atheist, so I walk away from there, but if I was that boy, perhaps I would be cleaning that wall too, cleaning the goddess’s name that is painted on it. In times of such trauma, we need a crutch. Their belief in God gives them one that humans are failing to provide: hope.
amit varma, 8:32 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 15: A world of stopped watches

As time passes, clocks that have stopped working tell a story of their own. At Puddupettai, it’s 8.40 am. At Chinnavaikal, it’s 9.05. At Pandagasalai, it’s 9.26. Village by village, all along the coast, time stopped.
amit varma, 8:31 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 14: Butterflies and honey

At Killai, a village between Chidambaram and Cuddalore, women gather to take sacks of rice from a house. Walking away from them is one little boy with three butterflies in his hand. We ask him, “What’re you doing with the butterflies?” He says:

“Looking for honey.”
amit varma, 8:28 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Despatches 13: Disaster management

Vailakanni, the town famous for its church, the Shrine Basilica, is a lesson in disaster management. The waves struck there after Sunday mass, with 1000 people on the shore just behind the church to take a dip. At first when they saw the big waves, they laughed. But then the water came closer, and they realised that they were in trouble. They ran for it but the slowest runners, the women and children, could not make it. At least 800 people died.

The state administration did not kick into action, but the church did. Unlike in other villages that we had visited, the bodies did not lie unclaimed for days, but were quickly disposed of. Whichever ones were identified by relatives were taken away by them, and buried or cremated according to their preference. The rest were photographed and disposed of, with the photographs put on a bulletin board so that relatives could identify their kin.

A counselling unit with 12 counsellers was set up, and as volunteers flocked in to help, they were assigned specific tasks. All relief organisations that came here to help went to this one central location, from where they were guided.

The result is that Vailakanni is virtually the first coastal village on this trip where I saw no bodies at all. In fact, if you were a tourist casually dropping in, it would take you some time to figure out that something had happened here. The sea is calm, and so is the village.
amit varma, 10:39 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 12: The black sea

At two places during our trip, we are told that the sea, that rose suddenly as it approached the shore, was black in colour. At Pandalasalai, we are just told that it was jet black, which added to the fearsome effect of the waves. At Vailakanni, we are told that the sea was mixed with "black clay", and that many survivors died because their respiratory systems broke down because they had inhaled that contaminated water.
amit varma, 10:35 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 11: The best intentions...

A short while after Srinivasu tells us about how aid doesn't reach the most needy people, we are walking through Pattinacheri when a young woman named Ilakaiya stops us and starts telling us her story. "She has lost her mother and her home," Srinivasu translates for me. "She is an example of what I mean, too weak to go and get supplies, and no one comes to her." He takes an old dress from his car and gives it to her. She refuses, and he has to force her to take it.

There is one thing that many people, seeing these people in their sad state, do not realise: these people are not beggers. They have lost their livelihood, which is why they have nothing on them, but they are, nevertheless, proud people. They do not like handouts.

Ilakaiya continues her sad tale, as other village women gather around her, nodding their heads in sympathy. Then, Srinivasu does something profoundly stupid. He goes to his car, takes a packet from it, and rushes back to Ilakaiya. He puts 4000 rupees in her hand.

Instantly a commotion starts. All the women, and some men who had been standing in the distance, rush up to Srinivasu and start screaming at him. He moves away, alarmed, and some of them start shouting at Ilakaiya, who starts yelling back. One old woman strikes Ilakaiya in the arm. We move away from there, with the women all screaming at Ilakaiya, their relations, perhaps irrevocably, spoiled. All because an emotional relief worker, using his heart but not his brain, got a bit too carried away.
amit varma, 10:33 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 10: The most affected

At Pattinacheri, another affected village, we run into Srinivasu, a relief worker whose day job is of municipal solid waste consultant in a town called Udumalapettai. He has some thoughts on how relief should be managed.

"First of all," he says, "there should be a central unit in each affected area from which all the relief work can be coordinated. The way things are now, many people want to volunteer, and turn up to do so, but nobody is giving them guidance on what to do. A central authority is needed.

"Secondly," and here he echoes Madhu Kumar, "they need counselling. So many of them have lost everything, they don't want to live. So many women, caught in the water, lost all their clothes, and feel deeply humiliated at being seen in that state. They suffer psychological damage."

"Thirdly, the relief should go only to needy people. Many of the most affected people are not physically fit enough to go out and ask for help. Many of the people who go for relief aren't affected at all, but greedy."

I quite understand what he is saying. All day we have seen truck after truck stop at arbitary points, at which point a crowd suddenly gathers around the truck, and those who can push the best and shout the loudest get the best of whatever is being given out. Foodgrains, rice, and so on.

At one point we saw a fight between two women. A truck stopped at the village road for two minutes, threw out a few packets of rice, and then left. Two women straight away started fighting, and a gentlemen by the road told us that they were fighting because one of them thought she was more deserving of the rice than the other. "People are hoarding relief material," he told us. "The really needy people are not getting any of this."

Of course, the logistics of finding the "really needy people" isn't easy, but many of the workers in the relief trucks that come this way couldn't be bothered. They throw their relief material out, feel good about themselves, and drive away to do good elsewhere.
amit varma, 10:31 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 9: Identity

When we reach Pandasalai, one of the worst-affected areas in the district of Nagore, the locals rush up to us and say, "only the Muslims came". It takes us a bit of time to figure this out. These people are lower-caste people, and for that reason, none of the other residents of Nagore, mostly higher-caste Hindus, came to their aid. Instead, Muslims groups came forward and helped them. Later, people like Madhu Kumar did come forward, but they were from outside. Their neighbours just did not care.

A short while later, we are by the sea, watching a heavy earth-moving vehicle, so much in shortage throughout the state, making a grave besides a pile of rubble, and then lifting a grotesquely deformed woman's body out of it to put her in. But it's not as easy as it sounds. Twice the metal claw scoops her into her grip, twice she slips out, and the second time, she gets stuck in a fishing net coming out of the rubble. Kumar goes forward with a sickle to cut her free. But he is asked to wait.

We wait for five minutes, wondering what the fuss is all about. Then we find out. A government official has to take a photgraph of the body, for relief and identification purposes. He eventually arrives, takes her photograph, and goes off. We all look on, bewildered. The body has no face.

But we do know one thing. She is not, or rather, was not, an upper-caste Hindu.
amit varma, 10:29 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 8: Very Important Persons

Madhu Kumar, the gentleman I meet in Pandasalai, has one huge complaint, something which infuriates him so much that his eyes widen as he tells me this, and I can sense his fists clenching.

"Why do you think the government machinery is not working," he asks. "Because it is busy with VIPs, that's why. VIPs keep coming all the time, making routine visits to show their importance, and they have an entourage of cars and traffic detail and security, and the local authorities are busy looking after that. They even waste time lining the streets with bleaching powder [a disinfectant] instead of where people died, where they are really needed. It is a waste of manpower, and it costs life. If VIPs really want to help, they should come quietly, without so much bandobast.

"After all, there are no terrorists here."

I know just what he is talking about. The doctor I had spent a fair amount of time speaking to at Akkarapettai, Dr Narasimhan, also told me that the goverment machinery at Nagapattinam, the affected area, had been busy for the last four days making arrangements for the visit of important dignitaries including the chief minister and the prime minister.

"You should have been on the highway on the day when that hoax warning about the tsunami was circulated. One by one, official cars bearing VIPs passed by, and the people they had come to help were left alone with a few workers from NGOs. It is shameful."
amit varma, 10:26 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 7: Medical problems, and psychological ones

The tsunami is long over, but disease is taking a heavy toll. Every day hundreds of people die in in the hospitals and relief camps of Tamil Nadu. The most common medical problems among survivors, according to doctors we spoke to, are:

1. Injuries suffered while running away from the waves in panic, bumping into debris, getting caught up in fishing nets and trees, and being swept by the waves into hard objects.
2. Cholera
3. Swallowing sea water
4. Lack of proper hygeine
5. Babies without their mothers, who are not given adequate nutrition.

Groups from all over the country have come here to help counter this, but according to Madhu Kumar, there is one basic service that they are not providing: counselling.

"More than 50% of recovery depends on counselling," he tells us. "These people are psychologically shattered. More than just their belongings, they have lost their livelihood."

We run into Kumar in Pandalasalia, in the district of Nagore, where he is leading a relief team from the Neyveli Lignite Corporation. "These people have no place to stay," he tells us, "and they are in such trauma at the event that they just want to leave, to go far away from the sea. Not just their bodies but also their mind has been affected."
amit varma, 10:23 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Friday, December 31, 2004

A picture of hell, and no kerosene

It’s five kilometres of hell, and it’s right here at Nagapattinam.

Kaviarsi studies – make that studied – in the sixth standard. Her schoolbooks lie a short distance away, and besides them lies a doll. The girl herself lies on a makeshift pyre on what used to be her home, her face totally blackened, her neck twisted upwards, the skin peeling off her legs like torn stockings. There is a large empty container of Pepsi lying just besides her, and four other bodies. And besides the pyre, towards the sunset, are five long kilometers of slushy wasteland strewn with dead bodies.

It wasn’t like this five days ago. We – me and two companions – are at a part of Nagapattinam called Akkarapettai, where a prosperous fishing community lived. There is a five-kilometre-long stretch of land here that was filled with houses, and had at its heart a bustling Sunday marketplace. The people here were well off – some of them had expensive fishing launches costing many lakhs of rupees. Then the tsunami came.

These settlements begin half a kilometre from the sea, across the road, but the tsunami swept everything away. Every single house was flooded away, all the way till the end of the stretch, and when I went there, I just saw one long expanse of slush. In the distance, there were pyres burning.

Dr Narasimhan, a man I’d wanted to meet, who heads a team of relief workers that has come down from Salem, told me when I called him that we had to walk into that expanse, beyond the pyres. “Walk towards the sunset till you find me,” he said, and we did.

It took us half-an-hour to traverse the half-kilometre or so until we reached him. The ground was like quicksand in parts, and our shoes would sink in with each step and resist our attempts to lift our feet again. We came across dead bodies on the way: a young girl in a basket, her limbs akimbo, and her face, with some dried blood on it, contorted in an expression that even Damien Hirst would have found too macabre. Three feet away from her lay a woman, with a frozen look of horror on her face, etched into an eerie permanence.

“In an unprecedented situation, you need an unprecedented response”

“For the next five kilometres,” Dr Narsimhan motion towards the setting sun, “you will find bodies everywhere. Only the distance you have walked so far – around half a kilometre – has been cleared of corpses. This is the furthest point till which bodies have been cleared. There is so much work to be done.”

“It’s five days since the tsunami happened,” I say. “Why is this place so deserted, why hasn’t all this been sorted?”

Dr Narasimhan sighs. “Sorted,” he asks. “All that the government has been doing is lining the streets outside with bleaching powder. They are not interested in coming here, they left this to the NGOs. And look at this.” He extends his hands towards me. “We’re doing all the work of moving bodies with surgical gloves made of latex, which are no protection against cuts and bruises.”

I had heard about this before I arrived here, in Pondicherry, where Aid workers had complained that the locals in Nagapattinam had refused to help out in clearing the bodies, and when the aid workers got down to it with their latex gloves, the bodies had started decomposing, and were difficult to manouver, with a limb prone to just falling away from the rest of the corpse.

“We need heavy earth-moving equipment,” he had said. “That way the bodies can be shifted en masse and given a mass burial. That is the only way to deal with this situation.” Mani Shankar Aiyar, India’s petroleum minister, had announced on TV four days ago that such equipment was at the top of his wishlist of aid. Then why did it not materialise? Could the government not mobilise its resources even that much?

But that need is redundant now, says Dr Narsimhan. “What we need now,” he says, “is kerosene. We need to burn bodies as we come along them on this stretch, before they decompose further. And we have no kerosene.

“We’ve been calling aid agencies and so on asking for fuel to burn the bodies with,” he continues, “but we got none. We managed to file some cans of kerosene lying around some of the devastated houses, but there’s no more of even that?”

“But can’t the government give you kerosene?” I ask astonished.

“The government does nothing,” he says. “I thought differently till I came here, but now I’ve seen it for myself. Everything is left to the junior IAS officers, who are in meetings all day. Ministers come, and all they want to know is how many people are dead. They don’t care about relief work at all. In an unprecedented situation you need an unprecedented response. But that has not happened.”

The temple without a toilet

Dr Narsimhan gets back to his work, and I look up, where a helicoptor moves languidly across the sky. “That’s the fifth one today,” says a lady who is part of the doctor’s team.

“They come and ‘survey’ the area,which is so pointless, because you cannot actually see the dead bodies from here amid this debris. It is just a show, to reassure themselves that they’re on top of things. The army officers who come here, they refuse to even touch the bodies. They just hang around aimlessly.”

I ask the lady what she does, and she says that she is a journalist, but would like to remain unnamed for my story. “I have come here to help out and not report,” she says. “That is more important for me.” I look down, ashamed.

She has been here for three days, and I ask her why, mucky though it may be, the place doesn’t have any people looking for their loved ones. “Because the entire community is wiped out,” she says. “There aren’t too many relatives left of the people who have died here, and those that are have become resigned to their loss.”

“Have you been to any of the refugee camps?” I ask her.

“Yes,” she says. “I went to a refugee camp yesterday where there were 1500 homeless people. And not one toilet. Do you know why?

“Because the camp was based in a temple,” she continues, “and you cannot build a toilet in a temple. And I’d gone there to speak to them on health issues! And they cannot even wash their hands.

“And this is not an isolated example. There are scores of refugee camps like this. I hardly call this relief work.”

And how are the NGOs handling the situation, I ask.”Oh, they are doing all the work,the government is doing nothing,” she says. “But even they are competitive, trying hard to stake a claim to territory.” I had noticed a similar tendency when I was on my way here, with many trucks adorned with banners proclaiming the name of the relief agency involved. The organisation I had chosen to travel with, Aid India, was an exception, though, working hard and sincerely to solve every problem that arose.

So why haven’t the press written about this, I ask her. “The press,” she snorts. “The journalists from the Hindu are all flying around with dignitaries. That is the kind of reporting they do.”

The sun has set, and there is a column of smoke rising from the pyres flowing in the direction where the sun was. It is New Year’s eve. I say goodbye to Narasimhan and my unnamed journalist friend, and I do not wish them a happy new year. I wish them kerosene.
amit varma, 11:49 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 6: Politics

People have died, but politics lives on. A strange game of politics in so in Tamil Nadu. J Jayalalitha is the chief minister of the state and controls a TV channel, Jaya TV. M Karunanidhi is her chief rival and controls Sun TV. Sun TV keeps showing news that portrays the government’s relief efforts in a bad light, and Jaya TV paints quite the opposite picture. Every disaster, after all, is an opportunity to score a few political brownie points. And the lives which have been lost? Well, shit happens.
amit varma, 11:48 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 5: Three boats and a bridge

Karaikal is a town which was once a French colony, and the policemen still wear kepis there. There is an inlet into the town from the sea, and a bridge over this inlet a kilometre in. It is about eight metres over the regular level of the water. Yet, when the tsunami came, the level of the water rose so much that as many as three boats crashed onto the bridge, from where two were later toppled. One is still stuck to the side of it.
amit varma, 11:46 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 4: The collector

At Parangipettai we notice a crowd gathered in a compound, littered with old clothes that people are walking on. We walk in, on a wall there are posters of dead people, kept there for identification. There is one with the faces of six dead babies, their heads bloated, their faces contorted in a bizarre manner. What mother could bear to see this?

Inside, speaking to community leaders, is the milk and dairy development minister of India, S Ramachandran. He is busy speaking to people, but we corner the man who seems to be in charge of things. He is the sub-collector here, and his name is Rajendra Ratnoo.

“We are planning for the long term,” Ratnoo tells us. “When the disaster happened we set up community kitchens and fed them, but we encouraged them after that to go back to their homes and cook, and they did just that. We don’t just want to take care of their short-term needs and let them go. We need to give them their livelihoods back.”

Ratnoo tells us that the government has just approved a package whereby every fisherman who lost a boat will get a new boat (each boat costs Rs one lakh). They will also be given life-support systems, and until they are self-sufficient again, they will be given support like free rations etc.

“What do you think of the role the NGOs are playing in this?” I ask.

“They are duplicating work,” he says. “First of all, they are getting too many clothes. They come and throw piles of clothes on the street and they feel like they have done a great deed. And the ones who don’t get clothes end up duplicating each other’s efforts. They should just come here and coordinate with us.” I am impressed by the man’s sincerity, but I know only too well that the governmental systems have been utterly ineffective all across the affected areas.

He ends on an interesting note. He tells us of a village called Sasniyarpettai, by the coast, where he conducted disaster managements courses two months ago for floods and cyclones. Villagers were assigned different responsibilities, and techniques like how to hang on to tree stumps were practised. When the tsunami struck, only 22 out of 3000 villagers died, a fantastic percentage for a village like that.

So even if forewarned is not always possible, fore-prepared can also save lives.
amit varma, 11:44 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 3: The big house

Periye Veedu is how Raja describes his house. Raja’s house is marked with water, a waterline of about six feet outside and five inside – you climb a step to go in – but the water clearly hit higher. A clock high on the wall is frozen at 8.40, and there are markings of water besides it. A shattered television set lies on the floor. There are many film posters on the wall, of Bhoomika and Vijay and Ramba. There is also a poster of a scene from nature with a large caption that says, “When fortune knocks, open the door.”

When misfortune knocked Raja was away at sea with his brother. Their wives were at home, with their kids, the 18-month-old Viswa and the 8-month-old Monsa. At sea, Raja did not notice much – tsunamis are not felt so prominently on the sea, and begin to rise noticably when they reach the shore. But when they returned to shore, their children were dead. And the clock had stopped.
amit varma, 11:41 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 2: The waterline

We reach a village called Pudupettai, near Parangipettai, and halt our car about a kilometre from the sea. We get down from our Qualis and walk towards the sea, and as we get closer, we notice an interesting thing. Every building on our way has permanent markings on the walls that indicate the level at which the water settled when it stopped gushing forward. It’s five feet high at the building near which we get down, and starts climbing with every house we pass, till it’s seven feet, eight feet, nine feet, a record of where things stood. This does not indicate the height of the waves, of course, many of which crashed much higher, but the level at which the water remained for a long time before receding.

As the years go by, no doubt, these walls will be washed clean, one by one. Will the memories go too?
amit varma, 11:36 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Despatches 1: Clothes and garbage

All the way from Chennai to Nagapattinum through Pondicherry, Cuddalore and Karaikal, I see clothes. Heaps of clothes strewn across the road like punctuation marks in a mad sentence. From a distance, many of them look much like Mumbai’s garbage dumps, splashes of colour on a dirty heap. In Mumbai, those splashes of colour are plastic bags; in Tamil Nadu, they are used clothes.

I had written in my previous post that sending clothes was futile and pointless, but people keep doing it anyway, and most of the relief trucks that we pass are packed with used clothes. Every local we speak to ridicules the idea of wearing those clothes, but they keep on coming in an unstoppable tide. Crises like this represent a good chance for city people to empty their cupboard of old and unwanted clothes, but are they shedding some kind of guilt as well? I wonder.

(Dilip D’Souza, my travelling companion, took pictures at many of the places I will write about in my despatches, but on an SLR that is not digital. Those pics will be uploaded in a few days’ time. Saransh Mehta, a software engineer who travelled with us, was invaluable for his translating skills and his good cheer.)
amit varma, 11:30 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Thursday, December 30, 2004


In a couple of hours time, I head for Cuddalore, with a team from Aid India, one of the hardest working aid organisations on the field. I don't think I'll be able to blog from there, but I will come back and write about it. Just one note before I go: don't donate any more clothes. Dilip mentioned it in a piece some time back, and Aid India mentioned it in a post on the SEA EAT blog, that old clothes, although people love to clear out their cupboards and donate them, generally go waste, and often lie strewn around disaster areas. Even poor people don't fancy old clothes, especially when they've never worn anything like it before. I spotted sweaters in a box of clothes that came into Aid India today, and that is just ridiculous.

I'll be back in 2005. Seems a year away.
amit varma, 3:52 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Headed South

In a few hours, I shall be on a flight to Chennai, and I intend to visit some of the affected areas from there, both to write and to help. One of my companions on this journey, already waiting for me there, is Dilip D'Souza, no stranger to catastrophe. I intend to blog as much as I can - indeed, I think it is important to do so - but connectivity, as you can imagine, is likely to be a problem. So in case you find me not posting for longer periods than usual, then, as they say on Dilip's favourite TV channel, rukawat ke liye khed hai.
amit varma, 11:29 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |

Discretion in donation

Finally, Ravikiran Rao is back, blogging again at The Examined Life. He brings up a point that many of us, caught up in the desire to do something, anything, to help, have overlooked: that it's not enough just to donate, but to make sure that we donate wisely.

As I had stressed before, much of what is given to the government is wasted because of shoddy implementation and corruption. Yes, even during a disaster, and perhaps especially so. But not all NGOs are efficient, and many of those that are tend to focus, naturally, on immediate short-term needs rather than long-term rehabilitation. Ravikiran says, and I couldn't agree more: "[W]ith the glare of publicity, I am sure there will be attention focused on the short term, but when our attention wavers, I am sure that the longer-term activities will get neglected."

He solicits advice on whom to donate to. If you have any ideas, do go over and comment on his post. As for me, at the moment, I don't have a clue. But I intend to edge closer to finding out.
amit varma, 11:20 PM| write to me | email this to a friend | permalink |