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Moving on to rehabilitation

By V. Jayanth

With rescue and relief operations almost over, the States affected by the tsunami have to tackle the challenge of rehabilitation in the days ahead.

IT IS two months since the tsunami struck. Though India did not suffer as much as Indonesia or Sri Lanka, the devastation was heavy in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Tamil Nadu. The assessment of the havoc in the Andamans has been completed and the Centre on Thursday announced a package of Rs.821 crore. Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, where the impact of the December 26 tsunami was on a lower scale, have got on to the job of rehabilitation. It is in Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Pondicherry, where the relief operations are coming to an end, that rehabilitation must begin.

Whatever the immediate response of the administrations in the affected States — some were slow — lessons should have been learnt on disaster and crisis management. There were problems aplenty in the first phase of rescue and relief. The administrations had never seen a natural calamity of such magnitude. The death toll in Tamil Nadu crossed 8,000 and it was over 7,400 in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

From the account of officials who handled the relief operations, it is clear that very few lives could have been saved. Death in most cases was instantaneous. The devastation in Tamil Nadu was the worst in Nagapattinam district. In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the topography has changed — the shapes of some islands have been altered. But as Lieutenant Governor Ramachandran Ganesh Kapse asks: "Where can they [the people] go — to the land, the forest or the sea?" .

The first lesson from the rescue and relief stage was the need to have in place a new disaster management plan. Tamil Nadu's Relief Commissioner, R. Santhanam, explains: "We are evolving a new crisis and disaster management plan. We now know who should be rushed to the spot first; what are the elements in the first phase of relief; how we should back up the initial effort with an army of officers and personnel; and how to establish swift contact with the NGOs and put the coordination effort in place. Even the retrieval of bodies, their mass disposal and creating the records for their identity have been a lesson."

In the next stage, the organisation of camps and relief supplies did not pose a major problem though the numbers this time were huge. At the height of the crisis, there were over 3.5 lakh people in the relief camps run by the Tamil Nadu Government with active assistance from NGOs. And in the Andamans, the number was 48,000 — high considering that the population in the islands was just over 3.5 lakhs. The State Governments are used to organising relief camps and arranging food supplies, as it has become a routine exercise during the cyclones.

A positive feature of the recent relief programme was the way in which health and sanitation measures were implemented. Considering that bodies had been lying all over the place in some areas and mass burials or cremations were held, the health authorities did well in ensuring that there was no outbreak of any epidemic. Reports of gastro-intestinal problems were described as "normal," in view of the diverse sources of food — some of which became stale — during the first two days, and the polluted drinking water sources the affected families accessed. But by and large, the health precautions proved effective.

The larger problem, which the rehabilitation exercise is bound to face in the coming months, relates to the permanent settlement measures. Already the question of livelihood is looming large for the fishing community. Thousands of boats of all kinds were neither registered nor insured. How do they replace them? Who is to fund the exercise, if not the state? And the State Governments cannot even think of such large sums.

The Tamil Nadu Government sought a Central assistance of Rs.4,800 crore. It was offered a package of Rs.2,262 crore, of which about Rs.700 crore would be in the form of bank loans for fishermen to resume their livelihood. The State rightly wants the Centre to release the entire package as grant. The stalemate persists. The Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar has got an initial package of Rs.821 crore but the administration is confident that the Centre will take care of the other needs in due course. The same applies to Pondicherry, where there is an elected Government. It implemented a full grant package for fishermen even before the Centre could finalise the aid package.

But it is the housing programme that will pose more serious challenges — where to build houses, how much to construct, how to fund them, and how to get the fisherfolk to relocate. The States, with financial support from the Centre, multilateral agencies, and NGOs will embark on this sensitive task in the next few months.

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