Visiting the Nicobar Islands seven years after the 2004 tsunami, Alaphia Zoyab found how one man who had lost everything to the sea turned his back on the government’s rehabilitation assistance and decided to rebuild his life from scratch, on his own
Our boat approached the abandoned and lonely shores of Trinket island in the Nicobar archipelago where a man waited for us.
I waved from the boat, wondering if he would be too shy to wave back. But he raised a strong, muscular arm and I felt a renewed thrill in returning to post-tsunami Trinket to meet Gopinath Jeem.
Gopinath had survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami after battling a raging sea for almost nine hours to get to the neighbouring island of Kamorta. For two years after the tsunami he was forced to live there because everything in Trinket had been destroyed. He lost a daughter who he adored, his coconut plantation and his house. He had no tools to build anything new. In fact, Trinket had borne such a major brunt of the earthquake that it broke, biscuit-like in three places.
The government had forsaken this battered place and built homes for its residents in Kamorta in a new settlement called “Vikas Nagar.” Vikas means “development” in Hindi but everyone I had spoken to in Vikas Nagar seemed unhappy with the present and anxious about the future.
Unlike Gopinath who came back, all the others stayed on in Kamorta, living on the free food that the government provided them until the day their houses were built and handed over. By then the Nicobarese had become so dependent on handouts that many people had simply lost the will to work and those who did, ended up like daily wage labourers employed in rural work schemes which they found pointless.
Knowing what had happened to so many Nicobarese, I wanted to find out how Gopinath, who had turned his back on this government imposed way of life, was getting on in Trinket.
Rasheed, Abdul and I jumped off the boat into the shallow water and went ashore to Trinket. Gopinath led us directly up the steps he had created in the earth, leading to his house. Within seconds, we were in a clearing with a large square machan, the traditional Nicobari house built on stilts. This was rather an ad hoc house, which Gopinath had built with all the odds and ends he could lay his hands on.
But in returning to Trinket to live in this house, Gopinath had made a powerful political statement. The message to the government was that it didn’t need to teach the Nicobarese how to survive on their own land. The government had spent millions in taxpayer money to build houses for a community of skilled carpenters, who had built their own homes with indigenous material for centuries.
We went up the wooden ladder of the machan into a large cool and breezy room. Soon, Abdul, acting as unofficial chef, brought out coffee. Gopinath unfurled a plastic mat and we sat down together for a snack.
Years of living alone made Gopinath very comfortable with silence even in company but I was keen to get him to tell me about his life in Trinket.
“I was mentally very disturbed for the first two years after the tsunami,” said Gopinath, beginning slowly.
“I was just waiting for the government to give us tools so that we could build our own houses. But the government didn’t give them to us.”
“I came back to live here because I found it unbearable in Kamorta. I’m also scared that the government will take away my land by force if someone doesn’t live here. There is a lot of confusion between the government and the Nicobari tribe. Actually everything belongs to us but the Indian government is doing as it pleases,” he said.
Everyone had finished their coffee so Gopinath stood up and went out of the house where he started a fire with a small piece from a buoy, to roast a chicken for lunch.
“Nothing burns as well as a boya,” he said, pointing to the collection of buoys outside his house.
“Where did you get so many?” I asked.
“By the seashore,” he said.
He was like Robinson Crusoe. Everything he possessed had a purpose and a lot of it came “from the seashore.”
While we waited for the chicken to roast, Rasheed and I took a walk around the house.
Rasheed was the official spokesperson of the Tribal Council of Nancowrie, the middle group of Nicobar Islands and he was concerned that the Nicobari people after the tsunami were being pushed into poverty despite living in a very resource rich archipelago.
“By giving us free houses and free food the government has made the Nicobarese a little lazy and totally dependent on them now,” he said.
“The problem with Nicobari people is kimirvahiyento,” he said. He was using the Nancowrie word for which the closest meaning in English was acute shyness.
“We just don’t know how to tell the government that we are not happy with what they are forcing on us.”
After our tour around the homestead we returned to the machan. A generator was filled with kerosene which provided electricity. For a change, Gopinath was going to use it for the tubelight that night.
“I generally use the generator only to charge my cell phone,” he said. After all, he woke up at two in the morning and went to bed at seven in the evening, shortly after sunset. He didn’t really need to switch on any lights.
By the time we ate our meal, the sun had already gone down in a brilliant blaze of pink and orange. Abdul brought out more coffee and we chatted over the noise of the generator.
“How are you earning money, Gopi?” I asked.
“I sell my poultry or pigs to people in Kamorta. A whole pig costs as much as Rs. 14,000.”
Rasheed was impressed. He said, “Gopinath is living the life that Nicobarese used to live and he’s making money while people in Vikas Nagar are crying.”
“The government has gained major control over people’s lives. Now only what the government says happens,” Gopinath continued.
“An Assistant Commissioner once came here and asked me if I’d taken permission to cut wood. I told him, ‘Who are you to ask me? It’s my island. I’ll do what I want. Even the Forest Department came to plant saplings but I told them not to because I felt they would have returned to misuse them.”
“Do you need the government’s help for anything at all?” I asked.
Gopinath thought for a while and then said slowly, “There’s a shortage of kerosene so I just want a diesel generator. Nothing else.”
“Do you know that you’re very different?” I said, to which Gopinath laughed.
The tsunami had wiped the slate clean for the Nicobarese and Gopinath was one of the few people who had made a clear choice. If the government wasn’t going to allow him to go back to the way things were, he was going to do it himself. In that he had succeeded.
(Alaphia Zoyab is a campaigner with Avaaz and freelance journalist researching the impact of the tsunami on the Nicobarese.)