Tsunami relief with understanding

Santhosh Srinivasan

THE FISHERMEN in Chinnurpettai, a small hamlet of about 63 households near the Tamil Nadu-Pondicherry border in South India, jointly owned and operated six motorised plastic boats, before the December 26, 2004 tsunami destroyed their livelihoods. Thanks to help from Indian and foreign owned non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who rushed to help restore lost livelihoods, the fishermen of this village now have at least15 boats, which seems plenty at first, but it is causing unforeseen problems and tearing up the social fabric of this small, close-knit community.

Before the tsunami struck, the six boats were owned by a few but were shared by all the men in the village — the community drew no distinction between a boat's owner and its crew. Unlike the agrarian system where land ownership determines class structure in a community, these fishermen shared the catch and there was little class difference among them. In the aftermath of the tsunami, NGOs delivering disaster relief not only put more than double the number of boats lost in this rural community but made each boat the joint property of four fishermen — a new phenomenon. The extra boats and joint ownership is creating a new kind of competition and complications unknown in this community: for a start, everyone wants a boat and those without one are feeling left out. According to Selvamani, a Chinnurpettai panchayat leader, there are already small skirmishes among owners.

Unless well-meaning NGOs and disaster relief efforts take into account the prevailing social and economic conditions and consult local leaders extensively, external help could create new problems, leaving affected communities worse off than before — with more assets in their hands but also more complications. But all along the coast in South India, the lack of such understanding is being played out in many ways.

Many NGOs have "adopted" a village, taking responsibility for providing all assistance to restore a destroyed community. But such adoption seems geared to benefit the NGOs by garnering more publicity than helping a village. More often than not only small villages tend to be adopted as NGOs feel it is easier to work with fewer numbers of affected families. But this is having the perverse effect of an unequal distribution of relief aid among the affected villages.

In Chinnangudi, about 20 km from Mayavaram in Nagapattinam district, a village with 563 households has received only six new boats but nearby Chinnamedu, a much smaller hamlet with about 160 households has got more than 30 new motorised fibre boats. In some cases, leaders of small villages want NGOs to stop their assistance.

Rajasekaran, one of the panchayat leaders of Perumalpettai a village about 5 km from Tharangambadi, wants relief aid to stop as he is worried a surfeit of assistance would create trouble in the future. And, he sees the idea of NGOs adopting villages as an act of condescension, as if the villages are incapable of supporting themselves and are completely dependent on such agencies for survival.

The practice of adoption is also causing tensions between villages. Most fishing communities along the coast have enjoyed friendly relations with each other through their traditional panchayat government systems, but since the tsunami, the NGOs' practice of adopting a few small villages is causing a rift between the bigger and smaller communities. The Centre and the NGOs also have failed to realise that the tsunami not only destroyed coastal, fishing communities, but also agricultural communities far from the coast.

For example, many villages along the coast in Nagapattinam district, which is 65 per cent agricultural, have also been affected. Sea water carried by the massive waves seeped into farm lands, destroyed standing crops, left behind a lot of silt and turned the soil into a saline waste. According to many farmers in the area it could take five or more years to desalinate their lands.

Unlike many fishing communities, which lost their families, homes and boats, farmers further inland did not lose homes or their families. But unlike fishermen whose livelihoods can be restored with new boats — the fish, after all, are still in the sea — there appears to be no quick-fix solution to restoring farmers' livelihoods. In the longer term, this lack of understanding could leave many farmers along the coast worse off than fishing communities.

Six months after the deadly tsunami killed thousands of people along South India's coast and destroyed communities, the Central and State Governments and NGOs have done an excellent job of restoring livelihoods. But if these efforts have to have a lasting impact they must be delivered with understanding and in consultation with local leaders.

(The author was a senior researcher with the PRAXIS Institute of Participatory Practices, New Delhi, during its micro-level planning exercises in the tsunami-affected villages of Nagapattinam and Karaikal district. Information included in this article was collected during a research project between February and May.)

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