A SIMPLE public address system (PAS) saved thousands of lives in the two coastal villages of Nallavadu and Veerampattinam in the Union Territory of Pondicherry when the tsunami struck them. When the sea level rose, the village panchayat leaders raced to the PAS to alert the residents about the oncoming waves, and a siren was activated. The leaders constantly asked the villagers over the PAS to vacate their homes quickly and move to safer places. Although the tsunami devastated both the villages, the entire population of 3,600 people survived in Nallavadu and only one life was lost among the 6,200 residents of Veerampattinam, according to S. Senthilkumaran, Associate Director, Informatics Division of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Chennai. The PAS is also being used in these two villages to broadcast information to the residents on the arrival of relief, about where they should queue up to receive it, and on how they should maintain discipline while receiving relief, Senthilkumaran says.
The Informatics Division of the MSSRF has set up rural knowledge centres in 12 villages in Pondicherry. Of them, eight are agricultural villages in the interior and four are coastal villages. Of the 12, only Nallavadu and Veerampattinam have the PAS. These rural knowledge centres are situated in public places such as the panchayat building, the village temple, and so on.
A resident of Nallavadu, who lives abroad, heard about the tsunami warning and phoned up his village. The village elders quickly used the PAS to warn the residents about the threat from the waves and asked them to vacate.
In Veerampattinam village, a spring appeared in a small pond. This attracted hundreds of curious men, women and children to it. Most of them were gathered at a temple nearby. Mani, a fisherman, was repairing the engine of his boat when he saw a dramatic increase in the level of the sea. He alerted six women who were on the beach, and word reached Veerampattinam's panchayat leaders. The leaders rushed to the rural knowledge centre, broke open its lock, and announced over the PAS about the rising level of the sea and how the waves were coming in. They asked the villagers to vacate their homes and reach places of safety.
Two other coastal villages, Periakalapet and Moorthykuppam, which have no PAS, were also lucky. When the tsunami barrelled into the village, the children had gathered at the rural knowledge centre for tuitions because they had to write an examination the next day. From the centre, they were easily commandeered to safe places. Thirteen of Periakalapet's population of about 4,000 were killed, but all the children were safe. At Moorthykuppam, almost the entire village of about 1,500 persons had gathered that morning to take part in the village panchayat proceedings. Since they were all together, they could reach a place of safety en masse when the waves flooded in. Five persons fell victim to the waves.
According to Senthilkumaran, the 12 rural knowledge centres, set up in 1998, are connected by wire and wireless to provide information to the villagers on agricultural practices, animal husbandry, health, weather, employment opportunities, education, government schemes and so on. The centres are run by the villagers themselves. From the centres situated in the four coastal villages, information is provided to the fisherfolk on the location of schools of fish in the sea, wavesites, the height of the waves, information on wind direction, how far fishermen can venture into the sea on a particular day, and their safety at sea.
The Informatics Division downloads wavesite maps from the U.S. Navy website, and using the Division's geographical interphase scale it cuts the Pondicherry portion and provides information to the fishing community. At Nallavadu and Veerampattinam, all this information is broadcast through the PAS for two days. If there is any information on weather turbulence such as a cyclone approaching the coast and heavy rains setting in, it is repeated every hour on the PAS. Information on potential fishing areas in the sea is provided to the fishing community of Veerampattinam through the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services, Hyderabad. "Every three days, we update this information through the telephone," says Senthilkumaran.
The PAS is also put to novel uses. Announcements are made over it about the distribution of new ration cards, the date of publication of examination results and issues that concern the community as a whole.
The Informatics Division of the MSSRF is setting up three village resource centres in Tamil Nadu, with the help of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). They are being located at Tiruvaiyaru near Thanjavur, Sembatti near Dindigul and Thangachimadam in Rameswaram. According to Senthilkumaran, the MSSRF provides information to farmers on how best to use the land depending on weather conditions, how to control pests, what sort of crops to cultivate, and so on.