Fishing and agriculture are badly affected in coastal Tamil Nadu, but rehabilitation measures are making impressive progress.S. VISWANATHAN in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam
AFTER two weeks of grief and despair over the trail of death and destruction that the December 26 tsunami has left behind, the affected people in coastal Tamil Nadu are slowly coming to terms with reality. There are unmistakable signs of hope, hope of starting a new life, particularly among fishermen. Massive relief efforts involving countless agencies besides the government, the generous flow of aid from far and near, and expressions of sympathy and solidarity from the global community are possibly the reasons for this. The active role of the defence forces that came to the rescue of the victims and helped build confidence among the affected fishermen, by repairing boats, building badly needed bridges in their colonies and so on, must have also contributed to this in a big way. In fact, some fishermen have already resumed operations at Nagapattinam.
The official death count in Tamil Nadu is 7,951, of which 6,038 were from Nagapattinam district alone. Kanyakumari district recorded 821 deaths, Cuddalore 612, Chennai 206 and Kancheepuram 128. Eight other districts account for the rest of the dead. The tsunami damaged over one lakh houses and huts in the State.
The focus has now shifted from relief measures to rehabilitation programmes and the restoration of infrastructure in the shortest possible time. The assurance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa during his recent visit to Chennai that "effective relief" would be extended to the tsunami-affected people has generated hope among the victims that rehabilitation programmes may soon be launched. The Prime Minister's assurance came when Jayalalithaa pressed the State's case for Rs.4,800 crores and 54,000 tonnes of foodgrain, besides a special provision of Rs.5,000 crores to construct a sea wall along the 1000-km coastline from Chennai to Kanyakumari. The Prime Minister also told Jayalalithaa that her demand for putting in place a tsunami warning system would be looked into.
Jayalalithaa told mediapersons later that the Prime Minister had been extremely sympathetic. She said: "In fact he gave a categorical assurance that the Government of India would rise to the expectations of the people." Jayalalithaa pinned her hopes on the assurance of the Prime Minister and Defence Minister Sharad Pawar that they would do everything possible to help fishermen resume work. The government will decide on the shape of the Prime Minister's promised assistance after studying the reports of the Central study team that visited the tsunami-affected areas in the State, as also the State government's detailed memorandum to the Prime Minister. The Union government had initially allotted Rs.250 crores as the first instalment of its assistance.
Jayalalithaa followed up the Prime Minister's assurance with a request to the Opposition parties to support the State's endeavours to get enhanced aid from the Centre. She made the request at an all-party meeting she convened hours before her talks with the Prime Minister, a rare phenomenon in the State, at the request of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). A day earlier, the Opposition Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA), at a meeting convened by it and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi demanded that the government disburse early financial aid to fishermen and that the loans they had taken be written off. It also wanted all-party committees at various levels to oversee the rehabilitation programmes. The DPA felt that relief work should continue until normalcy returned to the affected areas.
Interestingly, DMK leaders, who were most vocal in criticising the State government's relief works as "tardy" or "inadequate", appear to have shown restraint both at the DPA meeting and the Opposition leaders' conference. Both Jayalalithaa's willingness to take the Opposition into confidence in matters of public interest and the DMK's perceived softening of its approach to the government's response to the tsunami are considered significant inasmuch as this could bring about a sea change in the political atmosphere in the State. The January 10 meeting of Karunanidhi's son M.K. Stalin with Jayalalithaa to present a cheque for Rs.21 lakhs towards the Chief Minister's Public Relief Fund may also be seen as one more step in this direction. This has to be seen in the backdrop of competitive politics being practised by the two principal Dravidian parties in recent months. In fact, those who have had the opportunity of watching the relief operations in the State describe as "disgusting" the way the claims and counter-claims by these two parties on the issue are being echoed by rival television channels, which are close to the two parties.
ALTHOUGH there could be some truth in the charge that there was delay in organising relief work, there is no denying that it picked up momentum soon. Given the colossal nature of the calamity that struck the coast quite unexpectedly and the difficulties in mobilising relief personnel at short notice, particularly on a holiday, some delay is understandable, though not justifiable. This apart, traffic bottlenecks caused by the disaster in transporting men and material during the first few days, with hundreds of bodies and the debris of collapsed buildings strewn all over, hindered movement, said some workers involved in the relief operations at Cuddalore and Velankanni. It is the work of these volunteers in clearing the bodies and the debris to the extent possible at the initial stages that enabled others who followed to continue with the relief work. At Nagapattinam, sanitary workers of the government and the local bodies, mobilised from 13 districts, worked round-the-clock to remove bodies and clear the roads. Once the government machinery started to do the job, the relief operations picked up speed. Hundreds of volunteers from social and religious institutions as also committed cadre of some political parties soon landed at the affected places to help the relief work. The relief operations suffered a setback three days later when a "warning" (later withdrawn) of another possible tsunami came from the Union Home Ministry, making people run for their lives once again.
Then started the continuous flow of vehicles carrying all conceivable relief materials from many places in the country. The lack of coordination between the government and these aid vehicles compounded the confusion. The vehicles blocked traffic in several towns and villages with narrow roads. In spite of all these, relief came in plenty to the affected people, or it appeared so.
Amidst the relief vehicles, medical teams of the State government and also those from other States, such as Karnataka and West Bengal, were seen attending to the victims in many places. Volunteers from several places cutting across religious and political beliefs were seen distributing aid materials. Apart from international orgnanisations such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Arya Samaj, ISKCON, the Seva Bharti, the Democratic Youth Federation of India and the Students Federation of India were also in the field organising and helping with relief works.
At Sonamkuppam in Cuddalore district and at a few other places, many of the affected people complained that relief materials did not actually reach those who needed them badly. They alleged that vested interests were cornering the aid materials. This was the case not only with the unorganised supply of relief materials by private agencies; even those distributed by the government did not reach the right destination. The identification of the affected people became a problem because the family cards, usually used for identification, of almost all the affected people had been washed away. Vested interests exploited this situation and the resultant confusion was evident at many places. With a foolproof system that could ensure proper identification with the help of local people and alert volunteers, the confusion could have been avoided.
Fishermen in general, whether in Cuddalore or Nagapattinam, are more keen to get back to work than to press for immediate needs. "Food we need, but we would love to resume fishing and earn our daily bread," said Rajendran of Tamil Nadu Meenavar Peravai, Nagapattinam, which was a busy wholesale fish market, attracting exporters from Kochi and other places, until it was ruined by the tsunami. He said that it had swallowed one-third of the seafaring fishermen in the village. At least the survivors should resume fishing, and the government, he said, should provide full subsidy to buy catamarans, to begin with. That would help the fishing community come out of the crisis.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretariat member G. Ramakrishnan told Frontline that nearly 90 per cent of the affected people were fishermen and even among the others, a substantial number of people would be dependent on the fishing industry or trade for their survival. "When fishermen resume going to sea, the others also would benefit by it. As far as fishermen are concerned, therefore, their total rehabilitation should be prioritised. Until temporary shelters are built for them, fishermen families should be allowed to stay in the relief camps and community kitchens should be provided for them," he said.
ALTHOUGH 90 per cent of those affected by the tsunami are fishermen and the focus is rightly on their rehabilitation and the revival of fishing operations, the damage the killer waves has caused to agriculture should not be underestimated. The salt industry, particularly in areas such as Vedaranyam, has also been badly affected.
The copious flow of sea water into an estimated 20,000 hectares of agricultural land in areas adjacent to the coastal region has caused heavy losses to agriculturists, who have gone through a difficult phase during the last four years, first owing to drought and the owing to last year's heavy floods. Paddy crops ripe for harvest have been destroyed. Agriculturists are worried not only about the loss of the crop now, but also about the salinisation of the land and the threat of it being rendered uncultivable forever.
From Cuddalore to Vedaranyam, a stretch of about 150 km, agriculturists who have raised paddy crops in places such as Thirumullaivasal, Poompuhar, Tharangampadi and Vedaranyam have suffered heavy losses owing to the withering of crops. Farmers here are particularly sore that they have been forced to lose the only crop they could raise owing to the limited availability of irrigation water, unlike in neighbouring Thanjavur district, where normally two or three crops are raised a year. In several places, groundnut crops have also suffered a similar plight.
R. Nallakannu, secretary of the State unit of the Communist Party of India, and K. Balakrishnan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, have appealed to the government to take immediate steps to pay adequate compensation to the affected agriculturists. Both want the government to initiate efforts to reconvert the affected land and make it suitable for cultivation, in consultation with scientists and other experts. Balakrishnan said that at several places onion cultivation had been affected.
Nallakannu told Frontline that the tsunami's impact on agriculture would cause further hardship to the farmers, who were already in distress. He said that in several areas of Kanyakumari district, coconut and mango growers had suffered heavy losses.
IN the Union Territory of Pondicherry, the Karaikal region suffered more than the Pondicherry region, in terms of loss of life and property. Of the 578 people killed, Karaikal accounts for 471 and the Pondicherry region for the rest. As elsewhere, fishermen accounted for most of the deaths. Seventy thousand affected people were evacuated from the coastal areas, of which 55,000 were from Pondicherry district. About 7,000 people have been accommodated in 48 camps. The government's assistance was both in cash and kind. According to government figures, 6,160 houses were damaged in Karaikal and 3,900 in Pondicherry. The estimated crop loss was also more in Karaikal (712 ha) than in Pondicherry (80 ha).
Fifteen days after the December 26 disaster, the focus had shifted to relief of a more permanent nature and rehabilitation of the affected. K. Lakshminarayanan, Minister for Education and Revenue, who is in charge of the relief operations, told Frontline that offers of funds and assistance were pouring in from different parts of the country, besides the Union government's Rs.50-crore initial assistance. "We hope to get more," he said. The Pondicherry government has expressed its readiness to build strong houses for the victims, which would be made of materials that could withstand cyclones, earthquakes and other such disasters. In building new houses, the government would adopt new technologies, the Minister said. He also said that the government would extend all help to the affected fishermen to buy boats and nets.