HOPES AND FEARS

Print edition : January 13, 2006

At Kalapet in Pondicherry, lighting a candle at the place where the body of his cousin, an 11-year-old girl, was found. - T. SINGARAVELOU

A year after the tsunami strike of December 26, 2004, which altered landmasses and killed about three lakh people in countries on the Indian Ocean rim, Frontline examines the lives of survivors, with special attention to the resettlement and r ehabilitation process in the worst-affected Indian districts.

A YEAR has gone by since a tsunami strike changed life irrevocably for people living in the countries of the Indian Ocean rim. The awesome and unforeseen act of nature - the worst natural disaster in living memory - killed nearly three lakh people, altered landmasses, devastated villages and towns, and left millions of shaken survivors traumatised and psychologically scarred.

If the immediate aftermath of the tragedy was transmitted to a stunned world in graphic media images and writing, the less dramatic story of the troubled and often painful process of recovery and reconstruction has received relatively less attention. Survivors across national boundaries share some aspects of the post-tsunami experience: the continuing sadness over the loss of loved ones in the tragedy, the struggle to build life afresh, and the yearning, perhaps, for life as it was. The actual process of recovery, however, has been vastly different in different regions, shaped as it is by specific community requirements, national policies, and international aid flows.

In this issue of Frontline, our correspondents revisit the tsunami-affected regions of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand, reporting on the year gone by and the cycle of change that has taken place in the lives of tsunami victims. With the focus on India, where 9,171 people died, particularly on the most affected districts, Frontline evaluates the phases of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction, the successes and failures, and the responses of the affected people to this massive state-led effort at economic and social engineering.

An important change from the immediate post-tsunami situation, our correspondents found, was the infusion of hope into despairing and demoralised communities. This gets expressed in different ways. In Cuddalore and Nagapattinam, for example, our correspondents saw a new-found value being placed on schooling for both girls and boys by affected families. Teachers have played an exemplary role as community leaders in the last year, and schools are showing a dynamism that is reflected in the excellent school results from the tsunami-affected areas. In some areas, the willingness with which affected persons have turned to alternative livelihoods is the expression of a changing mindset.

The willingness of tsunami victims to move forward is only partly attributable to the impact of the huge rehabilitation package under implementation in these districts. The drive really comes from the initiative and energy of communities themselves, who wish to put the past behind them and build life on a new basis with the assistance provided by the state and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It is where people's legitimate expectations have been belied through faulty or unimaginative implementation mechanisms - and our correspondents have identified some of the weak links in the planning and implementation chain - that frustration and cynicism step in and the rehabilitation effort gets derailed.

The perception that relief and rehabilitation has been purely NGO-driven is, however, more apparent than real. The state has indeed played a key role by initiating, controlling and coordinating relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction. R. Santhanam, Relief Commissioner, Tamil Nadu, told V. Sridhar that the Government of India Mission comprising the Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank and United Nations organisations estimated the losses in Tamil Nadu, the worst-affected State, at $838.32 million. The State government has received Rs.811.52 crores from the Centre. It has released Rs.874 crores out of Rs.1,125.12 crores for which it has issued orders. Public collections amounted to Rs.150 crores. The World Bank, the ADB and the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) have also allocated $581.75 million for reconstruction projects. In addition, there is the contribution of the NGO sector, a value difficult to compute as much of the aid came in kind.

The state's contribution to the reconstruction effort is not only monetary. It has also set the framework for the reconstruction policy which the NGOs and the lending agencies must function within. An important indicator of the state's role is provided by the figures on housing given by Santhanam. The provision of housing to the tsunami-affected is a key area of NGO intervention. Even here, out of 45,892 houses to be built by April 2006 in Phase 1 of the reconstruction period, the government built 13,685. In Phase 2, the state is likely to undertake the construction of all the 43,314 houses that are to be built. "We find that most NGOs are only interested in relief and rehabilitation," said Santhanam. "Reconstruction is a long-term activity. Only some NGOs may want to be involved in reconstruction." NGOs have provided relief, and have been specifically involved in housing as well as in the provision of fishing boats.

There are regional and locality-specific problems of implementation of the reconstruction package. The tsunami hit a society stratified by social and political divisions. Where the district administration has let the controls slip from its hands, marginalised and deprived sections have lost out in post-tsunami reconstruction. R. Krishnakumar's story from Kanyakumari district offers such a view of a reconstruction package gone awry with the genuinely needy groups caught in the cross-fire between powerful and competing NGO and Church interests. T.S. Subramanian's story from Chennai and surrounding areas also reflects the perceptions of communities left out of the rehabilitation process.

The day after the tsunami, in Cuddalore.-ARKO DATTA/REUTERS

In Sri Lanka, where the tsunami claimed 35,322 people, housing remains the major challenge for the government and relief agencies. "To a large extent the confidence of the affected people in Sri Lanka is related to the construction of houses," writes V.S. Sambandan. Land and labour constraints and a likely shortage of building materials continue to be problems.

"Fast track goals and slow speed implementation" characterise post-tsunami reconstruction in Indonesia's Aceh province, according to P.S. Suryanarayana. Aceh bore the brunt of the ferocious tsunami which killed an estimated 1,31,000 people. One outcome of the tsunami has been a peace agreement between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government, signed in Helsinki on August 15, 2005, bringing an end to a long civil conflict.

In his contribution to our coverage, R. Ramachandran, Frontline's science correspondent, provides a comprehensive assessment of the efforts made by the Government of India towards the establishment of a regional Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System to ensure that future generations are protected against the eventuality of a similar disaster.

In its cover legend "Hopes and Fears" Frontline has tried to capture the key elements of the post-tsunami situation, one year on. It is one in which the fears of the tsunami-affected - the fear of another catastrophe, the fear of being left out in the rehabilitation process - are being slowly edged out by a sense of hope and renewal, which can get strengthened only through a continued commitment to reconstruction by affected communities, the state and the NGO sector.

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