Rising to the challenge

Print edition : January 13, 2006

Life is slowly returning to normal in Nagapattinam district as houses are built and fishermen return to the sea, but the psychological scars left by the human losses remain among the survivors.

At Velankanni, shops owned by tsunami survivors on the path leading to the sea from the church.-M. SRINATH

THE restoration of livelihoods and the provision of housing are the two pillars of the massive rehabilitation effort in Nagapattinam district, where 6,065 people died, nearly 80 per cent of the total death roll in the State. Seventy-five per cent of the deaths occurred in a narrow 10-km-stretch that includes Nagapattinam town, Nagore and the pilgrim town of Velankanni, which was teeming with tourists the day the tsunami struck.

"Historically, Nagapattinam district has endured multiple crises, the tsunami being the worst," said J. Radhakrishnan, the District Collector. "We cannot prevent disasters but we are working towards a disaster-resilient habitation level plan that will prepare people and ensure that there are no disaster-related deaths. Considering the scale of the disaster, the people deserve credit for having come thus far in just a year," he said.

The partial restoration of traditional livelihoods is perhaps the most significant achievement of the rehabilitation efforts. The process has not been without its problems, nor is rehabilitation complete, but fishermen have gone back to the sea and agricultural livelihoods are being restored. The tsunami destroyed or damaged most fishing craft, from kattamarams (catamarans) to mechanised boats and trawlers, and brought all fishing activity to a standstill for a few months. Fish vendors, headload workers at ports and harbours, and small traders and businessmen were all put out of jobs. The injection of massive relief by the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), in the form of money, food and household items, helped the coastal communities survive the initial crisis.

"I lost everything in the tsunami. My house, vessels, electronic equipment, goats, kattamaram and fibre boat," said G. Murthy, a panchayat member in the fishermen's colony of South Vizhindanmavadi. In this village, the People's Development Association replaced the boats that were destroyed and repaired the damaged ones. In addition, 18 fibre boats were given to boat-less fishermen, each to be shared by four fishermen. This was cause for some resentment between the fishing and non-fishing communities in the village. "Some fishing families in our village are 10 times richer than they were before the tsunami," said R. Veerasekharan, a landowner of the village.

The replacement and repair of boats were done mostly by NGOs. Against 7,300 kattamarams pre-tsunami, the district now has only 6,400 such craft, each with the capacity to hold 50 kg of fish. In many villages, kattamaram owners have been given motorised fibre boats, each with a capacity to hold 150 kg of catch. There are 5,126 such boats as against 3,230 pre-tsunami. Steel-reinforced trawlers with catch capacities of 500 kg are being built with government and bank assistance. As of now there are 459 such boats as against 948 that existed pre-tsunami.

The district administration claims that fishing activity is now 80 per cent of the normal level. The refrain in villages, however, is that the catch has come down. "I sell far less fish as the catch has come down in the past one year," said Muthulakshmi, a fish vendor from Vizhindanmavadi village. Cyclonic conditions have kept fishermen away from the sea in recent months.

Agricultural livelihoods, already under strain from two years of drought, were affected further by the tsunami and the excess rain and cyclonic storms this monsoon season. There was direct crop loss on roughly 4,500 hectares of cultivated land in the district. There was also extensive sand-casting of cultivated lands, silting and salinity of ponds and the intrusion of sea water into open wells. The government made all payments to farmers through self-help groups.

For crop losses a farmer was paid between Rs.8,000 and Rs.12,500 a hectare. Farmers were provided gypsum at subsidised rates to mitigate the impact of salinity. The efficacy of gypsum remains unclear, although the copious rain of the season appears to have mitigated the effect of salinity. "I received a compensation of Rs.2,000 a hectare and one and a half bags of seeds for my paddy land," said Veerasekharan. Salinity, he said, had affected land only in some areas.

The new fish auction hall at Keechankuppam in Nagapattinam district.-M. SRINATH

The losses in agriculture have affected farm labourers also and there is a large population of floating labour in the district. "There has been very little work for agricultural workers like us since the tsunami," said Rajeswari of Paravai village. "First the fields turned saline, and now there have been floods. We work for a day or two in a week and somehow make ends meet," added her friend Asothi.

Tsunami-affected communities now live in around 14,000 temporary shelters constructed in 58 locations by the government and NGOs. There is lack of standardisation in the temporary shelters - the quality of the shelters in Nambiar Nagar and Akkarappettai, for example, is better than that of shelters in North Poiganallur village - but each shelter is reasonably well equipped with facilities such as drinking water, electricity, streetlights, bathrooms, toilets and so on. Not all residents are satisfied. "Look at our shelters," said R. Lalitha, a balwadi worker from the Schedule Caste colony of North Poiganallur village. "They are unbearably hot in summer and get flooded during the rains. We took the roof sheeting off to use on the floor. Please tell the Collector about our problems."

"Making arrangements for permanent housing has been our biggest challenge," said Radhakrishnan. "We had to acquire nearly 750 hectares near the original villages. Habitat planning had to conform, among other things, to a disaster-proof plan, and it had to have community consent." Nearly 17,600 houses are being reconstructed and 2,169 repaired. A little over a thousand permanent houses will be ready by the end of December, and the remainder by April 2006.

All new housing projects are beyond 500 metres from the shore. The State government has shown some flexibility in enforcing the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) requirements. It will only give assistance to reconstruct houses that lie between 200 and 500 metres from the coast. Those who wish to live in homes less than 200 metres from the sea can do so, but they will receive no assistance.

Every area throws up problems specific to it. In North Poiganallur village, for example, the residents are unhappy with the pace and quality of the houses being constructed by the Salvation Army. In Velankanni, A. Ramayee and her husband Amir Pasha, who sell packets of dried food offerings outside the shrine, sustained major losses in their business. Their new house, just 300 metres from the sea, was badly damaged. Ramayee is reluctant to surrender the house. "I've lost Rs.3 lakh worth of stock," Ramayee said.

The row of shops and stalls that lead from the Velankanni church to the sea was directly in the line of the tsunami and hundreds of shoppers and pilgrims lost their lives when the giant wave slammed onto the shore. N. Sampath, who owns a video shop, was one of the lucky survivors. He was dragged, along with his shop, 2 km out to sea; he held on to a plastic bag of puffed rice for two hours and was rescued by fishermen. There are 103 traders who have set up shop again despite opposition from the Velankanni church authorities who wish them to vacate the area. Said one of them: "I ran a finished garments shop and lost Rs.15 lakhs worth of stock and money. I had to work for six months in a hotel in Tiruchi to make ends meet. Without this Collector, I think we would have been thrown out of here." For these traders, their livelihood losses will not be made good by any agency.

THE tsunami impacted life in a myriad ways. Families were torn asunder, leaving young widows and the elderly to manage on their own. Of the 6,065-odd persons who died, 2,406 were women, 1,883 were men, and 1,776 were children. "I would say that 100 per cent of the widowers have remarried, whereas only a few widows have," said R. Selvi, who lives with her three children at a temporary shelter in Akkarappettai. With her elder sister and husband dead in the tsunami, R. Devi from Akkarappettai village has now to look after nine children, four of her own and five of her sister. "I got my elder daughter married with the compensation money I received for my husband's death, but I will definitely make my younger daughter study further," said this hard-working and courageous woman.

"We want children, not money. Can you give us that?" an anguished Ellachi cried. Her daughter, Senthimathi, lost her two small children. Ellachi lost six members of her family, but it is her two grandchildren that she grieves the most. Senthimathi underwent sterilisation after her second child and the family now wants to adopt a child. The government, as a policy, has not allowed adoptions in Nagapattinam, for fear of child-trafficking. Senthimathi and her husband Chandran are not the only couple in this predicament. At least three women in Nagapattinam district who lost their children have undergone successful recanalisation surgery and given birth again.

A year after the tsunami, Nagapattinam district is on the path of reconstruction of its shattered society and economy, the result of a massive relief and rehabilitation effort involving the affected communities, the State and Central governments, and NGOs. The psychological scars of the tragedy - there is not a single family in the tsunami-hit belt that did not lose one or more loved ones - have been harder to remove. As its first anniversary neared, it was the memory of those irreplaceable human losses that occupied the thoughts of the survivors.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor