Wave of support

Published : Jan 01, 2010 00:00 IST

in Nagapattinam

ON December 26, 2004, giant waves lashed coastal India and left behind a trail of death and destruction. It also left behind lessons in resilience for many. The tsunami anniversary kindles memories of loss and offers, for the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that helped the victims in their trying times, an opportunity for introspection.

Development Promotion Group (DPG) was one NGO that stepped in to help though it had no experience in relief and rehabilitation of the sort that a disaster of the magnitude of the 2004 tsunami warranted. What began as an immediate response to the disaster has continued for almost five years. Today, it has enlarged its mandate from mere relief to community sustenance.

The organisation has extended its post-tsunami relief work across the districts of Nagapattinam, Tuticorin, Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. As per its estimates, about 5 per cent of the total work was entrusted to it by the government. This entailed construction of over 822 houses in three phases in Nagapattinam district.

The places were the houses were built included Vizhundhumavadi, Vaanavamahadevi, Vellapallam and Kameshwaram. Over 102 permanent shelters were constructed for Dalits, with each person contributing in equal share to the construction of a house, said Bhakther Solomon, director, DPG.

Every NGO has followed its own method of project implementation. According to Solomon, DPG followed a joint consultative process involving fishing panchayats to identify beneficiaries. Joint ownership by wife and husband was ensured for all DPG houses. Additionally, wherever possible, local labour was hired to provide them income security, said Solomon.

People Development Association (PDA), a Madurai-based NGO, which stepped in to provide relief immediately after the tsunami, transformed itself from an active participant to a facilitator. Infrastructure in the form of school complexes, training institutes, permanent shelters and community halls have been the prominent contributions of PDA in the rehabilitation and post-rehabilitation phase.

According to Joe Velu, director, PDA, the organisation has expended over Rs.12 crore for capacity building and livelihood security of communities here. Under renovation and reconstruction works, PDA constructed 11 schools and 297 permanent houses, renovated 16 houses, built seven community halls and raised a compound wall for one school building, he said.

The tasks and concerns were markedly different for the home-grown NGO Social Need Education and Human Awareness (SNEHA). The organisation has been working among coastal communities in Nagapattinam since the time of its inception in 1982. Its understanding of the socio-cultural milieu of the tsunami victims gave it an activists platform. SNEHA assumed a bottom-up approach to relief and rehabilitation.

The State government engaged NGOs, on a public-private partnership basis, for the construction of permanent shelters for the tsunami-affected. Over 20,000 houses were sought to be constructed through NGO participation in Nagapattinam district. Under the mechanism, the government was to provide land and the NGOs were to meet the cost of construction within the government-stipulated cost and design parameters.

SNEHAs intervention was effective during the initial phase of the rehabilitation. It challenged the government order that forbade people from making any construction within 200 metres of the sea. Further, it countered the directive that no repair and rebuilding assistance would be given to houses that were located within the 200-m limit. Following its intervention, tsunami shelters were allowed within the 200-m limit in areas such as Kameshwaram, Vellapallam, Vizhundhumavadi and Chinamedu.

SNEHA advocated in situ houses and, wherever possible, stepped in to repair damaged habitations, and those within the 200-m limit were given assistance through federations. Womens federations further ensured that the money availed was used only for rebuilding.

SNEHA also carried out an information campaign among coastal residents about their rights and vulnerabilities. According to Jesurathinam, director, SNEHA, it was important for the coastal communities, ravaged by nature, to make decisions based on meaningful information.

Livelihood restoration was another prominent area of NGO participation in the area. PDA mobilised and distributed relief materials worth Rs.4 crore to more than 7,683 families, said Velu. They included boats, engines, fishing nets, catamarans, ice boxes, metal baskets and weighing machines, together worth Rs.3.20 crore, given to over 1,095 beneficiaries. The DPAs livelihood intervention programme involved an expenditure of over Rs.16 million to provide fibreglass boats, motors and fishing nets to over 300 fisherfolk families.

But not everyone has a favourable opinion of the performance of the NGOs here. According to Bhakther Solomon, the government is partly responsible for this. Most NGOs stuck to government specifications, and houses were constructed on land identified by the government. Infrastructural aspects such as roads, drainage, sanitation and drinking water were the mandate of the government. Houses came up first, followed by the roads, Solomon said. And the NGOs were blamed for the flooding of many houses constructed in low-lying areas, he said.

Further, community participation was quite complex, considering the rigidity of the government specifications. However, DPG managed it to an extent, especially in terms of womens participation. According to Solomon, houses were allotted a uniform area of three cents, and DPG was able to engage women in the design of the houses, such as in manoeuvring the location of household spaces.

Delays in identifying land and transferring its ownership caused the escalation of building costs. While the funds with some NGOs depleted, others had to put up with dismal construction work by contractors. The huge demand for labour and the hike in the price of construction materials meant inability to meet the requirements within the stipulated budget.

According to Joe Velu, the NGOs functioned within certain constraints in the tsunami-hit areas. The governmental support was abnormally good initially, but over time it became normal bureaucratic course and the interest declined. However, some managed to ensure that the work was taken to its logical conclusion, he said.

Lack of understanding of coastal communities habits and coastal geography was another problem. Leach tanks which are unsuitable for coastal areas with high water seepage were built, observed Jesurathinam.

Capacity building was a natural corollary of the relief and rehabilitation effort. For NGOs such as DPG and PDA, social capital formation and capacity building offered the rationale for prolonging their stay in the post-relief and rehabilitation phase.

PDA created alternative livelihoods by setting up institutes and programmes for the rural youth. It set up two vocational training institutes to provide community-based industrial training in two-wheeler and three-wheeler repairing and servicing. PDA organised 35 youth groups across 16 target villages to create income-generating activities such as retail outlets of fishing nets and related goods.

The organisation was also engaged in land reclamation and organic farming in land affected by the tsunami. It provided training in organic farming to farmers and gave them agricultural implements and seeds. A seed bank was set up in Kameshwaram panchayat. It also runs mobile health clinics to provide basic health care in over 16 villages with about 55,000 people, according to Joe Velu.

Forming womens self-help groups (SHGs) and providing them with microfinance in tsunami-hit areas have been major activities of the NGOs. Over 168 SHGs were formed by DPG, with microfinance support of Rs.103.4 crore. PDA organised over 160 SHGs and federated them at the village level to create self-sustaining communities. Additionally, institutional skill training in embroidery, coir-making, fashion designing, tailoring, and so on is being provided.

SNEHA had organised women into sangams, which were federated, even before the tsunami. The disaster threw up additional challenges for these federations, which were working for womens rights in the coastal areas. Post-tsunami, they pitched in to ensure the distribution of relief materials to the affected people. SNEHA provided, among other things, door-to-door post-tsunami trauma counselling for women and children, montessori education centres and a separate childrens relief camp, and rebuilt over 32 pre-schools in the worst-affected villages.

SHG activity in coastal Tamil Nadu is a legacy of the tsunami, said V. Ganapathy, adviser, Exnora International. However, a tsunami centre to deal with the questions and concerns in this regard is absent. The NGO Coordination Resource Centre (NCRC) has since transformed itself into an NGO called Bedrock. Lack of coordination with the government is another cause of concern, observed Anne George of Bedrock.

According to Jesurathinam, the rehabilitation efforts have been gender blind and asset-oriented. While movable and immovable assets were compensated for, perishable assets in the form of fish that were to be auctioned were not included in the relief net. So, many women, who lost their ownership of perishables, could not seek compensation for their losses.

Moreover, livelihood packages in the post-tsunami phase were not labour-oriented. Many single women, fisherwomen and Dalit women engaged in ancillary activities of the fishing industry were left in the lurch.

SNEHA, in coordination with NCRC, filed petitions to demand the inclusion of women who were left out in the first phase. According to Jesurathinam, there are proposals to include them in the World Bank-aided Phase II of the rehabilitation project.

Many women who were left out of the governments relief net found SNEHAs initial seed money of Rs.3,000 helpful in tiding them over the loss. Further, the availability of easy loans at low interest rates from womens federations has increased their asset base. The women were also federated into the Tamil Nadu Women Fishworkers Forum.

SNEHAs concerns have been gender-centric during the course of the relief. One of its first efforts in the post-tsunami period was to curb child marriages, including marriages of young boys in the months following the tsunami. There was a tendency to marry off young girls, especially orphaned girls, in a desperate attempt to create family identities so as to become eligible for compensation packages. SNEHA and other NGOs took it to the notice of the administration and the practice was stalled.

Relief materials that came in the form of clothes clearly ignored the needs of adolescent girls and women. There were no undergarments or sanitary pads, a need that SNEHA chose to meet. And while there was an influx of gynaecologists immediately after the tsunami, there was no sufficient pre-natal and post-natal care later.

DPG seeks to expand its garment-manufacturing unit and secure a good market value for its produce through an exclusive marketing facility in Nagapattinam district. Further, it hopes to create alternative avenues of employment for the youth. Women can become real stakeholders of their labour by ensuring value addition for their catch through processing facilities, Solomon said. The experiments of DPG met with success wherever community participation was ensured, said Solomon. The organisations Dalit housing project is a case in point. According to him, the quality and design of the houses constructed for and by Dalits are markedly different from the rest. And Solomon believes that women hold the key to the success of community-oriented works in the tsunami-hit regions.

The absence of a collaborative and coordinated approach amongst the NGOs has resulted in problems such as duplication of work and hasty implementation. Certain long-term goals remain unfulfilled, Solomon said, adding that the government should evolve a policy-oriented approach to deal with disasters. A greater challenge is to change the aid-dependent mentality of the beneficiaries and transform them into self-sustaining communities. The extent to which this has been achieved is yet to be gauged, he said.

Joe Velu said PDAs plan was to leave behind communities that are self-sustaining. Our goal was to function as a facilitator, he said. Now it is in the withdrawal phase. The challenge to instil self-reliance and cooperation among its target villages, however, remains. At this stage, our concern is to ensure that the best practices taught to them are followed.

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