Rebuilding lives

Published : Jan 02, 2009 00:00 IST

Four years after the 2004 tsunami, a look at the reconstruction and rehabilitation work that has been carried out.

in Trichy

UNTIL December 26, 2004, tsunami was a term unheard of in the common lexicon along the long coast of Tamil Nadu. Today, even the unlettered utter the word often, with awe.

The giant waves that shook the coastlines of Asia on that day left behind a trail of destruction of epic proportions. Reconstruction and rehabilitation required an equally massive effort. For over three years, government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) launched rehabilitation projects, with a huge flow of funds from national and international agencies.

The spontaneous response for relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts from NGOs and donor agencies has few parallels. With nearly 2.5 lakh affected people being taken to temporary shelters in Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts in the first six months, the coordinated relief measures prevented any outbreak of water-borne diseases, which in itself is considered an achievement.

On the fourth anniversary of the black day, as one looks back on the amount of work that has been done, there are several lessons to be learnt from the efforts made for disaster mitigation, capacity building, reconstruction, habitat development, community participation and ecological protection. The good practices that have emerged could be replicated elsewhere and the pitfalls avoided.

The lessons are important to inform government policies on housing, disaster mitigation and approaches to pro-poor and equitable infrastructure, says Pieter Bult, Deputy Country Director, United Nations Development Programme, India, in the foreword to the UNDP document Tsunami Lessons for Habitat Development. The document lists out a series of case studies in the post-tsunami reconstruction scenario. Stakeholders should study the aspects of people-centric planning, environment friendly options and focus on a habitat development approach while designing and implementing development and reconstruction plans, he adds.

The control exercised by the government over the activity of building permanent shelters, in terms of site selection, allocation of villages and setting of specifications, has been welcomed by many agencies.

The public-private partnership initiative in building permanent shelters has proved to be a successful model, says R. Bhakther Solomon, chief executive officer of the NGO, Development Promotion Group (DPG). However, cost escalation has been one of the factors that these NGOs have had to contend with.

The DPG was one of the NGOs involved in immediate relief efforts and, subsequently, in long-term reconstruction initiatives. It built 822 houses in Vilunthamavadi, Kameshwaram, Vanavanmahadevi and Vellappallem in Nagapattinam district and Keela Tiruchendur and Mappillaioorani in Tuticorin district. The organisation also built several temporary shelters and community halls in several villages. It also focussed on the sustainable development of the affected communities. The first task was to organise the victim communities into self-reliant self-help groups [SHGs] to inculcate in them the habit of saving, thereby preventing exploitation of the victims by moneylenders, says Solomon.

Getting the affected communities back into their original professions meant making available substantial resources in the form of new equipment for fisherfolk and rehabilitation of land in the case of farmers. To this end, the DPG organised the distribution of fibre glass boats, engines and nets to fishermen.

Another task taken up simultaneously was providing alternative means of livelihood, which meant giving skills training to different groups in the community. The biggest challenge was the attitude of the victims, who, seeing the huge volume of relief resources pouring in, developed a dependence mentality, observes Solomon. To overcome this problem, the organisation promoted several income-generating projects and vocational/ skill-development centres in various villages. It has also effectively established micro-finance linkages for affected families.

The focus of the Peoples Development Association (PDA), a Madurai-based NGO, was on socio-economic development in the post-relief scenario. It worked in 16 coastal villages and mobilised resources through a range of national and international donors. The resources were used to distribute boats, engines, fishing nets, catamarans and weighing machines.

To provide alternative livelihood options to affected families, the PDA established two vocational training institutes that offer industrial training courses on automobile mechanism, electrical and plumbing works, driving, computer education, tailoring/fashion designing, welding and electrical works. More than 500 students have benefited so far through these institutions, says Joe Velu, the director of the PDA.

The PDA renovated 11 schools, built 297 houses and seven community halls and also organised women into SHGs. It followed up on its skills development training programme for women by extending financial support to them to establish manufacturing units. Six such units are functioning now. The PDA is running 19 child development centres and has started working with farmers on the reclamation of land affected by the tsunami in P.R. Puram and Kameshwaram villages in Nagapattinam district. A mobile health clinic visits all the 16 villages periodically, and a home for senior citizens is also under construction.

One of the most important aspects of the reconstruction projects along the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu such as Nagapattinam and Cuddalore was the success of the NGOs in opening up the hitherto closed fishermens community. Despite the apparent poverty and backwardness of the community, there was very little intervention until the tsunami struck. The close-knit community, with its own culture, tradition and customs, lived on the fringes of society. But it took the brunt of the devastation and had nowhere to look to for help. Help was forthcoming, but the strangers who proffered it faced difficulties.

It was initially very difficult to intervene, to get across our message. They seemed unable to absorb our message. There was resistance to change, observes V. Ganapathy, adviser to Exnora International and the Society for Community Organisation and Peoples Education (SCOPE), two of the scores of NGOs that have worked in the coastal belt.

The reconstruction efforts have brought about a significant social change in this strictly patriarchal community. For one thing, the issue of joint pattas, in the name of both husband and wife, under the habitat development programmes has given women a certain degree of importance. Women were also consulted on the housing design, says Ganapathy, who did a field study on Participatory Practices in Post-Tsunami Sanitation for the Tamil Nadu Tsunami Resource Centre (TNTRC). The rebuilding and academic development projects have helped bring the children of fishermen to school. Previously, they did not attend school regularly, he adds.

The assertion of J. Radhakrishnan, who was the District Collector then, that Nagapattinam would be built as a model for future reconstruction projects may not have come true as yet. While several successful models have emerged in the post-tsunami reconstruction phase, there has been a feeling that some NGOs have been unprofessional in their approach. Some independent observers felt that a portion of the money that was poured in was frittered away. For instance, in some places the huge volume of play material that was supplied to schools was reported as going waste. It has only brought to the fore the need for discipline and coordination among NGOs to ensure that their projects are need-based.

Similarly, the quality of the construction work of some of the permanent shelters was found to be substandard. Independent observers and studies agreed that while the quality of the permanent shelters that had been built was by and large good, certain projects did not meet expectations and therefore invited criticism.

The regulatory control exercised by the State government on habitat development has largely been found to be successful in ensuring uniformity and equity. True, there have been certain issues: For instance, NGOs felt that the cost of Rs.1.5 lakh fixed by the State government for construction of houses was insufficient. The government subsequently allowed the cost to be increased to Rs.2.6 lakh.

The UNDP document lists several success stories. One of them is the reconstruction project carried out at Akkarapettai by the Tata Relief Committee, which serves as a model for corporate social responsibility. The village was one of the worst affected, and over 600 people lost their lives there. The Tata Relief Committee constructed 828 houses on 14.75 acres (5.9 hectares) of land provided by the State government. Each house was built at a cost of Rs.2.5 lakh.

The UNDP document says that the village has now turned into an urban colony because a cluster approach was adopted, with houses being built in two-storeyed blocks to overcome the limited availability of space. The layout and the house design make the project different from other housing projects in rural areas. In partnership with the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, the group set up a village knowledge centre with coastal communication links to provide data on the weather, fish locations, local market conditions and auction updates. Vocational classes and adult education facilities were also provided.

A centralised sewage treatment plant, using a fluidised bed bioreactor, has been installed to treat domestic sewage. The treated water is used for non-potable purposes and to raise plantations. Given the difficulty in sewage disposal in coastal areas, the model is considered ideal for replication. Nearly 100 solar energy lights were installed in the common areas in the village, and rainwater-harvesting structures were also provided in each house.

The reconstruction process has also thrown up several innovative and indigenous solutions. A case in point is Kodiyampalayam, a village on the northern tip of Nagapattinam, which is separated from the mainland by backwaters. The village is accessible only by boat from the Paliyar or by road from Chidambaram in Cuddalore district. The reconstruction project at this village was implemented by the Centre for Environmental Education (CEE) and funded by Intermon Oxfam. These NGOs ensured that the construction materials were transported to the village by boat.

Some interesting solutions were devised to overcome practical difficulties two villages were given funds to purchase a boat and a tractor to transport the material. The loan was recovered in weekly instalments. Women were engaged to pack the material for transportation, and families were made responsible for storing construction materials. The project also placed emphasis on the local production of building elements. Cost-effective and environment-friendly building technologies, such as use of fly-ash block masonry, reinforced cement concrete filler slabs with clay tile fillers and precast concrete components, were used. Appropriate sanitation solutions were also devised. Since the village is in a high water table area, raised toilets with compact septic tanks located below the toilet slab were built. The tanks were connected to an infiltration trench for evapotranspiration.

Sanitation has indeed been an issue, initially in the temporary shelters and then in most permanent habitats. There has been some experimentation too, sometimes at the expense of the victims. Sanitation, both in terms of solid and liquid waste management in the tsunami habitats, was considered a major area that needed to be addressed. In fact, improving sanitation in the tsunami shelters is the biggest challenge now. For one thing, fishermen had never used toilets before. The sea and coastline was their open toilet.

Accommodating tens of thousands of fishermen families into temporary shelters was a major challenge. A host of NGOs adopted a multi-pronged strategy to promote the concept of sanitation. The focus was on creating a demand for better sanitation. The results, though slow to come, are now apparent. The ecosan model, promoted by SCOPE, a Tiruchi-based NGO, at Kameshwaram village in Nagapattinam district is cited as one of the successful models by the UNDP document. The village has since been awarded the Nirmal Puraskar award for achieving 100 per cent sanitation.

Given the high water table in the coastal village, pit latrines, the only model available, was not considered suitable. The ecosan dry toilet model is considered highly suitable for such places. SCOPE has already pioneered the model in villages along the Cauvery river in the Musiri region of Tiruchi. Under the ecosan system, urine and faeces are separated and diverted at source. A modified pan is built to collect the faeces in a chamber below the pedestal unit, and urine is collected separately in a container. The wash water is led into a filter bed outside the toilet. Ash, lime or soil is sprinkled after every use. The faeces are left to compost and transform into a safe fertiliser. The urine can be treated separately and also used for irrigation.

About 350 household ecosan toilets were constructed in the village, and an ecosan toilet complex was built at the panchayat office. The panchayat was involved in mobilising residents and creating the demand. The project has been able to provide toilets at a cost of just about Rs.7,000. The use of locally available construction material ensured that the toilets were cost-effective. Fifty masons were trained in the construction of these toilets since their design is different from that of the conventional ones. Emphasis was also on usage and maintenance. Even a beauty contest for the toilets was organised by Friends in Need (FiN), an NGO based in France, which provided Rs.1,200 to each family. The event was intended to project toilets as an integral part of the habitat, which deserve to be maintained with care.

The UNDP document notes that the ecosan toilet models have shown how valuable nutrients can be retrieved from toilets. Several families have raised kitchen gardens around the toilets to grow vegetables. The toilets have also withstood subsequent floods. On coming to know the technology, a couple of schools in the coastal villages have adopted the model to suit their requirements.

The Exnora Internationals efforts to promote decentralised wastewater treatment systems (DEWATS) have been fruitful. The community-based programmes aim to treat wastewater in a decentralised manner as a centralised system entails heavy capital investment and could pose problems in maintenance. Exnora has put up a DEWATS in Kadambadi, Nagapattinam district, covering about 174 individual houses, which is functioning successfully. DEWATS technology is one of three models approved by the World Bank for wastewater treatment, and Exnora will be putting up similar systems in 23 places, covering 74 settlements across the State, at a cost of Rs.7 crore. Two of these systems will be in Nagapattinam district.

These success stories and case studies bring out the fact that reconstruction initiatives have gone beyond temporary relief measures. Infrastructure development has been the hallmark of these initiatives. These are building blocks for future development of the habitats as a whole, the UNDP document points out.

The public infrastructure created through the reconstruction projects also needs to be maintained properly. Local bodies do not seem to have the wherewithal or the expertise to maintain them properly and there is a need to create a mechanism to ensure the task is carried out, especially after NGOs have moved out after executing their projects.

And the way forward would be to ensure that the affected communities are put firmly on the road to development though appropriate follow-up intervention strategies.

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