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Car Nicobar's resilience

Print edition : Jul 01, 2005 T+T-

Community participation, strengthened by the tradition of tribal solidarity, is a key element in the UNICEF's tsunami rehabilitation interventions in Car Nicobar, which have proved successful despite logistical problems.

SAVITA VARDE-NAQVI recently in Car Nicobar

THE idyllic island of Car Nicobar, which bore the full fury of the tsunami in December, lies in the heart of the Andaman and Nicobar islands archipelago in the Indian Ocean. If it has found only a cursory mention in the massive restoration and rehabilitation work being carried out across several nations, part of the reason could be the inaccessibility of these islands.

There is no direct air link between the mainland and Car Nicobar. A two-and-a-half hour flight from Chennai to Port Blair, the capital of the Union Territory, and another hour-and-a-half helicopter ride to Car Nicobar, if you are lucky to get a seat, could test the most keenly planned logistical operations. If you decide to take the sea route, you will need a strong constitution to traverse the Ten Degree Channel!

As the chopper draws closer to the Car Nicobar coastline, the halo of turquoise undergoes a stark transformation. Six months after the tsunami, ruins of coconut trees continue to cover the beach. Some coconut palms are still standing - greyish-brown, bedraggled and fruitless. The mangroves have been destroyed, and some remain submerged. What were buildings once are ghost structures without walls or roofs. However, further inland in the thick forest can be spotted clusters of tin roofs suggesting habitation.

The island's remoteness is reinforced by the self-sufficient culture of the Nicobarese. Their language has no words for `compensation', `orphan', and `trafficking', which became part of the post-tsunami discourse.

Ireena Mark is the "first captain" of Small Lapathy village in Car Nicobar, the only woman in the Tribal Council, the decision-making body of the indigenous Nicobarese community. She is one of the 15 "captains" elected to represent the 15 villages that make up this tiny, yet strategically located island of less than 21,000 people - some 17,000 are indigenous Nicobarese and the rest are mainland settlers predominantly from south India, Bengal and Bihar. There is little intermingling between them. The Nicobarese live in their villages and the settlers in and around the district headquarters, engaged in economic activity of some form or the other.

Unlike the settlers, the Nicobarese seem completely `demonetised'. "They have an organic link with their habitat and live off it. They keep pigs for meat, but there is no cattle-rearing. They do backyard poultry farming so that they can have eggs to eat. But you can be sure that the extra eggs will not be sold. The mainland concept of bank balance, property and private ownership is non-existent. The community comes first, and everything belongs to the community," explained Vivek Kumar Porwal, the new Deputy Commissioner of the Nicobars district.

In this tsunami rehabilitation model ever so different from Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, Kanyakumari or Pondicherry, it is the initiatives of indigenous leaders like Ireena Mark that have made timely relief and rehabilitation possible in Car Nicobar. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has been the only international organisation assisting the administration of Andaman and Nicobar right from the early relief phase.

Within a week of the disaster, UNICEF doctors were on the islands to help health authorities do a rapid assessment of the situation and draw up micro plans to reach emergency services to children in the most inaccessible areas. It ensured that a mass measles immunisation campaign was carried out along with Vitamin A supplementation to cover all children between six months and five years of age across the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

UNICEF also assisted in the provision of clean drinking water and distributed 110,000 packets of oral rehydration solutions (ORS) in the camps. Essential supplies, including cold chain equipment, instruments for testing water quality, 21,000 bednets and 40,000 tubes of mosquito repellent, were distributed in the worst-affected islands of Car Nicobar, Katchal, Kamorta, Teressa, Trinket and Great Nicobar through the Department of Health Services. With major jetties destroyed, the logistics of procuring supplies and distributing them on islands rendered practically inaccessible is the single biggest challenge.

Captain Ireena's Small Lapathy village with some 200 households was right on the seashore. It had swaying coconut palms, tapioca trees and tall bandanas (kevra) that perfumed the air. There were sweet water wells and drinking water was never scarce. The villagers had 20 fishing boats between them and went fishing when they needed to. They reared pigs and poultry, grew paddy and were a happy, self-contained community.

A NEW signboard pointing to the ruined village reads `Erstwhile Small Lapathy'. The village had a playground where children played football and where people gathered when the ground trembled like never before and the tsunami "higher than two coconut trees" came rushing towards them. It is from this playground that Ireena ordered them to flee towards the jungle as fast as their feet could take them.

Even so, three people from her village died and 10 are still missing. Car Nicobar reported an overall tally of 270 dead and 584 missing. Her assessment of the impending danger and her quick response saved many lives.

Entire villages of Car Nicobar like Small Lapathy, Arong, Sawai, Kinmai, Mus, Chukchukia, Kimius, Kakana, Tapoiming, Tamaloo were wiped out. They have all had to be relocated to higher, safer inland locations by clearing coconut groves and forests of tapioca, bamboo and bandanas that are crucial to the livelihood of the Nicobarese people.

This community has always lived in close proximity and harmony with the sea in traditional homes elevated on timber poles and made of local materials such as palm ferns, reeds, bamboo strips and barks of the bandana. Moving into galvanised iron shelters away from the sea makes them uneasy. But, they are a patient people and it is not in their nature to complain. There are interesting innovations combining local building material with galvanised iron and welded poles, thus making their temporary shelters more like homes and also cooler.

With 3,866 `intermediate shelters' now built in Car Nicobar, relief operations have clearly moved into the recovery mode. It is an opportunity to build back better by adding a quality dimension to reconstruction and to services that are being restored. The development challenge here is not to alter or interfere with the way of life of the Nicobarese people. Their tradition of community living goes back to thousands of years.

As the Andaman Public Works Department was building `intermediate shelters,' UNICEF deployed six water and sanitation engineers and 44 masons over a period of three months to construct approximately 7,000 low-cost latrines with leach pits. This was achieved with community participation facilitated by the tribal captains, with villagers digging pits, working with the masons to fix the toilet sets and constructing superstructures.

Hygiene-education sessions conducted by engineers on the need to use latrines, wash hands and chlorinate drinking water sources has helped create better sanitary conditions in the shelters. Water tanks with a capacity of 500 litres each were also provided and installed near the relocated villages to store drinking water.

The availability of drinking water is an important issue in the recovery process. The water supply infrastructure was severely damaged by the tsunami and some wells got filled with saline water. With brand new galvanised iron sheets now covering roofs of `intermediate shelters', channelling rainwater into storage tanks has become easier. With a heavy monsoon setting in, UNICEF is busy promoting simple household techniques of harvesting rainwater in the villages. Ireena tells everyone how they can do it. "And don't forget to boil the water even if you have filtered it through a cloth! It is always safer," she adds.

Even though health and nutritional indicators of Nicobarese children are better than the Indian average, a damaged health infrastructure, shortage of food and medicine, and reduced medical staff are beginning to take a toll on the children. In all, 50,000 tonnes of fortified biscuits have been distributed through village `anganwadi' workers. Efforts are on to restart the anganwadis that were wiped out. Apart from the care and emotional support they will provide, monitoring of infants and pre-school children needs focussed attention.

"The task at hand is not to let the health and nutritional status of children slide", says Dr. Mahesh Srinivas of the Swami Vivekanand Youth Movement, hired by UNICEF to provide technical support to the Bishop John Richardson District Hospital in Car Nicobar. He and Jeane Diana, an auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) from the destroyed health centre in Small Lapathy, go from village to village with a cool box carrying routine immunisation vaccines, a stock of auto-disable syringes and basic medical supplies bringing health services to the doorstep of the displaced villagers.

We accompanied Dr. Mahesh and Jeane Diana to Arong village on one of their monthly immunisation drives, 10 km uphill through a thick forest. A tent serving as an improvised health centre is established instantaneously and mothers, children and old people start trickling in.

Titus, Naomi Felix's one-year-old son, looks emaciated and is coughing violently. He is put on antibiotics for lower respiratory tract infection. He is also diagnosed for second grade malnutrition and asked to report to the district hospital in case he does not improve. This could well be early signs of `tsunami-induced malnutrition' among children. UNICEF has started a mother and child health and nutrition survey in Car Nicobar to assess the situation. The survey will also cover the other affected islands like Katchal, Kamorta, Teressa and Campbell Bay. The dirt tracks leading to villages of Arong and Sawai have become inaccessible under the monsoon torrents. Rations of rice and `dal' are difficult to reach. "Bread loaves finish within half an hour of the arrival of the ship. We don't even get to see them," Naomi Felix said.

Malaria is endemic on the island. To counter this, there is a timely demonstration of the use of bed nets and mosquito repellent tubes are distributed to all. Dr. Sahu, Medical Superintendent of the District Hospital, ensures that larvicidal operations are carried out with dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane (DDT) sprays and that extensive fogging of cesspools left behind by the tsunami takes place.

Plendina Edwin (25) is pregnant and anaemic. She is given folic acid and asked to eat green vegetables. But green vegetables are almost impossible to come by.

Immunisation is a priority. Twenty-year-old Henna has brought her son, little Chamberlaine for vaccinations. Polio drops are followed by an injection to prevent diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus. He looks underweight. The ANM counsels his mother to continue breastfeeding him. Chamberlaine's father disappeared in the tsunami, but his large extended family, called the `tuhet', has absorbed him as one of its own.

"We do not have such a word as `orphans' in our vocabulary" says Thomas Philip, captain of Mus and secretary of the Tribal Council. "We treat them like our own and look after them. We do not have orphanages here!"

This may be yet another reason why the travails of Car Nicobar have not been as palpably felt by the world as the pain of the other regions of Asia that are grappling with the aftermath of the tsunami. The strong bonding between the people of Car Nicobar is helping them survive their pain and loneliness.

In this hour of adversity, will the rest of the world be their extended family, their `tuhet' and treat them like their own? Will the quiet voice of these ancient people be heard? Will a way of life that is thousands of years old `survive' the recovery process?

Savita Varde-Naqvi is Communications Officer, United Nations Children's Fund, India.