Picking up the threads

Print edition : October 21, 2005

Life in Little Andaman, eight months after it was struck by the tsunami.

Fishing activity has resumed at Hut Bay but the catch is only a small fraction of what it was before the tsunami struck.-

A COUPLE of fishing boats are gently bobbing up and down in the calm blue waters of the ocean, which appears bound on one end by the eastern horizon. Tying it up on the other side is a long strip of sparkling but lonely beach peopled by a few fishermen mending their nets. Eight months after the tsunami's giant landfall in Little Andaman, one is struck by the exceptionally idyllic, albeit extremely deceptive, picture.

This is Hut Bay, the administrative headquarters of the island, 120 km south of Port Blair. Located about halfway between the main group of the Andaman islands and the southern Nicobar group, Little Andaman is rather inappropriately named. Spread over nearly 730 square kilometres, it is not `little' by any measure; it is one of the largest islands in the Andaman and Nicobar group.

The damaged jetty.-

The magnitude of the destruction wrought by the tidal waves of December 26, 2004, was palpable at Hut Bay. Huge waves had created unprecedented havoc there as they did all along the coastline in South and South-East Asia. The jetty was almost entirely damaged. Our ship, mv Dering, was anchored out in deeper waters and we had to hop on to a boat, which berthed itself to a pontoon tied to the few chunks of the breakwater boulders that remained in Hut Bay. As we headed towards the town, two tipper lorries, carrying quarried stone for the reconstruction of the breakwater, passed by.

The evidence of the tidal assault is still there for all to see in Machi Dera (meaning, fishing hamlet), which was, until the tsunami came, a bustling settlement of a couple of hundred families, the first of whom migrated to this place in the 1970s from the Srikakulam coast in Andhra Pradesh. Small rectangular plinths are all that remain of the houses. Walls with doors and window frames that stood on these plinths lie scattered; an RCC (reinforced cement concrete) framework, uprooted from its base further away, lies embedded in the sand at an odd angle; a wall that withstood the tidal attack stands, still sporting the name T. VALLABHARAO in bold letters; and on the adjoining plinth stands a rotting wooden column with a board with the name G. APPALAMMA across it, like the cross on a tombstone.

The approach to the breakwater. Substantial sections further ahead were destroyed.-

There has obviously been post-tsunami activity here, in the hope that it will help and ensure damage assessment and compensation when it comes.

Joga Rao, who, along with a handful of men, sits mending his nets, points to a small coconut grove about 100 metres away. Five waves hit the coast that morning. The biggest and the most damaging of these, rising to about 30 feet, was the fourth one. It topped the coconut trees, says Joga Rao, and pushed the water inland for more than a kilometre. In fact, a report submitted in April to the Department of Science and Technology by a team of experts noted that the inland travel of sea water in Little Andaman was more than what was noticed in the Nicobar islands.

The flattened settlement of Machi Dera.-

"After the first wave came, it sucked the ocean dry as it went back, exposing the shallow bed of the bay in front of us," Joga Rao continues. "People could see hundreds of big and small fish thrashing on the bare bed. Some of them even ran in to pick them up." But when the wave came back, the residents realised something was wrong and ran inland. Nine people, eight of them women, died in Machi Dera. Had the first wave been a bigger and more powerful one, the casualties and damage would have been much higher.

The entire settlement got flattened. The community is dependent on fishing for its livelihood. Of its fleet of 120 boats, all except two were washed away. Both the administration and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have promised to provide new boats, but these are yet to come. Official figures of fish landings here tell the tale of destruction quite clearly. The fish catch in March 2004 was nearly 90,000 kg. In March this year, it was only about a 1,000 kg.

The intermediate shelters at Padauk Tikri.-

Serious damage was also caused to infrastructure in Hut Bay: The powerhouse located near the beach was inundated and the township had to go without power for many days; the post office, the telephone exchange, the primary health centre and the local branch of the State Bank of India (SBI) suffered damage. We walk into the now-desolate SBI complex. On the one side are a row of deserted houses. Swiftlets dart in and out of them. They have obviously found ideal nesting sites in the cool darkness of the false roofing in the houses. The structure that housed the bank presents a pathetic picture. Mounds of paper lie scattered outside. The shutter is damaged and is still down. The adjoining wall has caved in allowing for access. Inside only damaged furniture remain.

Adjacent to the wall of the SBI complex is a narrow concrete path that leads to the intermediate shelters of Padauk Tikri, home to a few 100 families. An estimated 6,000 of Little Andaman's 17,000-odd people are currently said to be in one of five such shelters. Padauk Tikri is now home to the uprooted residents of Machi Dera. The shelters, made of plain and corrugated galvanised iron (CGI), have come in for considerable criticism. According to government figures, a total of 1,448 tonnes of these sheets have been used for the construction of nearly 2,000 intermediate shelters in Little Andaman.

The RCC framework was uprooted from a site further away and deposited in its present position.-

At Padauk Tikri, the shelters have been built on a small hillock with a gentle slope. In the initial days those living on the top had to haul up water, which was supplied by tankers. Those at the lower end complain about sewage seeping from the hillock and entering their shelters. Work has begun for the construction of a water tank and the laying of sewerage lines to deal with the problem. It is clearly a difficult situation. Providing relief and putting up the intermediate shelters in good time in the face of serious logistical constraints would have certainly been a difficult task for the planners and the implementing agencies. The only concern is whether it could not have been done better.

The same concern is voiced in the intermediate shelters of Harminder Bay, the Nicobari settlement located a few kilometres south of Hut Bay. The Nicobarese of Harminder Bay were brought here from Car Nicobar, the island immediately south of Little Andaman. Some 160-odd families were settled here in the 1970s. Their population has obviously grown - the number of affected families now in the intermediate shelter is about 400. The drive to this settlement is through a long stretch of coconut plantations, the most significant source of livelihood for the Nicobari community. Copra preparation and trading is their key economic activity. One of the biggest losses to these islands came from the large-scale inundation and destruction of the coconut plantations. The Nicobarese of Harminder Bay are lucky in that their plantations have survived although the entire settlement and 50-odd traditional fishing canoes were washed away.

The spot where a church stood at Harminder Bay.-

The waves did spare a small part of their church, the part with the cross on it. It is a small room with a mezzanine floor, which was probably at one end of the church. Lying strewn on the ground are a couple of cane frameworks of the Christmas star. From a window at the top one can still see the pulpit at the far end, now completely exposed to the elements. Even the microphone stand is in place, as is the book from which hymns were probably being sung on that Sunday morning. `O Lord', begins the first line. The following words are not clear as the paper has crumbled.

In the intermediate shelter located behind the coconut plantations we meet Zita Rachel and Simon, who work with Action Aid and run the temporary school for the Nicobari children. Zita also says that of the five waves that hit them, the fourth was the biggest and the most destructive. "If the first wave had been the size of the fourth," she says, "none of us would have survived." There was no food available for the first few days. While there were coconuts there were no implements to cut them open. The availability of drinking water too was a serious problem, as water sources were damaged by the intrusion of saline water. Initially there was only one dug well with potable water, and there was a constant scramble for it. Now things have slightly improved with tankers supplying water to the shelter. Zita invites us into the tent, a makeshift school in which there is boisterous activity. The children turn glum on seeing the strangers, but soon relax and introduce themselves. Prodded by their teacher, they sing a few songs and recite a couple of poems for us.

There is a lot of reconstruction activity going on on the island. There is the framework for a school building being fabricated in one corner. Some distance away, youth are working hard on the wooden framework of what looks more like a traditional Nicobari dwelling built on stilts. Adjusting to the tin boxes, which have been provided as intermediate shelters, has been difficult for this indigenous community.

Ever since the tragedy struck, the people have been demanding a set of tools that would allow them to begin reconstruction work. But this simple demand was not heeded, not only by the authorities in Harminder Bay, but those in the rest of the Nicobar Islands. As we take leave, a man cycles past us with freshly harvested coconuts, cracked open in the centre to be smoked into copra.

At Padauk Tikri, the resilient residents did not want to miss Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. A group of young men were seen working frenetically on the construction of a pandal for the festival. Later, in the evening when we were on board mv Dering on our way back to Port Blair, the same bunch of youth were with us. They were on their way to get an idol of Ganesha and the sound and music system for the festivities that were to start on September 7.

Zita Rachel and Simon, who are in charge of a makeshift school for the Nicobarese children at Harminder Bay.-

In more ways than one, this is just the beginning of a long haul for these unfortunate thousands. Many are still scared to go back to the sea or have no boats to resume their occupation

The intermediate shelters are likely to be their home at least for another year and a half, if not more. Also, there is no clarity about where they will be resettled. The local administration and the government are still working out a plan for the re-establishment of the devastated settlements.

Harvested coconuts being taken to make copra.-

As we walked around the shelters, V. Kamesh Rao approached us. "Will you take a photo?" he asked, pointing to the camera. Soon he gathered a bunch of children, his own included, and posed for the picture.

Also waiting to be photographed was a woman with an empty fish basket on her head. We had seen her earlier in the day, hawking in other parts of the town. It was probably a day of good business. "My name is S. Barvati," she said as she put down her basket. And there was a group of enthusiastic children enjoying themselves in the play area who wanted their picture to be taken. Life, indeed, has not lost its charm for these islanders.

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