And now, waves of misplaced relief

The Pioneer , Sunday, January 09, 2005
Correspondent : Meenakshi Rao
Tamil Nadu is yet to return from the surreal leap it took to tragedy on Boxer's Day. Two weeks after the tsunami swept away life in the coastal areas of the State, another surreal side-effect is turning into a parallel wave for authorities engaged in relief operations - the problem of dealing with the mammoth relief material that has deluged the area but without any use."The material that has flowed into the affected areas is 10 times more than the requirement and most of it is of no use to the victims. An immediate advisory through the internet, newspapers and nodal agencies needs to be put out on the kind of material is needed," says Brig (Dr) B K Khanna of the Institute of Disaster Management who has just returned from an assessment trip to Tamil Nadu.

Such has been the deluge of misplaced relief material like see-through nightwear for women, winter jackets, woollens, blankets, quilts, sweaters, medicines and even blood bottles that local authorities in Nagapattinam and Cuddalore have had to take time out to bundle up and burn many of the consignments. This has added to the six-foot high debris that is just about being cleared.The unregulated supply of medicines has especially raised fears of health hazards and the 524 doctors at work in these areas have been advising villagers to stay away from non-prescribed drugs.

Considering that 150 NGOs are at work in the two worst-affected districts of Cuddalore and Nagapattinam, it should have been a smooth operation. However, with a bulk of these bodies loaded with the same kind of relief material and many working in the same villages, not much is being put to use. A Government-NGO co-ordination meeting held in Chennai on Friday said: "It has come to notice that several organisations are working in the same villages often at the cost of other villages. There is a need for a co-ordination committee...."

"What the fisherfolk, need is not clothing and blankets but shelter and organisations that can give them catamarans, nets and fishing trawlers," says Mr Khanna.The tsunami smashed 29000 catamarans, 4621 mechanised boats, 8959 vallams and 1.38 lakh fishing nets. "Every new catamaran will cost Rs 50,000. The money may be at hand, but, which agency has the capacity to build these boats in a record time," he asks. In fact, out of the 150 NGOs at work, only one lists building of boats as its area of expertise. The rest are into food and medicines.

Fishermen superstitions

Adding to these logistical problems is the superstition of fishermen who have flatly refused to touch their old boats some of which can be repaired and used. In fact, a bulk has been petitioning the Government for an alternate livelihood, saying they will never step into the sea. Others, namely the younger lot, are ready to resume work but they, too, will not touch their old boats. The popular perception is that the sea does not want old boats and it will rise again if we defy this.

Fishermen as a community all over India worship the sea. Those in Tamil Nadu are particularly obsessive about it and call the ocean their parents. Post-tsunami, it is a frequent sight to see a row of wailing women standing on the beach, beating their chests and asking their "water parents" why they had taken away their livelihood from them.

However, ask them about what they would do if another tsunami came and they are unanimous in saying they would prefer to be at sea in their boats rather than run back on land. "The reason is that all those fishermen who had taken their catamarans into the sea when the tsunami struck, even those who were just 1/2 a km inside, were all saved," says an official.

Amid all this trauma, is one thing that makes the tsunami areas different from all areas of previous disasters in other parts of India.The popular response to the tragedy has been so overwhelming that the few foreign relief agencies that touched base in peninsular India with their paraphernalia of volunteers and supplies had to return without many people coming to them for help.

"We were here within two days of the tragedy but merely 300 people came to us. We are going back," rued a French aid volunteer. In fact, local village communities have been steadfast in rejecting publicity-seeking jamboories which have descended on them with lofty promises and wealth but "no genuine plans to help." One such brigade which was virtually shooed away by angry villagers of Thazanguda in Cuddalore was that of jetsetting US-based Christian evangelist K A Paul. He came calling in his Boeing 747 (he tells them there are just two such planes in the world - one being used by him and the other by the US president) !

He came to Thazanguda looking for 5000 orphaned children whom he plans to put up in his orphanage at Hyderabad but was not able to take even one back. He boasted of a plane load of relief which he could not specify. All he knew is that "there are 15 kinds of material in there" and that he has "Rs 4000 crore at his disposal for providing immediate relief to 10 countries over the next month." On a some-hours day visit to the Thazanguda beach in his luxury bus, he was surprised to find no takers. And that despite the fact that he had brought in with him celebs like boxing champ Evander Holyfield, Miss World runner up Naznin Afshin-Jam from Canada and, of course, a Fox TV reporter-cum-videographer to take back the footage.

To a motely group which surrounded him for some time, he said they were all alive because of Jesus Christ. Till, of course, someone turned around and asked why Jesus hadn't saved those who died. His response? "I am here to save the children and give them shelter at Hyderabad."Coming to which, amid global hysteria over possible poaching by paedophiles of tsunami orphans, India has an effective mechanism to protect its children. "The local authorities along with protective village communities and relatives of the victims, have warded off any child abuse fears. Adoptions will have to wait and the effort is to hand over orphans only to extended families that too after checking their credentials. For now, the orphans are in Government-run childcare centres," points out Brig Khanna.

That the scrutiny is actually thorough comes out of a list prepared by the relief commissioner's office which lists the 10 NGOs and "individuals" interested in adopting children. An example is one D Thangaraj who is under scrutiny for "wanting to adopt a male child of 10 years."

Ruling out any paedophile activity in these areas, sources however admitted that the adoption queue is more for able-bodied orphans who could be used as servants in wealthy households.Indeed, every tragedy carries in its belly a raging pain of corruption and insensitivity. India, like the rest of the world, can only fight to steer clear.

SOURCE : The Pioneer, Sunday,January 09, 2005

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