Thursday, December 30, 2004

disaster recovery in chennai

Here are some out takes from my reporting in Chennai after the tidal wave. It wasn't THE place to be for reporting on the tsunami by any means, as the city was spared the huge levels of damage seen elsewhere. But it was frightening enough. NOTE: The figures mentioned below have long since been revised as better information has been collected.

Like every disaster, the tsunami hit India not with cruel indifference, but with perverse cruelty, striking hardest those least prepared to deal with tragedy—poor people with no money in the bank to fall back on. Most of the dead are poor fisherfolk who live in villages dotted along the coast of Tamil Nadu (not including the 3000-5000 odd dead on the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which are closer to Indonesia than India). One village, called Nagapattinam, was practically wiped off the map and erased from memory, with some 2500 dead The site of the famous Velankanni church—a popular pilgrimage site for Christians in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa—was especially hard hit, as worshippers gathered Sunday morning for a special Boxing Day service that let out just as the first giant wave hit—one estimate pegged the dead pilgirms at around 500. In Nagapattinam, some 500 bodies were extricated in the past 24 hours and mass burials have been going on for the three days since the wave hit, mostly accomplished with hard labor in the absence of many tractors and bulldozers. Julian Teelar, a relief worker affiliated with the South Indian Federation of Fisherman Societies, told me, “There is no one here that has not lost a relative. People have lost their voices from screaming and crying. We know of one family that lost nine members. Today a fisherman pointed out the spot to me where his two children are buried underneath the rubble and we haven’t yet been able to get them out. He knows they are there, but we haven’t got them out.” In this area, there is a strong risk of an epidemic, as officials race to identify the dead and bury them in mass graves, and already families are reporting that their children are suffering from fever and diarrhea due to the unclean conditions in the relief camps.

The state estimates nearly 4000 dead--188 in Chennai, 486 in Cuddalore, 665 in Kanyakumari and 2414 in Nagapattinam. Some 40% of those killed were children. These estimates, like all of them, are probably fairly loose and will keep changing as time goes on. But there’s little chance that they will go down.

In India, however, the focus on the deaths has hidden what may turn out to be a more longlasting and intractable problem: the loss of housing and livelihoods.

G. Anton Gomez - president National Union of Fishermen -- Told me that the organization estimates that some 70-80 percent of all fishermen in Tamil Nadu (perhaps a million fishermen) lost all their boats and equipment, along with their homes. That means they not only have no place to live, but they have no way of earning money to support themselves or their families. This is going to be a huge headache for the govt also because these are people who live their lives almost entirely “off the books” with only a government ration card for identification, and many lost their ration cards along with all their other stuff. Some of my characters emphasize that point – not least because they’re thinking about what they’ll have to do to keep living more than about the people who are beyond help. I’m going to file an addendum on the relief effort and its likely challenges later tonight or tomorrow morning, with any luck.

In Chennai, where I did my reporting, the people who were affected almost all lived in illegal squatter colonies on the beach. In 1991, the government passed a law called the coastal regulation zone notification which mandated that nobody should build anything permanent within 500 meters of the highest high tide line. But because none of the poor can afford to rent apartments or buy land away from the coast, slums made of thatch huts mushroomed on the beaches anyway. In part this is because the fishermen like it that way: they want to be near their boats and they sell their catch on the beach itself. But it’s also because the government has failed to solve the problem of the shortage of affordable housing (and to enforce its zoning laws).

Says T. Mohan, an environmental activist for Coastal Action Network who works with fishing communities:

“Subsistence fishing communities live on the coast. They're used to taking

that risk [of natural disaster]. But we're pushing them closer and closer to the coast because of

urbanization and the rising cost of land. There are also large numbers of

slums that have grown up along the coast because of administrative failure

to build safe & affordable housing for people [other than fishermen] who

don't need to live near the coast. They ought not to have been there." That might be true, but as the characters below illustrate, they plan to go right back to the sites of their destroyed huts.

Below find some local color from Chennai, with a few perspective “characters” for the reconstruct.

55-year-old Walli was sitting in front of her hut in the seaside colony of Orur Kuppam, a cluster of some 500 huts made from coconut thatch, built illegally on public beachfront land in the South Indian city of Chennai, when the tsunami hit. There was no warning. The great wave made no noise. It simply arose, a giant wall of water in the distance, and, traveling at some 500 mph, hit the beach seconds later. A frail woman, prematurely aged from a lifetime of hard work, Walli wasn’t able to run fast enough to escape with the others, and the wave caught her and dragged her into the sea. Tumbling in the boiling foam, she was too stunned to think what was happening as salt water forced its way into her nose and mouth. Then, as abruptly as it had taken her, and with the same relentless force, another wave swept the old woman back up the beach. As the wave drew back, threatening to sweep her out to sea again, it smashed one of the thatched roofs down on her, bashing her shins, but pinning her to the sand and, as it turned out, saving her life. The wave receded, and some of her neighbors ran to her and dragged her to safety.

As she tells her story, it is clear that the amazement has not left her, even as she and the other residents of Orur Kuppam—all of whom lost their homes and all their possessions—struggle to prove to government and private relief workers what they lost and earn compensation. And like the others here, she knows that as soon as she can, she will be back in another hut a scant hundred feet from the water. “We have nothing but the sea,” she says. “All we know is fishing. And we cannot afford to pay rent on what we earn. By god’s grace I was saved because a hut fell on me.”

On Sunday Dec. 26, Marimuthu—a former fisherman who works as a night watchman in the Chennai neighborhood of Besant Nagar—finished work at 6 in the morning and walked back to the strip of beach where he once lived with his wife Sangita and his three children. Known as Orur Kuppam, Marimuthu’s neighborhood was a close huddle of some 500 huts made from coconut thatch, some with brick and mortar foundations, built illegally by squatters on public beachfront land. Since he had taken a vow to make a religious pilgrimage to Sabari Malai in Kerala in January, Marimuthu was abstaining from alcohol, meat and sex for the 41 days leading up to the journey, bathing and praying every morning. So on the day of the tsunami, he went to the temple on the inland side of the slum cluster to pray, along with others who’d taken the same vow. Because his wife, a housemaid, goes to work at 6:30, his children were awake when he finished his prayers and returend home around 8. His eldest child was playing near the house with one of his nephews, and his second daughter was playing with a friend some way away. Exhausted from stayng up all night, Marimuthu fell asleep with his nine-month old baby in his arms.

Suddenly, shouts woke him up and he came rushing out of the hut with his baby in his arms. A huge wave, perhaps 20 feet high, was rushing toward the shore. “The only thought in my mind at that time

was that I should somehow save my own two children and the other two

children, who had been entrusted to me for minding. I dont know how I did

it- but I was carrying the nine-month-old and the three year-old and

dragging the other two along with me and running away from the coast towards

the road, the wave literally chasing me for some distance, till it hit the

huts. Several huts caved in due the impact of the wave , and a lot of

domestic items from several houses which were lying on the floor were

carried away to the sea by the receding wave. I along with several others

who also ran away to safety like me were watching helplessly, when their

precious little belongings were being swallowed by the hungry sea. After

this wave, though the sea appeared calm for some time, nobody dared to go

near their hut. All of us were watching the sea , not knowing what to do


Then , in another 20/30 minutes, it happened again. This time the

wave was much bigger and higher, may be 20 feet and when it hit the cluster

of the tenements, the devastation was complete. On the return the wave dragged along with it all that was remaining of these tenements. Once it receded , the whole place where almost 350 families lived was a flat of sand , strewn with lot of flotsam and jetsam. Marimuthu handed over his sister’s children to his brother-in-law and took his eldest daughter and baby son to a nearby school where people had taken shelter. But there was no sign of his second daughter. Fearing the worst, he asked an acquaintance to look after his kids and, not knowing where to look for his missing daughter, went straight to the house where his wife Sangita was working.

The family searched frantically for most of the day, tramping up and down the streets of the neighborhood, begging the police and neighbors for help until finally, in the afternoon, someone came and told them that she was with a neighbor in another relief camp.

Since then, Marimuthu and his family have spent the past three days in relief camps, though he still manages to perform his duties as night watchman. In Chennai, the relief effort is organized, and everyone is getting food, even though victims allege that some people who weren’t affected by the wave are taking away the food and clothing meant for them. And in any case, no relief package will be enough. “The government has taken the names of the people who have lost their homes and promised some compensation, but we all know that it will be nothing compared with everything we have lost.”

“The big question we must face now is how to rebuild our lives. We have nothing

left with but the clothes we are wearing. We know that no miracle is going to happen. The first thing is to have a roof on top of our heads. Then only we can think of anything else, including the childrens school books and dresses. Now I am praying more earnestly."

His children wake up screaming “The wave is coming” in the night, and will not go near the water. But Marimuthu knows that the family will eventually have to move back to the shoreline slum. “This time I will try to build a house with a brick foundation,” he says grimly, though he must be aware that bricks and mortar didn’t save his neighbors.

In another Chennai slum, on the seaward side of a neighborhood called Srinivaspuram, the fisherfolk were not so lucky. Already, some 80 bodies have been recovered here, and the waves uncover new corpses every day. Along the beach, the only sign that there was once a community of huts here are the wooden poles the former residents have stuck in the sand again to mark out their plots—these people, too, are coming back. The forest of twisted branches stretches as far as you can see down the beach, and if you walk through it, you come upon people squatting on the site of their one-time homes with dazed looks on their faces. Here and there is the remains of someone’s hard-earned concrete floor, broken into slabs of rubble, or a child’s mangled bicycle. Some 2000 homes were destroyed here, displacing as many as 10,000 people. (This is among 75000 homes estimated destroyed in greater Chennai, which means some 300,000 people homeless and in relief camps)

Vasturi, a fifty year old grandmother, saw her daughter and two grandchildren washed away. Perversely, the wave swept her daughter, Saraswati, back to shore alive and unhurt, only to cast the bodies of her three year old daughter Durga Devi and one year old son Vignesh onto the sand a mile away. As I spoke with Vasturi, the bereaved mother Saraswati came to me in a frenzy of grief—like many on the scene—still weeping and tearing her hair three days after the fact. Her thin face was marked with deep, angry scratches that could only have been self inflicted.

Another grandmother, Rani, was the last to see her grandson Jyoti Vishul alive, when the fourth-grader came to her on a break from a sandy soccer game to get a rupee coin to buy a piece of candy. He and the rest of the soccer players were swept away. Some of the others escaped, but Jyoti was drowned. “The fourth grade!” his grandmother says in disbelief. “And he was the tops in his class!” She is pleading with me, like I’m somehow able to judge whether this was fair and can do something about it. Jyoti’s not the only one: at Marina Beach, a wide, flat beach popular with tourists and morning walkers, 20-odd boys engaging in a game of cricket—India’s abiding passion—were all swept away by the first, unexpected wave.

Others will ask me for money. Still others will curse me, some memorably. “You are here to write about our misery,” a woman says with a bitter smile. She has seen this slum colony burn to the ground twice, and seen reporters, too. “Nothing ever changes,” she says. Most, though, beg me to write down the names of the children—especially the children—that they have lost.

Some of these plots are no more than 100 feet from the water’s edge. At a handful, there are signs the former residents were able to save more than the clothes on their backs, and are now drying laundry. Near one, a group of men are neck deep in a hole in the sand, digging. But it is not another body. They are struggling to unearth a fishing net. A few paces on, a child has built a sand castle. Life goes on.



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