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The tsunami relief effort

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

NAGAPATTINAM, JAN. 4. A question many of us ask is: Does India need outside help in a disaster? Technically I would say no. We have the expertise, certainly. And with television bringing each devastating tragedy into the average living room, responses have been immediate and generous. What is missing is a rapid response system to cope with disaster.

Writing from Nagapattinam, it is heartening to see that people who have been in the Gujarat earthquake and the 1977 Andhra Pradesh cyclone have rushed here to help plan and coordinate the relief effort. There are efficient smart young people in the epicentre of government in the Nagapattinam Collectorate who are working closely to liaise rather than compete with the NGOs.

Two major local NGOs, SIFFs (South Indian Federation of Fishermen's Societies) and SNEH, are among the main players in the Collectorate NGO Coordination Committee. The meeting held was practical and to the point and aimed at avoiding unnecessary duplication of work.

The message to the public

The message to the public is loud and clear. DO NOT rush in and dump clothes, food, medicines. The urge to hand donations directly to the victims is strong. But the end result is that of fools rushing in. The roads in the district are lined with piles of clothes dumped like garbage along the wayside. Additionally, this leads to problems within villages because a few goons corner everything and the weakest, most needy people get nothing. Volunteers found piles of medicines outside some villages. This was dangerous because children could swallow toxic substances, and it is a sinful waste of precious resources.

UNICEF representative Amudha was shouting herself hoarse for volunteers to clean the camps and villages. Hundreds came, but they all ran away when told that the job was to clear garbage and piles of excrement which could lead to an outbreak of disease. This is not a job for the fainthearted but it is the most urgent one.

The urgent need

Fishing villages usually use the sea for their early morning trips. But everyone is still traumatised to return to the waters and there are no toilets in place. Hundreds of groups want to "adopt" villages, but they want to do so after it is cleaned up and handed to them on a platter. Can motivated volunteers contact the Coordination committee or Amudha and Arunarathna of UNICEF?

Waste management

Equally urgent is the need for solid waste management. Tonnes of garbage have been generated. Plastic waste — cups, plates, water packets — is lying around. Burying plastic is NOT a solution though apparently this is what volunteers are doing. The Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad had brilliant waste disposal systems. Can something similar be put into operation here to stop the plastic and garbage pollution?

A sensible family package has been formulated and thousands despatched by Geetha Raju's Bhumika Trust, a Chennai group. Geetha helped tremendously in the Gujarat quake and riots. The pack consists of uncooked food, dal, rice, salt, sambar powder, tamarind, masalas, sugar, tea, 2 cooking pots and ladles, plates, cups, a kerosene stove, mats and sheets. Cooked food is NOT needed.

Guidelines

Certain guidelines are being drawn up for the crucial rehabilitation process, based on the experience of Gujarat and Orissa. The first objective is to get temporary housing up in a few weeks so that the people can move out of the schools, colleges and kalyana mantapams where they are now sheltering. When thinking of long term housing it is essential to use locally available material that are suitable for the climate and culture.

Instead of rushing private contractors in, local people should be involved. Getting people to build their own houses has a two-fold purpose. It provides the people with an income, it gets them involved and interested in the design and construction of their houses and this participatory approach gets them out of the depression and lethargy that follows trauma.

Disaster tourism

Vivek Harinarain pointed out that there is a new holiday package. Disaster tourism. But apart from those who come to stand and stare, there are the flocks of vultures who descend to cream off profits wherever possible. The biggest bait is housing.

Sushma Iyengar who is helping the effort pointed out that the lessons learnt in Gujarat were that peoples' participation paid off. Where the government paid money directly to local people, houses came up faster and more efficiently.

Counselling

Another need is counselling for traumatised victims. In Orissa and Gujarat, NIMHANs and other qualified psychiatrists trained barefoot counsellors, ordinary village people to do this.

It takes patience, gentleness, compassion and the ability to listen with love and understanding.

Indian expertise CAN take care of the problem easily.

The question is: will our wealthy, our corporates and our millionaires rise to the occasion?

Babu Matthew, Director ActionAid, had an anguished plea: "The dignity of the fisherpeople has been wounded by the insensitivity of donors who have thrown aid at them in an appallingly crude manner. We need to distribute relief in a manner which restores their dignity and work to rebuild their shattered lives."

The cooperative effort shows promise. For the sake of these traumatised people, may the fruit exceed the promise of the effort.

(The writer is a social activist.)

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