“The Tsunami that struck the Tamil Nadu coast on December 26, 2004 was unprecedented in its suddenness and ferocity. The calamity has caused unprecedented devastation in the coastal districts. The destruction was severe. Huts and pucca houses have been flattened, fishing boats have been smashed, buses and big tankers have been strewn around. Infrastructure facilities have also suffered extensive damage. The families living along the coastline have lost all their possessions. About 100,000 families have become homeless.”
(from a Tamil Nadu Government order)
Tremendous goodwill has poured out to alleviate the suffering. Apart from the Tamil Nadu government, many non-governmental organizations, voluntary agencies, corporate houses, charities, public and private sector enterprises and groups of individuals have come forward to participate in the various phases of the relief work. Phase I, dealing with the immediate needs of emergency shelter, clothing and food, is now over. Phase II, dealing with the construction of interim shelters for the affected people for periods between 6-10 months is still going on. Phase III, dealing with the permanent relocation and rehabilitation of affected people, has just started. In all three phases, Auroville has been very active.
Though the situation in the Viluppuram district where Auroville is located is not as bad as in Cuddalore or Nagappattinam, as there have been fewer casualties, in terms of material loss the damage is quite extensive. In the Viluppuram district alone, close to 9,800 houses have been damaged, rendering 50,000 people homeless.
Within hours of the disaster striking, Auroville was setting-up a tent camp on a field near one of the Auroville communities. A field kitchen was installed and food, clothing and blankets were distributed to approximately 2,000 people. On the second day, everybody was moved to the Kuilapalayam Trust School , as rain was threatening. There, the refugees were spread out in eight buildings and two tents and food was prepared, this time for 1400 people, along with another 500 food packets for distribution. By the fourth day, an Auroville Tsunami Relief Team was effective.
An office was opened equipped with computers, telephones and internet as well as ample storage space for goods for the next phase of the relief work. In the weeks that followed people from the villages, Aurovilians and guests went by buses to affected villages to remove debris and help with clean-up work. The Tamil Nadu government provided first basic relief: rice, clothing and Rs 2,000 cash per family. Auroville, meanwhile, had begun an international fund raising campaign and money started to flow in.
Phase two of the relief work concentrated on finding appropriate interim shelters. As many organisations had come forward to help, coordination became essential. With the help of a few experts from Kutch, the district in the Indian state of Gujarat that was hit in January 2001 by a massive earthquake leaving 500,000 people homeless, an NGO Coordination Group was set up. Though not strictly being an NGO, Auroville became part of the Coordination Group which assisted the Tamil Nadu Government in defining guidelines for interim shelters. The approved requirements were that the shelters take into account the climatic conditions, because the people will have to live in them through the summer; that the shelters would allow the people to function in their traditional ways, which meant one family per shelter with their own cooking and sleeping space, a place to store their nets and a place do the normal jobs to continue with their livelihoods; and that a minimum of communal infrastructure should be constructed, such as temporary schools for the children.
The Government Order of January 6th followed these recommendations. It not only instructed the Collectors of the affected districts to build 50,000 shelters at a unit cost of Rs 8,000, but also allowed NGOs to put up 50,000 shelters. The order prescribed that the design of the temporary structures and the location should be acceptable to the fishermen in each habitation and should not be seen as a Government plan to forcibly relocate them. But the order also stated that efforts should be made to move most of the people from the relief camps into the interim structures before Pongal 2005. This date (January 14) was too close to the date of the order. “That actually dashed our hopes,” says Suhasini, one of Auroville's relief coordinators. “The early date motivated government agencies to speedily put up barracks, using asphalt, galvanised iron sheets and even asbestos as roof cover.
The barracks are on average 40 metres long and 4 metres wide and have a common kitchen. So the recommendations were not adhered to. There is no private space and no possibility to do one's own cooking – though ironically each affected family received a kerosene stove from the Tamil Nadu government on Pongal as part of an interim shelter relief package. But the main problem is that these shelters are not habitable. The people go there during the night but move out during the day. Already in January it is too hot inside.”
Some NGOs, however, did manage to put up some shelters that were in accordance with the recommendations, some of them very nice ones. But then something went wrong. A rumour started that if you lived in a shelter provided by an NGO, you might not be eligible for a permanent shelter when the government would make the final allocation. As a result, many shelters built by NGOs are lying empty. The rumours have been officially refuted, but there is a fear psychosis and the people do not easily believe it.
The time pressure prevented Auroville getting involved in building temporary shelters. “At the time we did not have sufficient human and financial resources to work on the scale the government wanted,” says Hemant, the main coordinator of the tsunami village relief work. “They asked that NGOs construct 50% of the shelters required, and in our district this meant 4,900 structures. Meanwhile other NGOs have come forward to do this. Auroville might still be involved in filling some of the gaps, in coordination with the Collector.”
Where to relocate the people?
Phase three has now started. One of the first questions is where to relocate the affected families. The government has the power to forcefully acquire private lands or to allocate government or temple lands for this purpose. But a reallocation has to take the lie of the land into account. The tsunami has hit Tamil Nadu from its most southern point, Kanniyakumari, to Chennai but its effects were vastly dissimilar. In areas where mangrove forests were in place, such as in Point Calimere or Pichchavaram, the coast was hardly affected. Also high-lying areas, such as the city of Pondicherry or the Repos beach community of Auroville, hardly suffered any damage. But the low-lying areas were hard hit. Between Pondicherry and Cuddalore the tsunami came 1.5 kilometres inland. The city of Nagappattinam , situated on the delta of the Cauvery river, was devastated. The government will need to identify high areas for a permanent relocation. To do this, Auroville has offered the help of its GIS (Geographic Information Systems) team. [see AVToday #191, December 2004] “In a meeting of the NGO coordination group of January 16th we showed the government and other NGOs the elevation of the coastal areas,” said Prashant. “We simulated on the computer what happens if a 3-metres high wave hits the coast, and what if that wave is ten metres high. The GIS team can not only identify the high-lying lands, but also the drainage channels and the aquifer recharge areas, so that the reallocation can happen at the correct sites. The Collector can then choose an appropriate location, taking into account that the site is in proximity to the place where the people earn their livelihood. For example, you can't move fishermen miles inland.”
“Our demonstration also showed that it does not make sense to make a uniform coastal regulation that within say 300 metres from the high tide line no buildings can be constructed,” says Prashant. “In some areas, 100 metres from the high tide line would be sufficient as the beach lands are high-lying; in other areas, you would have to prescribe a distance of 1.5 kilometres from the coast!” For cities that border the sea such a regulation cannot be enforced. Pondicherry has meanwhile asked for 80 crores financial assistance from the Central Government. This money would be used for the construction of a sea wall along the coast in both Pondicherry state and Karaikal. This request is based on the fact that the existing protective wall had saved areas in Pondicherry town.
Many non-governmental organizations and other institutions are ready to build permanent structures, and the Tamil Nadu government has meanwhile approved these NGOs participating in building new settlements. Organizations that wish to undertake one or more specific projects like construction of schools, child welfare centres or hospitals, can be permitted to do so subject to a minimum total investment of Rs. 50 lakhs. They can also participate in building entire habitations. They may select a particular village with the plan for providing permanent housing, livelihood rehabilitation, community infrastructure such as roads, water supply, schools, health facilities, noon meal centre etc., with the proviso that it should accommodate at least 50 families. A proposal has first to be approved by the Collector of the district; after his approval the proposal will be given to the concerned village Panchayat for its acceptance. These type of proposals require a minimum investment of Rs 75 lakhs (for 50 families), with a cost per unit of Rs 50,000.
“While the government order has been welcomed, the top-down approach it embodies has prompted us to propose a few modifications,” says Hemant. “There is a risk that the villages will be overwhelmed by the ideas of one big donor. The experience in Kutch has demonstrated that only the habitations that have been built in partnership with the people have been a success. If donors follow their own ideas, it usually creates a disaster. In Kutch , for example, there are still eleven big colonies that are uninhabited as they are inappropriate to the climate and the livelihood of the people. Another problem would occur when different donors wish to rehabilitate the same village. The best solution would be if there would be a facilitating agency that would develop a coordinating plan where big donors and small donors can plug in, rather than stepping on each other's toes. Auroville has offered to the Tamil Nadu Government that it can fulfil this role. But our approach would be different from what has been laid down in the government order. We would work from bottom-up.” Hemant explains that this approach implies building bridges, called palams in Tamil. “The village, through its existing leadership, would appoint a few people to be part of a village rehabilitation committee together with people from Auroville. This committee would first do a need-assessment study. After this is done, we'll go into the planning, and then into the implementation. This scientific approach has been tested in disaster stricken areas all over the world and it has proven to work. Instead a village being sponsored by an NGO or a corporate house, the village would choose the organisation they want to link to. So we create palams: between Auroville and the village, between Auroville, the village and the NGOs and with the government.” The idea, it appears, has been well-received by the government. Says Hemant, “It is a new idea for many people but the government has shown an amazing openness and has accepted that the latest government order is not the last. It is an evolving process.” Adds Suhasini: “It will also help the Collector. The evaluation of all the rehabilitation projects is an arduous job. The Collector has to ensure that there will be no inequity between the units built by the various donors. For example, if one donor has 80 crores to spend and another donor only 50 crores, how do you prevent one village becoming ‘super-rich' compared to another that was built by the donor with lesser means? For you can't permit social inequity. That would only bring problems in the long run.” She makes a passing reference to the problems encountered during the first phase of the relief work: “People hit by the tsunami benefited, while their neighbours, whose houses were not hit, received nothing. There was a case where help was given to fishermen. Behind their destroyed houses were the huts of the dalits, the caste-less, which were not affected. The fishermen received the benefits. But they were already in a higher income group than the dalits. Also some NGOs decided to cut the normal benefits they used to give to the dalits and give them instead to the fishermen. It created a row, and only after the intervention of the Collector was order restored.”
Auroville's knowledge centre
Rehabilitation has two components. One is actually doing things in the field; the other is sharing knowledge of what can and needs to be done. “We are strong in the second part, and we intend to create a knowledge centre in Auroville where all organisations can obtain the help they require,” says Hemant. “Our collective knowledge, be it in the field of sanitation, waste water and solid waste management, renewable energies, water supply, health care, education, housing, infrastructure, planning, environment, or community infrastructure, can be made accessible to those who need it. If funds allow we might even be able to offer advice free of cost.”
“We have also created a design cell which will provide settlement designs based on environmentally sound principles,” adds Suhasini. “The design cell will propose five climatically and environmentally sustainable designs – e.g. no thatch as it is a fire trap and no tiles as the area might be hit by a cyclone – within the general approved budget of Rs 50,000 per unit. It will also provide information on building materials and technology. The design cell will be open to any organisation that wants to consult it. The 3-D computer models of these five unit designs can be emailed to interested parties, and we will soon erect one model of each design somewhere in Auroville so that people can see and experience what we propose.” The design cell has received an overwhelming response from Auroville's young architects who have been working round the clock to come up with appropriate designs.
Lastly, Auroville offered to assist in the environmental regeneration of the affected coastal areas. This would involve consultancy on proper ways of reforesting the affected lands and other coastal areas, identifying suitable indigenous species for dry areas and reintroducing mangrove forests along the coast where rivers meet the sea. Necessarily, involvement in this area would extend to watershed management so that the water that runs down from higher areas is collected and recharged into the groundwater.
Regeneration of the coast also extends to studying how the sandbars that were in place along the coast and have been washed away, can form again. “There was a sandbar separating the Adyar river in Chennai from the sea,” says Prashant. “That sandbar disappeared in the tsunami and now more water from the river flows into the sea. At high tide, more sea water will flow in and may cause salt water intrusion into the ground water. This will alter the ecology of that portion of the river. The water supplies of the districts in Chennai along the river are already being affected. South of Pondicherry runs the Gingee river. That area is ecologically very sensitive. It needs to be regenerated to prevent flooding in future. And these are just a few of the problems.”
The Auroville village
When this issue went to press, the Auroville relief effort had received more than 1.5 crores as support for village work. “In our district and that of neighbouring Pondicherry about 20 villages and hamlets have been affected,” says Hemant. “We need to have a very clear needs-assessment study that will include the environmental regeneration. Then we will see what the villages want and which village is most open to receive us. Certain villages are more open than others. Out of the 20 we will probably identify 4, and start working there. Afterwards others may follow. Our idea is to start with a village of approximately 200 to 250 houses. In this model village we would work in direct partnership with the population. We plan to offer them the model designs, and allow each family to modify the design in accordance with its needs. Small contractors supervised by experienced Auroville contractors would build the units. In the end, all the houses might look different, but it would be a typical village.” As Auroville's 1.5 crores won't be sufficient, plans are afoot to do this in partnership with another NGO.”
Meanwhile the Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation Team is assessing the Auroville capability and capacity. “Once we have the capacity, we can define the strategy of distribution. We would like to create an assembly line: making the essential building products here in Auroville, so that Auroville becomes a source of building products.” And Hemant adds: “Money doesn't seem to be the problem now. The problem is the implementation and the monitoring. It's going to be difficult.” Asked if the team is exhausted, he smiles: “I believe you can say that we all are fatigued. But we are energised by the work