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Auroville Adventure

May 2005

Walking a tightrope

- by Alan

“We’re in uncharted waters,” “It’s a fast-changing situation where we can’t give hard and fast answers” – two observations that sum up the present situation regarding Auroville’s tsunami rehabilitation efforts.

“Decision-making is much more complex now than in the immediate relief phase,” explains Hemant, “because while the effects of what we do now will be long-reaching, there are so many factors beyond Auroville's control.” These include government policy regarding compensation and allocation of land for the affected villagers, and which villages the local Collector will allocate to which NGOs for reconstruction. But from Auro-ville's point of view they also include questions about our ability to work on a scale never attempted before. “I've never experienced a situation where we could grow as big as we want to without having to worry about money,” says Hemant. At the same time, if we raise expectations that we cannot fulfil we could do enormous damage to Auroville's relationship with the villages, local government and those NGOs with which we have begun to successfully work. We're walking a tightrope.” “That's why,” adds Hemant, “we need to take it step-by-step rather than rushing into making big decisions.”

“We can't afford to get it wrong,” underlines Bhavana, “because unlike the other NGOs, we cannot just leave: this is our home. This is why the team is so determined that our response will be needs-driven, that everything will be done in consultation with the people involved.” Primarily, of course, this means the affected villagers, but for Hemant, Lata and Prashant this also involves frequent meetings with government officials and NGOs working in the tsunami-affected areas. “Most of our work at the moment is advocacy,” explains Prashant. “Some of the NGOs made various policy recommendations and now we are trying to convince the Tamil Nadu Government to adopt them. These include asking them to re-evaluate their Technical Committee's recommendations for new construction. In the interests of social and economic sustainability, we are also recommending that new fishing equipment should not be over-supplied in this area.”

Another key aspect of their work is coordinating with other NGOs. Auroville's Regional Resource Centre is intended to do this through providing both a physical location and website where NGOs can exchange information and coordinate action. However, while the Auroville Centre is an invaluable source of technical information, it has been much less successful in coordinating action between the different organizations. The problem is that, while experienced local and international NGOs are very aware of the dangers of throwing money or materials at the victims, many new or newly-flush NGOs are action-oriented and want to see immediate results. Typically, this leads them to distribute cash and materials to the affected community without reference to the real needs or to the long-term consequences. Hemant's prognosis is gloomy. “I was recently told by a member of a long-established NGO that trying to educate these ‘quick-fix' organizations is a losing battle, but we have to keep trying.”

Painting by Cecilia, a student from Transition Primary School on display at an exhibition of tsunami-inspired art by children from Auroville and local fishing villages held at the Aurelec Cafeteria

Livelihood initiatives

Hemant explains that during the next three months the Auroville tsunami team will be prototyping various initiatives in the livelihood sector. “If they work out, we might scale them up and run them for the next two years, with the possibility of longer term development thereafter. In fact, in the long-term we clearly need an integrated development plan for the whole bioregion.” The most obviously successful of the livelihood initiatives so far has been Uma Prajapati's ‘Tsunamika' project, which aims at empowering local women and diversifying work opportunities in the area (see box). Another livelihood project for women is Abha's paper bag workshop, which teaches local women to make and market bags made of old newspapers and magazines (the bags are purchased by Pour Tous and other commercial units in Auroville). Meanwhile the Industrial School at Irumbai is running a 3-month computer course for young men and women from the fishing community, while the boat engine repair workshop – which has now repaired over 100 engines from tsunami-damaged boats and is considering moving on to boat repair – is providing training in mechanics. Welding and carpentry classes are also being offered in another location.

Some projects which, initially, were more relief-based may have a livelihood component in the future. For example, the new ‘Cash for Work' project provides wages for fishing people who do clean-up work. “It's a great story,” enthuses Bhavana. “Fifty people – one from each household – were selected each day to work for four hours in return for a wage. Many of them decided to work for six hours for the same money. Finally, group by group they got their whole village clean, and they really liked it, so they asked us for dustbins. But we could offer more: we contacted an Ashram group that has been running a solid waste separation scheme in Pondicherry and invited them to present its work to the villagers. The villagers were receptive, so now one street in Chinnamudaliarchavady has been selected for a pilot project. If it works, the same possibility will be offered to all the other villages which are cleaning themselves up. Potentially we're talking about 23 villages!”

Similar long-term employment could be offered by the eco-restoration project. Walter is one of the coordinators of this project, which aims to create an ecological barrier near the sea to break the force of tsunamis and cyclones. “So far we have been to six villages to find out what the villagers would like us to plant and where. Understandably, their preference is for a shelter-belt of cash crops: casuarina, coconut and cashew. Casuarina and coconut would probably work, but I'm not sure about the cashew. It would be interesting to try out other species which would do well, like pongamia and badam, but ultimately the choice is theirs. Once we know what they want and where we can plant, we can start nurseries. If we situate these in the villages, it could afford training and a long-term livelihood possibility for those who want to continue with this work.”

While the villagers have shown some interest in these projects, their real need at present is for permanent housing and the replacement or repair of their boats and nets. But do they really want to return to fishing? “In the first two weeks after the tsunami,” explains Village Action coordinator, Moris, “nobody wanted to go back to fishing: everybody was too afraid. Now everyone wants to fish again once the government has agreed adequate compensation. You see, there's a lot of unemployment in the area, and fishing still provides a good income for only a few hours of work a day. The fishermen also value being their own bosses. That's why even those following alternative livelihood courses at present will probably return to fishing when it starts again.”

Helgard Zurmuehl, a visitor to Auroville, sculpted this piece, which she called ‘Fisherman’, three months after the tsunami struck. The severed arms and legs represent the way he has been cut off from his livelihood. “But look at his face,” she says, “There is great determination there, and he is still walking forward. This is my tribute to the fishermen’s indomitable spirit which I admire so much.”

The shelter project

“Auroville has decided not to get involved in replacing boats or fishing equipment,” explains Hemant, “but the Auroville team is looking at the possibility of constructing houses in three local villages. Undoubtedly the shelter project would be both our biggest project and our biggest challenge.” So far, Auroville architects have come up with nine different designs which have been presented, in model form, in a few villages. “The villagers seemed to like them,” says Lata, who is coordinating this project at present. “Some of the feedback was that they did not want community toilets but preferred toilets attached to each house, and they wanted the houses to be expandable on the first floor.” “Unlike other NGOs,” says Prashant, who coordinates the Resource Centre, “we'd like to focus not only on individual houses but also on overall settlement design, incorporating community spaces as well as technologies which have been tried and tested in Auroville, like wastewater recycling and renewable energy. The Collector and other NGOs have acknowledged our expertise in this area.”

“We have not recruited a full team for the shelter project yet,” says Hemant, “because there are still too many unknowns. Firstly, we have to know if we have the resources and capability: this is unclear at present. Then we have to get the green light from the government about where we can build (so far no less than 35 NGOs are competing to build in the 19 affected villages in our area), as well as from the people who will provide the money: this is a 16 crore (US$ 3,636,363) project! Then there has to be clarity regarding the specifications. Recently, for example, the Chief Minister announced that the minimum size per unit is being increased from 25 square metres to 35 square metres and the cost from Rs 50,000 (US$ 1,136) a unit to Rs 150,000 (US$ 3,409) a unit.” “The latter reflects the recommendations of a Technical Committee which, we think, are examples of over-engineering,” says Prashant. “To put it in perspective, they recommend that we should build to even stronger standards than those laid down for post-earthquake construction in Bhuj, Gujarat !”

“Auroville will definitely be involved in some way in providing shelter,” continues Prashant, “but the question remains if we do it on our own, or if we take a supporting role or go into partnership with others.” “The villagers are definitely interested in having Auroville do the construction,” says Bhavana. “In nearby Muda-liarkuppam, the only structures to survive the tsunami were ferro-cement doors made in Auroville, and this really impressed the villagers. They also trust us not to cheat them.”


Expectations of the fishing community

So, what exactly are the villagers' post-tsunami expectations of Auroville? The key people to listen to here are Moris and Anbu. Post-tsunami, Anbu has continued to coordinate work in the villages where Village Action had already been active, while Moris has been focalising the dialogue with the leaders of tsunami-affected settlements through the weekly ‘Paalam' (Tamil for ‘bridge') meetings. “To dialogue with them you have first to understand them,” he says, “and this is a very interesting experience for us because we've never had a full-fledged programme with fishing communities before.” Moris explains that fishing communities differ from other village communities. “The fishing people are very cohesive, they stick together, and the structure of these societies is patriarchal and hierarchical: the leaders' word is law. In one sense this makes working with them easier than working with other villages, because if you can convince the leaders of a course of action, everybody else will follow. However, because these are communities run by men, they do not welcome the empowerment of women or youth. If they allow Women's Groups to form at all it is only because it gives access to certain government schemes.

“The other complication, from a relief and compensation point of view, is that they share everything. So all the compensation money paid to individuals is immediately handed over to the leaders, who then share it out equally among the whole community, even if some families have suffered more than others. The desire that everybody should get the maximum benefit has led them to inflate the losses of boats and houses which, in turn, may delay government compensation. We managed to get them to understand that Auroville would not replace fishing equipment. However, there is an expectation that Auroville will provide housing. This is because an Aurovilian announced in an NGO meeting attended by the Collector that Auroville is planning to build houses in the three closest villages. So the other NGOs backed off, informing these villagers that their villages have been ‘adopted' by Auroville and they were going to receive a lot of help from us. The villagers' big worry now is that if Auroville doesn't follow through with construction, they will lose out because the other NGOs will have gone elsewhere.” Moris believes Auroville should deliver on the housing “because it's a great opportunity to prove our efficiency and capacity in the nearby villages, where it will be greatly appreciated.”

The weekly Paalam meetings, involving representatives from 23 fishing villages, are, in many ways, the key to the success or failure of the entire Auroville tsunami rehabilitation project. “They are beginning to trust us,” says Moris. “For example, when there was another tsunami scare recently, they immediately contacted me for information. Also, when another NGO was offering a generous ‘Food for Work' package in a village where we were already involved, they sent the NGO away, saying ‘We want to work only with Auroville because they have been helping us from the beginning'.”


Friction with other communities

Actually, there are problems now with some of the non-fishing communities. In most of the seaside villages in this area, the tsunami struck the fishing community living on the beach but left untouched people living on the other side of the road. “There has always been tension between the fishing people and the other villagers,” says Moris, “because the fishing people are very emotional – often they act without thinking – and their approach is rough and ready.” The sight of NGOs queuing up to distribute ‘free goodies' to the fishing communities has increased resentment. “Each of the affected fishing communities in this area has been visited by at least fifty NGOs,” says Anbu. “Some households have already received as many as nine cooking stoves. Organizations have distributed things like blenders and suitcases, and now one of them wants to give a mobile phone to every fishing family. Meanwhile the poor and infirm Dalits or Vanniyars who live a few metres across the road receive nothing because they belong to a different community and the wave didn't reach them.”

“The Vanniyar community in some villages is now saying that Auroville is interested in helping only the fishing families, that when there are problems in the Vanniyar community we never help them,” says Moris. “This is not so; the reason that we concentrate on the fishing communities now is because they have suffered a real disaster.” “However,” adds Anbu, “it is important that Auroville is not seen to favour one community over another, so now we are trying to right the balance by distributing food and clothes to the Vanniyar community. Abha also agreed to begin her paper-bag workshop with Vanniyar women and Uma will include some members of this community in her Tsunamika project.”

“The real need here is to improve relations between the fishing and non-fishing communities,” says Moris. “We are already planning summer camps, school-trips and sports events which would bring together children from both communities. Of course, if there is a conflict on the cricket pitch it will become a big issue and Auroville will get blamed!”

“There is never a situation in which you can do only good,” concludes Hemant, “it's always mixed.” “At the same time we shoul not underestimate ourselves,” says Auralee, who helps coordinate the tsunami office. “This is the first time I've seen in action what Auroville can achieve when it puts its energies together. You feel, wow, we could do anything if we really put our hearts and minds behind it




Tsunamika is a tiny doll made of waste cloth, but she has become a symbol of how regeneration and hope can grow out of disaster. Auroville fashion-designer Uma Prajapati, who runs Upasana Studio, wanted to do something for the women of tsunami-affected villages and started training them to make small dolls from leftover cloth. Workshops were held in a number of villages – eventually over 1,000 women will be trained in seven villages – and the dolls turned out so nicely that Upasana began using them as a complementary item attached to their products. Word spread, and soon students from the National Institute for Fashion Design in Chennai came to Auroville and used their creativity to come up with new product ideas and prototypes: these include CD covers, decorative pins, brooches and bracelets.

The larger purpose of the Tsunamika project is to empower disadvantaged women by giving them the confidence to create and market their own products and train others. Uma hopes that, with sufficient support, self-sustaining women's cooperatives will be established, providing a chance for motivated women to earn a living. Now she aims to create a comprehensively documented model based on the Tsunamika experience that could be easily replicated all over India .


see also: Tsunami Projects

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