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October 2005


Tsunami reflections

- Bhavana

“The local needy people are also waiting to be touched by the spirit of that wave of compassion which flowed in the wake of tsunami.”


Ten boys from tsunami-affected villages were on the van coming back from welding training at Auroville. The Kuilapalayam youth took the occasion of a minor accident to have a scuffle with them. Later, at a meeting the Kuilapalayam youth complained bitterly: “You are paying all the attention to these fishing people, forgetting us. We helped during the tsunami, but what do we get now? We are still unemployed. So much money and things are going to the fishing villages, but what about our village? We also need help to develop.”

When Moris, our coordinator for village relations, reported this at the Auroville Tsunami Relief team meeting we were not surprised – it was obvious that there was an enormous imbalance growing in the area. Following the tsunami there had been a wave of relief activities. They were successful in that none went hungry, there was no one without a temporary house and there was no outbreak of disease. But we saw also an influx of individuals and agencies – some of them with experience in disaster relief but many coming to photograph themselves with banners showing that they were first to help. They brought piles of used clothes that the fishermen didn't want and there was duplication of supply. Many fisher families got over five cooking stoves and the beaches are now so full of boats (over twice the number of boats than before the tsunami), that everyone has become an owner and there's a big difficulty in finding crew. And all this bounty is viewed by the neighbouring coastal villages which, while they may not have been directly affected by the wave (the tsunami caused damage to only those people living nearest to the sea shore or in low-lying areas), are surely affected by seeing all this attention and aid going to a section of the community which is not relatively poor. For fishermen earn well when they fish, and they have an assured source of employment. Everyone knows that Dalits, the handicapped, deserted women and the poor of all the villages are as much in need of aid as the fisher people.

Women sort-out the catch –  fishing has resumed

The obvious focus in the first phase of relief was towards providing material relief to the most affected – “most affected” was the obvious qualification to receive the goodies. Seven months after the disaster, people in the so-called non-affected neighbouring villages, struggling with their every day tsunami of poverty, are left wondering, “Were we lucky or unlucky not to be hit by the wave?” This inequality of distribution is ripe ground for breeding social unrest.

There is now a need to move from focussing on material needs to social requirements, from distribution to development. Large doses of free goods pose a high chance of making people dependent. We need to be alert to the signs of relief-addiction.

It's not only at the local level that this is becoming clear. Recently the Disaster Emergencies Committee (DEC), a UK-based consortium of donor NGOs, wrote in their mission report that NGOs should “immediately widen the definition for the appeal to cover ‘Tsunami-affected districts and people' (rather than just people)”. One of our major funding partners, Concern-India (who are part of DEC), has agreed to include neighbouring inland villages in a project for tsunami rehabilitation, realising that if they were not included the imbalance and resulting social tension could seriously impede the rehabilitation effort. People in the field and donor agencies are more and more realising the need for a comprehensive development action which could include the whole of a coastal district in tsunami rehabilitation. But there are many more that need to be convinced, and we need to get a broad-based consensus between donors, NGOs, the government and the communities themselves for an integrated coastal development plan.

Here in Auroville, where we have been in close contact with the affected villages and the neighbouring villages since the morning the tsunami hit, we are well aware of the growing imbalance as more and more NGOs come to spend their money here. For us it is clear that not just the relief phase, but also the immediate rehabilitation phase (other than housing) is over: it's time to move on to development. This has been affirmed by Concern and also Save the Children who have drawn up projects with us for long-term development in the area of livelihoods, eco-restoration, community development and pre-school centres. As soon as the communities and government are clear on the location we will have support from Concern for rehousing tsunami-affected people in two neighbouring villages as well.
Making keet roofs for temporary shelters
What is clear to us on the Auroville Tsunami Team is that there remain areas which could be well addressed with the remaining money in the Auroville tsunami fund.

The first priority is education. There needs to be a comprehensive plan for the area, identifying and linking up all the available educational opportunities from pre-school to vocational training and higher education, and providing a variety of avenues for children to follow. Without access to education and training, these children will flounder in the backwaters of a more and more complex socio-economic milieu. The educational initiatives of Auroville's Isai Ambalam School and Pitchandikulam's Environmental Education programme, supported by European Union grants, have been recognised and adopted widely in the Tamil Nadu school system, but now we've also started an Educational Loan Fund, lending money to children of poor families whose marks show them deserving of support. Most of the applications are for technical training (plumbing, electrical, motor mechanic, etc.), and there is a great deal of appreciation and gratitude from the villagers for this initiative. Vocational training is also available at a number of Auroville sites, and they are beginning to consolidate.

Equally important is microfinance and enterprise development. There is a growing awareness among the new generation of villagers of possibilities to start small businesses, and in many cases credit is the missing factor. Encouraging groups of people to save together and lend to each other (microfinance) is by now a proven method to fill this gap in the formal economy. A resource centre which would help budding entrepreneurs with designs, organisation and administrative training as well as marketing assistance, would also seed a healthy prosperity in the area. Microfinance can also facilitate individuals improving their housing situation.

Village meeting to discuss eco-restorationEnvironmental restoration is an on-going requirement. As the human population and its material needs increase there is a commensurate increase in the need for eco-restoration, environmental awareness, and protection of water, forest, and wildlife resources. The ground water table, the fertile topsoil, the forest fruits and firewood, the air we breathe are shared by us all, and raising the awareness and motivation to act in our collective best-interest is of prime importance.

Water, sanitation and village infrastructure is another area of concern – as populations increase and crowd together, the need for organised management of solid waste becomes urgent. Toilets in homes, drainage in the streets, garbage collection, provision of safe drinking water and many more communal amenities – the need for these is becoming overwhelming. Auroville has worked consistently in partnership with the local authorities to find and apply new technical solutions such as earth construction, ferro-cement roofing, toilet units, bio-gas fuel production, and renewable energy alternatives. Linking the government programmes with technologies developed by NGOs and Auroville, along with small doses of investment, can be the recipe to fulfil the long-standing needs of the people.
A family in front of their temporary shelter

Partnering with other NGOs and the government is a mechanism which could help us plan better. Already the hub of the NGO Coordination Cell for Villupuram District is in Auroville. Normally governments and NGOs operate in a mode of mutual suspicion. In the case of tsunami, a change is visible to many for now the government and the NGOs are working more closely than anytime in the past. In fact, it seems to be more challenging to forge NGO to NGO partnerships, but we are exploring building consortiums as a way to rise above the ‘bannerism' and work for the people.

The tsunami revealed to the world the strong sense of human bonding and generosity in disaster. As the weeks rolled by, the resiliency of the fisher people as well as the limitations of the communal systems were also demonstrated. Over the months, the attempt to coordinate the activities of different NGOs has made some progress, but the competition between them to spend the money still tends to overrule accepted developmental policy. Now all of us involved in the rehabilitation activities have to display some commonsense. Although the fisherpeople would like to have all the donated money come to them alone, a sense of fairness has to prevail among the providers. The local needy people are also waiting to be touched by the spirit of that wave of compassion which flowed in the wake of tsunami.
For this reason, we who are involved in the Auroville tsunami relief and rehabilitation work are now asking the Auroville International Centres and other donors who collected money for tsunami relief to sanction the use of the funds collected for the benefit and development of all the villages around Auroville, as well as the directly tsunami-affected.

See also: Project Proposal for Ecological Restoration

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