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The Auroville Tsunami Relief Effort: caring is cleaning, counseling and rebuilding

In Ganagachettikullam, one of the worst affected villages of the Pondichery coast, there was this old lady who had lost her baby and kept crying: “I just took her hand in my own and my body language did all the talking”, says Phoenix, a volunteer from the Auroville Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme.

Auroville, the international township inspired by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, which is situated near Pondichery, was the first to swing into action. On 26th December 2004, barely two hours after the first Tsunami wave struck, a first emergency meeting was called in the house of two Aurovilians, Paul Pinton and Laura and it was immediately decided to set-up a camp for the persons affected by the tidal waves. Three days later, Auroville realized it was time to switch from immediate relief, to a Rehabilitation effort. An office was set-up with computers, phone, faxes and email, the Auroville financial service was put to contribution to channel and account for the contributions which started coming (see box) and two teams were formed to make an assessment of the situation on the ground.

The Auroville rehabilitation story is about caring and it takes three aspects:

Cleaning up and clearing up villages :
“Cleaning-up and clearing affected villages, is much more than what it looks like”, says Alok, one of the coordinators;” we establish a bond with the villagers, we work with them, we show them that we care, rather than come, distribute goods or cash - and then disappear after the photo op”.

Many of the students of the Auroville schools have been engaged in village cleaning, in the worst affected of the coastal fishing communities. At first the villagers watched from a distance with curiosity, sometimes even with a little bit of hostility, but as they saw the enthusiasm of the Auroville children, some of them joined the cleaning effort. One of the classes, of ten year olds, were asked to write about their experience, particularly about their reasons to want to help with the cleaning, their job and their feelings during and after the work. The following is an extract from one of the children's writing, a girl from Holland : “On Thursday, my class and I went to the Beach to help clean up the dirt left by the Tsunami wave. We wanted to help cleaning very much because I felt really sad after seeing people crying near the streets or broken houses, and hearing horrifying stories. I felt something in my chest telling me that I had to do something to help clean up the Tsunami disaster… Sometimes people think of children as people that are irresponsible or that can't do anything by themselves. Usually, I find that frustrating. So, I wanted to show that I care about what is happening and I would put some energy to help out a bit”.

Aware that it is not only material needs which have to be addressed, but also the psychological needs, the Auroville Tamil Women's Group, consisting of both Western and Indian women, visit the affected villages, not with goods, but with open hearts to listen and sympathize. At first they were a bit unsure about how this would be accepted in the villages, perhaps the people would only be asking for money or material things, but it was quite the opposite that happened. “Our van, recalls Bhavana, one of the participants, brought us down the streets of the village – we could see how the houses got smaller as we moved closer to the sea – the richer people had built farther from the shore long ago, and newer poorer houses were of necessity located closer to the water. In one of these streets, with nice houses on either side, a boat was sitting – it had come up with the wave and been left stranded there. The last couple of rows of houses were the ones built just of mud and thatch – and you can't see them any more -- just a pile of thatch and some sign of former walls – all have been washed away. We had coached ourselves that our mission was just to listen, so we asked people how they were, what had happened and heard their stories. There was a young man who had been caught between who to rescue first -- his children or his old father, he'd chosen his children first, but also managed to bring his father to safety. But now they have nothing. This work has only started and is bound to take many more months. Two counseling experts are coming from Bangalore to assist with the counseling process. At the moment there is still a big gap between what is given in the area of counseling and what is really needed. .

Every day, when the Women's Group goes back to Auroville, they all sit in a circle. Women share how the people they meet had been so grateful for the visit. Some people even said how much they appreciated Auroville. “They said that at their temple they always worshiped the sea, recalls Bhavana. It keeps holding up their boats, giving them fish and livelihood, but now it seems to have turned against them – perhaps because they have strayed from caring for others. But actually now it seems to them that people do come and listen to their woes. And thus they turn to Auroville with gratitude”….

Rs 62 lakhs donations have so far been received by the Auroville Rehabilitation Fund , 9 to 10 lakhs are already spent. 21.5 lakhs have been received for the AV-Beach community fund (which have also suffered a lot), 3 lakhs have already been spent. Auroville has a huge know-how in ecological, environment-conscious housing, using natural materials, such as bricks made of compressed red earth available locally. Only 5% cement I used, and these bricks have shown that they are cheap, provide coolness and are waterproof and termite proof. The Auroville architects and town planners are now ready to put their skills at the service of the rehabilitation housings on all the coastal Pondichery villages. In an emergency meeting, it was decided that the plinth of the reconstructed houses would be higher than the normal and have certain innovations to permit a flow through of water in case of flooding such as in the case of Tsunami.

But to accomplish this, Auroville needs the help of the Tamil Nadu Government, as well as the cooperation of the Auroville secretary, Mr Sharma, an IAS retired officer posted by the central Government.

François Gautier in Auroville