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Tsunami: The Challenge of Relief to Development

Article for Human Ecology Journal

When, on a calm sunny Sunday on the 26 th December the wall of water rolled in on the coastal villages near Auroville, smashing houses, drowning children, and chasing hordes of people up to the plateau for refuge – the fleeing people met an immediate and hearty welcome from Aurovilians, who pulled out the tents used for summer camp, set up a tent city refuge, sent out busses to gather the people, and had a lunch prepared by 2.30. Later, teams of Aurovilians went out to visit the villages, record the damages, and assess how to help. The Auroville Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation Team took shape, including Hemant Lamba, who had recently won the prestigious Ashden Award for Renewable Energy, the executives of the large incense and perfume factory Maroma, the former head of the Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research, a new Aurovilian with 15 years experience in organising relief operations, architects willing to design new housing, communications experts who networked with the other NGOs up and down the Tamil Nadu coast, and GIS experts who researched and mapped the wave's incursion. There were many others who volunteered to help in collection, sorting and distributing needed supplies, cleaning up the villages, logistics and administration. The Village Action Group, Auroville's village development unit, was able to offer to this work its existing contacts in the coastal villages and its skills in relating to the village people, as well as its legal framework.

Charity, service and development
Very interesting was the real-life demonstration of what had been previously a dogma. Village Action teaches its entire staff to distinguish between charity, service and development. Charity is the right response in an emergency, they are told, but will create dependency if taken on as a long-term policy. Service is proper for governments and religious organisation who want to provide a needed facility: school, orphanage, etc. But Auroville and most NGOs are committed to a development approach, in which the people are involved in determining and implementing their own projects to improve their villages. This method means that people take responsibility for the change, empowering themselves rather than being passive recipients, and will maintain it afterwards. This is human ecology at the grassroots – an integrated approach which appreciates not only the material indicators of progress, but the consciousness factors.

The tsunami gave us all a chance to experience the poles. In the immediate response, we found that our Relief Expert trying hard to drive the experienced development workers to act faster – to set aside habits of caution and delay, and to rush to get the needed goods to the people regardless of their “involvement”. And the Development Team resisting with the argument that we will have to live with these people afterwards, we will not be leaving for the next disaster somewhere else, we need to establish a relationship of mutual respect. It was a creative tension which resulted in an excellent middle way – the Team rushed to get exact information on the specific needs of families, while the plethora of other agencies who had come to the rescue took care of the distribution of food, clothes, medical attention, and then our Team came in with carefully itemised needs such as school books for children selected according to the class in school of each child, particular neede but overlooked household items like buckets, trunks, brooms, oil, soap, etc., along with good quality rice and dal. Busload of volunteers went to help clean up the debris. Engines which had been spoiled by the wave were repaired. Students wanting technical education got scholarships to attend the Auroville vocational training institutes. Women were trained to hold a needle and stitch little dolls – opening up new horizons of empowerment for themselves, and sending out the “Tsunamika” doll to tell the story all over the world.


Information Era: the benefits of Networking
Then our networking experts started feeding in lessons learned by NGOs who'd experienced the Gujerat earthquakes. The primary learning from Gujerat is that the involvement of the people in rebuilding their lives is essential – Kutch is now dotted with architect or government conceived rehousing settlements which are empty -- no one has been willing to move into them. So, our architects, who'd been busily coming up with 9 different low-cost, disaster-proof models using appropriate building technologies, took their models to the villages, and got useful feedback from the women and men there and are now revising their plans. At the same time, our village coordination Team adopted from Gujerat experience the idea of creating “bridging committees” made up of village leaders, youth and women. Each village group is called a “Paalam” (Tamil for bridge) and their representatives meet weekly with Auroville to discuss issues around rehabilitation. This has created a sense of closeness with each other besides facilitating a rapid exchange of information in a situation where government policies are changing almost as fast as rumours.

In the same line, Auroville has been named by the District Collector as the nodal NGO for NGO coordination, and meetings are held in Auroville every two weeks of all the NGOs (about 21) which are working in the area (about 25 villages). The local NGOs all along the coast have linked with each other through internet, and share information with each other, with the government, and with anyone interested. Being so linked with the South Indian Federation of Fishermen's Societies (SIFFS) has been invaluable in filling in our enormous lack of knowledge about fishing. And Auroville's GIS mapping and familiarity with the ISRO GIS mapping unit of the government facilitated a first meeting between this high-tech department and the relief department, so that the geophysical actualities of situation are properly understood by the policy makers.


The Shifts from Relief to Rehabilitation
and from Rehabilitation to Development
One of the most interesting features we are experiencing is the rapid shifts in our organisation. For the first couple of weeks, we as well as the fishermen were all in shock, working flat out for long hours, not really sure what to do, but strategising, moving, giving nevertheless. We were a new team of people who had come together for the emergency; we were adrenalin high on the urgency, and enjoying the smooth teamwork when everyone's egos are put aside for the moment. We knew that this up on the sin wave would be followed by a low, but knowing didn't prevent us from suffering the insecurities of our situation – which of the volunteers would remain, how would we organise ourselves, once the first rush of relief was over would we continue on to rehabilitation or go back to our old lives? It was the villagers' faith in us that tipped the scales in favour of continuing on into rehabilitation. They really wanted Auroville to build them new houses, to continue to show the genuine neighbourly care that our response has been marked with from the beginning.

Rehabilitation lacks the urgency and need for rapid decisions and fast actions. Rather it requires patience – while the government comes up with and changes its policies on relocation, on housing specifications, on compensation; revising and revamping plans and projects; while the villagers' gratitude turns to greed; as NGOs compete for places to spend their donation money; as self-interest reasserts itself among team mates. During rehabilitation, involving the people in planning for their new lives reasserts it primacy. In this phase, Auroville's experience in eco-restoration comes into play, and villages were asked if they wanted to plant indigenous species along their shores – out of 25 asked, six have agreed and assigned lands for the projects which will include growing nurseries, planting, and a large dose of environmental education in the schools. In this phase, the Paalams get to indicate what they'd see for their village development beyond housing: educational and sports inputs for children and youth, local early warning and computer information centres, community buildings, further training both in fishing and in alternative livelihoods.

More and more, as we slow down, breathe and reflect certain understandings arise. Based on several interactions in NGO and government forums we can say:

Based on these perceptions, Auroville is looking very much onward from tsunami rehabilitation to a post-rehabilitation all-villages development phase, in which the villages of the entire coastal area, including all the villages around Auroville, receive first rate attention for their development – giving priority of course to people's participation, the foundation of a human ecological approach.