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When the tsunami rolled in, it washed away houses and everything that stood in its watery rushing way. When it rolled back out it left the rubble of shattered walls, piles of straw that had once been thatched roofs, toppled palm trees, and debris strewn everywhere, the innards of households mutilated and regurgitated into the public domain. Cleaning up has been one of the most energetic and focussed activities of the rehabilitation phase of tsunami relief.

Busloads of Helpers
At first, the urge to help brought Aurovilians and guests together in a daily bus ride to the affected villages, where they dug and pulled and raked and carried, burning and burying the waste. At first the rather shell-shocked villagers watched on in mute surprise, but after a few hours, or sometimes a few days, they would join in. Many hoes and rakes and shovels were left behind with revitalised villagers who wanted to continue working even after the bus had carried away the colourful foreign invasion. As an off-shoot of this effort, other groups of volunteers took up going with juggling balls, frisbees, musical instruments to play with the children and coax the fishermen into singing their fishing songs again.

Cash for Work
But all good things must come to an end, and despite the enthusiasm of the volunteers it became clear that the villagers themselves needed both work (since they've decided they are not going back fishing till the government settlements are made) and some cash (most of the relief has come in “kind” – food, clothes, household items, school notebooks, etc.) to revive their economy. This idea was enthusiastically taken up by the communities: the headmen made a roster of groups of 50 families, and agreed that 50 men would work each day from 6-10 a.m., for which they would get Rs.75. They issued a “coupon' to one person per family, and then each day a different team of 50 would scour the streets until the all streets have been cleared and swept. This has been going on in 8 villages, and will continue in all the 23 villages which Auroville has “adopted”, proceeding to a new one as soon as one has been “completed”. But completed is the wrong word, we had some surprises.

First surprise was that the fishermen, used to getting up early and setting out to sea, furling and unfurling their nets, hauling in big loads of slippery silvery fish, began work at 4 o'clock instead of 6.00, and still worked til 10.00, happy to be engaged in useful labour. Second surprise, as they were finishing up the last streets it struck them how beautiful their village looked. They'd never seen it so clean and tidy before, even before the tsunami, and they really liked it! They didn't want to let things go back to normal. They asked for some dustbins.

“Shuddham” – A way forward
Happily, we were able to offer them much more than dustbins. Auroville is in touch with a Pondicherry citizens movement called “Shuddham” which for the last three years has been organising waste collection through street communities of householders. They agree to separate their waste (organic for composting, paper and plastics, and “toxic”), and employ a team to collect and sort the waste daily (they have NEVER missed a day of collection). They send the organics to Ashram farms (the organising team is mostly Ashram school graduates), the paper and plastics to recyclers, and the toxic stuff to the municipality for land-fill. The organisers say that the key to the success if the arising of neighbourliness, a new community feeling among the householders of the street, who taking a pride in their neighbourhood, protect it from litterers.

This group came and talked about it at the “Paalam meeting” (a weekly gathering of representatives of all the fisherman villages in Auroville) where it was well received, and representatives were selected to go to Pondy on Monday to see it first-hand. So 30 young fishermen took a bus to Pondy and met the team. They were duly impressed with the tricycle which collects the waste and the shed where sorting is being done. They are now committed to carrying a version of this project out in their own villages.

More news as this project develops. We are hoping it will become a trend, and spread inland as well.