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Tsunami-ravaged paradise awaits better times
Sovi Vidyadharan & Subhra Priyadarshini in Nagapattinam / Port Blair | December 26, 2005 00:43 IST
If only lives and homes could be rebuilt as swiftly as they were washed away by the tsunami, if only... the thought remains just a wish for tens of thousands of people displaced by the tidal waves a year ago. No sooner than the waves retreated into the Indian ocean, after wiping away priceless relations and happy homes, ideas poured in for relief and rehabilitation of the affected, but the pace of suggestions has not been matched by their implementation.
The affected undoubtedly received immediate relief, but with the anniversary of the tragedy, which falls on Monday, staring them in the face, victims have been left feeling that the reconstruction process is agonisingly slow. The government thinks otherwise. Figures tell their own story. Asian Development Bank estimates suggest that 1,50,000 houses were destroyed or damaged in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Pondicherry.
About 10,000 houses were washed away in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In the worst-affected district of Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, where over 6,000 people lost their lives, only 80 of the 17,460 destroyed houses have so far been restored. No one knows yet how many permanent homes will be built in Andamand and Nicobar Islands, where 10,000 houses were destroyed. In the Indian archipelago, the biggest challenge to rehabilitation and reconstruction is the skewed logistics, distance from the mainland (1,400 km) and the sea-route, said Chief Secretary D S Negi.
ADB had initially estimated the cost of repairing the damage at Rs 5,400 crore ($ 1.2 billion), which included compensation to the next of kin of the over 12,000 people confirmed dead. The Indian people rose to the occasion and contributed a whopping Rs 1,000 crore to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund. The Union Cabinet later sanctioned a Rs 9,800 crore package for projects to restore ports and jetties and protect coastal areas. But residents of Andaman and Nicobar Islands are complaining that a lot of money was being wasted in protection of coastal areas, as the administration dumps soil spending crores of rupees on small stretches of land and the soil is simply washed away by the rough seas overnight.
As many as 46,023 people are still housed in relief camps in the islands, awaiting permanent houses. While housing remains a problem, the government restored a strategic air force base in Car Nicobar within weeks of the disaster. Even a tsunami memorial to pay homage to 119 brave Indian Air Force men, teachers and civilians, is getting final touches in the island in time for unveiling it on the first anniversary of the tragedy. Back in the teeming pilgrim town of Velankanni in Nagapattinam district, officials are struggling to find land to build houses. "Since Velankanni is a crowded coastal town, we have some practical difficulties in identifying proper land to build permanent houses," says District Collector J Radhakrishnan, adding that most survivors want to re-build their homes at the exact spot where they stood.
Most of these houses were less than 200 metres away from the coastline and the Coastal Regulatory Zone guidelines does not allow government to rebuild houses less than 500 metres from the coast. "However, we have not placed any restriction on the survivors for constructing houses where they initially stood, at their own expense," Radhakrishnan says. The tsunami survivors, on the other hand are unhappy with the administration's plan to relocate them to the interior areas, saying this would lead to loss of their livelihood.
"We have suffered a lot this past one year. If it was the grief of losing our near and dear initially, later it turned out to be the difficulties in sustaining ourselves with the paltry relief the administration provided us," says Anslon, a local fisherman. "The condition turned grim in the recent heavy rains as we were running around for a shelter from the downpour which our thatched temporary huts could not withstand. The rains have eased now, but not the sea, which is turning rougher by the day," he says.
Complete Coverage: Tsunami
The rains in Tamil Nadu is only partly to blame for the delay in works. Officials say permanent resettlement will take a minimum one and half years. Where government has failed, NGOs have stepped in. The Mata Amritanandamayi Math has built 375 houses -- 340 exclusively for survivors from Samanthanpettai, 25 and 10 have been constructed for residents of Akkaraipettai and Pandagasali villages respectively. The Math has also built 500 houses in Alappad in Kerala, which suffered extensive damage on December 26.
According to Tamil Nadu Relief Commissioner R Santhanam the rehabilitation would be complete by 2008, by when he says the face of the affected area would have been completely changed. The state government, he said, would build over 80,000 houses in two phases, besides 32.207 houses by NGOs. Besides help to build houses, the government has spent crores of rupees for replacing fishing boats washed away by the waves and reclaiming 8,460 hectares of agricultural land, where sea water had penetrated. The government has also funded recanalisation surgery, a process to reverse sterilisation undergone by women by reconnecting the fallopian tubes. "I had started thinking that my life had no purpose after my children Vinod, Jenny and Nikesh were washed away by the ruthless waves," said Bhagyalakshmi, 27, who underwent the surgery and is awaiting her baby in August.
It is only when you come across people like Bhagyalakshmi, you are reminded that no matter what the losses are, life must simply move on, as time and tide wait for no one.