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Why does it take disaster to evoke compassion?
Amit Varma | January 12, 2005 14:54 IST
Last Updated: January 12, 2005 19:59 IST
The fisherman's mafia
Nityanand Jayaraman, an independent journalist and activist, has been working on various projects in Cuddalore for the past few years. He enlightens us on what is happening in one of the worst affected areas there, Thevanampattinam.
First, some background. In many of the fishing villages around, Jayaraman tells us, the locals don't trust the local justice system, so they have their own internal mechanisms to deal with disputes and crimes -- even murder. When problems cannot be sorted out in the village concerned, they go to Thevanampattinam, which is a sort of supreme court in this system.
What has happened now is this: World Vision and Bollywood film star Vivek Oberoi, who was on the flight to Chennai with me when I came here from Mumbai, arrived here some days back and announced that they were going to 'adopt' the village. Then they went off. And as soon as they did so, the local mafia took over. They beat up a local policeman who was trying to direct relief supplies, and took charge of all supplies themselves. Now, normally it would help a village if all supplies went to a single source and were given out, methodically, from there. But here, things are different.
Thevanampattinam is a hotbed of caste problems, with four different castes here that do not interact with each other. The mafia, as you'd expect, is diverting all aid to its own caste, its own people. Even in the relief lists that the administration is getting, for purposes of compensation etc, are skewed because the mafia is making these lists. Jayaraman has prepared alternate lists that are comprehensive and intends to hand them over to the district administration, but even they will have a tough time navigating these waters.
"Tell me," I ask Jayaraman, "haven't the people from different castes come together at a time of crisis like this?"
"No," he says, "the tsunami has, in fact, worsened relations. Earlier they were getting by just doing their own thing, and they could afford to ignore each other. But now they are competing for the same resources. It's getting worse."
The broader, continuing disaster
One thought has struck me again and again through this trip: hasn't this been a disaster region all these years? Much of the relief work that aid agencies are planning, and that millions of dollars are pouring in to enable, is to fulfil needs that have existed in all the affected countries for decades. Millions of people in these countries have lacked proper housing, a livelihood, often food and the means to buy medicine. Surely the lack of all those things is bad in itself. Why does it take the context of a natural disaster to evoke compassion?
These needs will remain, and this ongoing disaster will continue, long after the media stops talking about the tsunami, and we have pushed it to the back of our minds. Will we still feel, as so many of us have, the responsibility to do something, anything, to make things better?
Amit Varma is travelling around the disaster-affected areas in Tamil Nadu, and is writing on his experiences in his blog, India Uncut. These despatches have been adapted from there.
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