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Despatches from Tamil Nadu

Amit Varma | January 01, 2005 04:17 IST
Last Updated: January 01, 2005 22:04 IST

1: Clothes and garbage

All the way from Chennai to Nagapattinam through Pondicherry, Cuddalore and Karaikal, I see clothes. Heaps of clothes strewn across the road like punctuation marks in a mad sentence.

From a distance, many of them look much like Mumbai's garbage dumps, splashes of colour on a dirty heap. In Mumbai, those splashes of colour are plastic bags; in Tamil Nadu, they are used clothes.

Many commentators have pointed out that sending clothes is futile and pointless, but people keep doing it anyway, and most of the relief trucks that we pass are packed with used clothes.

Every local we speak to ridicules the idea of wearing those clothes, but they keep on coming in an unstoppable tide. Crises like this represent a good chance for city people to empty their cupboard of old and unwanted clothes, but are they shedding some kind of guilt as well? I wonder.

2: The waterline

We reach a village called Sipudupettai, near Parangipettai, and halt our car about a kilometre from the sea. We get down from our Qualis and walk towards the sea, and as we get closer, we notice an interesting thing.

Every building on our way has permanent markings on the walls that indicate the level of the water when it stopped gushing forward. It's five feet high at the building near which we get down, and starts climbing with every house we pass, till it's seven feet, eight feet, nine feet, a record of where things stood.

This does not indicate the height of the waves, of course, many of which crashed much higher, but the level at which the water remained for a long time before receding.

As the years go by, no doubt, these walls will be washed clean, one by one.

Will the memories go too?

3: The big house

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is how Raja describes his house. Raja's house is marked with water, a waterline of about six feet outside and five inside you climb a step to go in - but the water clearly reached higher.

A clock high on the wall is frozen at 8.40, and there are markings of water besides it. A shattered television set lies on the floor. There are many film posters on the wall, of Bhoomika and Vijay and Ramba. There is also a poster of a scene from nature with a large caption that says When fortune knocks, open the door.

When misfortune knocked, Raja was away at sea with his brother. Their wives were at home, with their kids, 18-month-old Viswa and the 8-month-old Monsa.

At sea, Raja did not notice much - tsunamis are not felt so prominently on the sea, and begin to rise noticeably when they reach the shore. But when they returned to shore, their children were dead. And the clock had stopped.

4: The collector

At Parangipattai, we notice a crowd gathered in a compound, littered with old clothes that people are walking on. We walk in. On a wall, there are posters of dead people, kept there for identification.

There is one with the faces of six dead babies, their heads bloated, their faces contorted in a bizarre manner. What mother could bear to see this?

Inside, speaking to community leaders, is Union Milk and Dairy Development Minister, S Ramachandran. He is busy speaking to people, but we corner the man who seems to be in charge of things. He is the sub-collector here, and his name is Rajendra Ratnoo.

"We are planning for the long term," Ratnoo tells us. "When the disaster occurred, we set up community kitchens and fed them, but we encouraged the affected people to go back to their homes and cook. They did just that. We don't just want to take care of their short-term needs. We need to give them their livelihoods back."

Ratnoo tells us that the government has just approved a package whereby every fisherman who lost a boat will get a new boat (each boat costs Rs 100,000). They will also be given life-support systems, and until they are self-sufficient again, they will be given support like free rations etc.

"What do you think of the role the NGOs are playing in this?" I ask.

"They are duplicating work," he says. "First of all, they are getting too many clothes. They come and throw piles of clothes on the street and they feel like they have done a great deed. And the ones who don't get clothes end up duplicating each other's efforts. They should just come here and coordinate with us."

I am impressed by the man's sincerity, but I know only too well that the governmental systems have been utterly ineffective all across the affected areas.

He ends on an interesting note. He tells us of a village called Sasniyarpettai, by the coast, where he conducted disaster management courses two months ago for floods and cyclones.

Villagers were assigned different responsibilities, and techniques like how to hang on to tree stumps were practised. When the tsunami struck, only 22 out of 3,000 villagers died, a fantastic percentage for a village located bang on the coast.

So even if forewarned is not always possible, fore-prepared can also save lives.

5: Three boats and a bridge

Karaikal is a town, which was once a French colony. The policemen still wear kepis there. There is an inlet into the town from the sea, and a bridge over this inlet. It is about eight metres over the regular level of the water.

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Yet, when the tsunami came, the level of the water rose so much that as many as three boats crashed onto the bridge, from where two were later toppled. One is still stuck on one side.

6: Politics

People have died, but politics lives on. A strange game of politics is on in Tamil Nadu. J Jayalalithaa is the chief minister of the state and controls a TV channel, Jaya TV.

M Karunanidhi is her chief rival and controls Sun TV. The latter keeps showing news that portrays the government's relief efforts in bad light while Jaya TV paints quite the opposite picture.

Every disaster, after all, is an opportunity to score a few political brownie points. And the lives that have been lost? Well, shit happens.

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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Number of User Comments: 5

Sub: sad

Why is the article titled in this irresponsible fashion? As it is people are easily swayed by negative talk about NGOs. And the article really ...

Posted by lazybee

Sub: Shram Dan (Labour contribution) for Tsunami relief

It is good to see that people are generously donating the money for relief operation. Many people have reported that there is a greater need ...

Posted by Vikas Kumar

Sub: NGOs are duplicating work

Sending of cloths by people is done with good intention. NGOs are doing some good work though unsolicited. It is always better to help distressed ...

Posted by N. Badri Prasad

Sub: co-ordination !!

Sir, Rightly said it is the coordination which is utmost at this time, since there are many people who are providing aid with food, water, ...

Posted by prakash

Sub: amit's articles : Despatches from Tamil Nadu

Vikas Kumar: I don't think Amit was pointing to institutional apathies in particular. People who are not in the scene will never get a clear ...

Posted by joz


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