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The Rediff Special/Amit Varma in Tamil Nadu

They are not beggars, they don't like handouts

January 03, 2005

Part I: A picture of hell, and no kerosene

Part II: Despatches from Tamil Nadu, 1

Part IV: Despatches from Tamil Nadu, 3

Part V: Despatches from Tamil Nadu, 4

The tsunami is long over, but disease is taking a heavy toll. Every day hundreds of people die in the hospitals and relief camps of Tamil Nadu. The most common medical problems among survivors, according to doctors we spoke to, are:

Injuries suffered while running away from the waves in panic, bumping into debris, getting caught in fishing nets and trees, and being swept by the waves into hard objects.


Swallowing sea water

Lack of proper hygiene

Babies without their mothers, not given adequate nutrition

Groups from all over the country have come here to help counter this, but according to Madhu Kumar, there is one basic service they are not providing: counselling.

"More than 50 per cent of recovery depends on counselling," he says. "These people are psychologically shattered. More than just their belongings, they have lost their livelihood."

We run into Kumar in Padasalia in Nagore district, where he is leading a relief team from the Neyveli Lignite Corporation. "These people have no place to stay, and they are in such trauma that they just want to leave, to go far away from the sea. Not just their bodies but also their mind has been affected."

Very Important Persons

Madhu Kumar, the gentleman I meet in Padasalai, has one huge complaint, something which infuriates him so much that his eyes widen as he tells me this, and I can sense his fists clenching.

"Why do you think the government machinery is not working?" he asks. "Because it is busy with VIPs, that's why. VIPs keep coming all the time, making routine visits to show their importance, and they have an entourage of cars and traffic detail and security, and the local authorities are busy looking after that. They even waste time lining the streets with bleaching powder (a disinfectant) instead of where people died, where they are really needed. It is a waste of manpower, and it costs life. If VIPs really want to help, they should come quietly, without so much bandobast.

"After all, there are no terrorists here."

I know just what he is talking about. The doctor I had spent a fair amount of time speaking to at Akkarakodia, Dr Narasimhan, also told me that the government machinery at Nagapattinam, the affected area, had been busy for the last four days making arrangements for the visit of important dignitaries including the chief minister and prime minister.

"You should have been on the highway on the day when that hoax warning about the tsunami was circulated. One by one, official cars bearing VIPs passed by, and the people they had come to help were left alone with a few workers from NGOs. It is shameful."


When we reach Padasalai, one of the worst-affected areas in the district of Nagore, the locals rush up to us and say, "only the Muslims came." It takes us a bit of time to figure this out. These people are lower-caste people, and for that reason, none of the other residents of Nagore, mostly higher-caste Hindus, came to their aid.

Instead, Muslims groups came forward and helped them. Later, people like Madhu Kumar did come forward, but they were from outside. Their neighbours just did not care.

A short while later, we are by the sea, watching a heavy earth-moving vehicle, so much in shortage throughout the state, making a grave besides a pile of rubble, and then lifting a grotesquely deformed woman's body out of it to put her in. But it's not as easy as it sounds. Twice the metal claw scoops her into her grip, twice she slips out, and the second time, she gets stuck in a fishing net coming out of the rubble. Kumar goes forward with a sickle to cut her free. But he is asked to wait.

We wait for five minutes, wondering what the fuss is all about. Then we find out. A government official has to take a photograph of the body, for relief and identification purposes. He eventually arrives, takes her photograph, and goes off. We all look on, bewildered. The body has no face.

But we do know one thing. She is not, or rather, was not, an upper-caste Hindu.

The most affected

At Pattinacheri, another affected village, we run into Srinivasu, a relief worker whose day job is of municipal solid waste consultant in a town called Udumalaipettai. He has some thoughts on how relief should be managed.

"First of all," he says, "there should be a central unit in each affected area from which all the relief work can be coordinated. The way things are now, many people want to volunteer, and turn up to do so, but nobody is giving them guidance on what to do. A central authority is needed.

"Secondly," and here he echoes Madhu Kumar, "they need counselling. So many of them have lost everything, they don't want to live. So many women, caught in the water, lost all their clothes, and feel deeply humiliated at being seen in that state. They suffer psychological damage."

"Thirdly, the relief should go only to needy people. Many of the most affected people are not physically fit enough to go out and ask for help. Many of the people who go for relief aren't affected at all, but greedy."

I quite understand what he is saying. All day we have seen truck after truck stop at arbitrary points, at which point a crowd suddenly gathers around the truck, and those who can push the best and shout the loudest get the best of whatever is being given out. Food grains, rice, and so on.

At one point we saw a fight between two women. A truck stopped at the village road for two minutes, threw out a few packets of rice, and then left. Two women straight away started fighting, and a gentleman by the road told us that they were fighting because one of them thought she was more deserving of the rice than the others. "People are hoarding relief material," he told us. "The really needy people are not getting any of this."

Of course, the logistics of finding the 'really needy people' isn't easy, but many of the workers in the relief trucks that come this way couldn't be bothered. They throw their relief material out, feel good about themselves, and drive away to do good elsewhere.

The best intentions...

A short while after Srinivasu tells us about how aid doesn't reach the most needy people, we are walking through Pattinacheri when a young woman named Ilakaiya stops us and starts telling us her story. "She has lost her mother and her home," Srinivasu translates for me. "She is an example of what I mean, too weak to go and get supplies, and no one comes to her." He takes an old dress from his car and gives it to her. She refuses, and he has to force her to take it.

There is one thing that many people, seeing these people in their sad state, do not realise: these people are not beggars. They have lost their livelihood, which is why they have nothing on them, but they are, nevertheless, proud people. They do not like handouts.

Ilakaiya continues her sad tale, as other village women gather around her, nodding their heads in sympathy. Then, Srinivasu does something profoundly stupid. He goes to his car, takes a packet from it, and rushed back to Ilakaiya. He puts 4000 rupees in her hand.

Instantly a commotion starts. All the women, and some men who had been standing in the distance, rush up to Srinivasu and start screaming at him. He moves away, alarmed, and some of them start shouting at Ilakaiya, who starts yelling back. One old woman strikes Ilakaiya in the arm. We move away from there, with the women all screaming at Ilakaiya, their relations, perhaps irrevocably, spoiled. All because an emotional relief worker, using his heart but not his grain, got a bit too carried away.

The Black Sea

At two places during out trip, we are told that the sea, that rose suddenly as it approached the shore, was black in colour. At
Pandalasalai, we are just told that it was jet black, which added to the fearsome effect of the waves. At Velankanni, we are told that the sea was mixed with 'black clay,'and that many survivors died because their respiratory systems broke down because they had inhaled that contaminated water.

Disaster management

Velankanni, the town famous for its church, the Shrine Basilica, is a lesson in disaster management. The waves struck there after Sunday mass, with 1,000 people on the shore just behind the church to take a dip. At first when they saw the big waves, they laughed. But then the water came closer, and they realised that they were in trouble. They ran for it but the slowest runners, the women and children, could not make it. At least 800 people died.

The state administration did not kick into action, but the church did. Unlike in other villages that we had visited, the bodies did not lie unclaimed for days, but were quickly disposed off. Whichever ones were identified by relatives were taken away by them, and buried or cremated according to their preference. The rest were photographed and disposed of, with the photographs put on a bulletin board so that relatives could identify their kin.

A counselling unit with 12 counsellors was set up, and as volunteers flocked in to help, they were assigned specific tasks. All relief organisations that came here to help went to this one central location, from where they were guided.

The result is that Velankanni is virtually the first coastal village on this trip where I saw no bodies at all. In fact, if you were a tourist casually dropping in, it would take you some time to figure out that something had happened here. The sea is calm, and so is the village.

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.

The Rediff Specials

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Number of User Comments: 2

Sub: am shocked!!

I was really shocked to read about the ignorant attitude of the so called high class people in the tsunami affected villages. Eventhough it is ...

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Sub: Stop mooting hatred

Dear Editor, The author seems to be most busy with infuriating caste bias and trying to moot hatred in a place which is already seeing ...

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