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The Rediff Special/Amit Varma in Chennai

The government can work

January 06, 2005

The host at the battered coast

'This will also slip away from public memory'

Separating politics from social work

I hear at the AID India office that a number of people who support the organisation have protested about their tie-up with the Democratic Youth Forum of India (DYFI) at a grassroots level. Yet others are complaining about the relief work that the RSS is doing in the villages. They are all afraid that these organisations -- DYFI has a Communist affiliation, and the RSS, of course, propagates Hindutva -- will make political capital out of their social work here.

Such criticism is unjustified. I am against both Communists and religious fundamentalists, but not in this context. On the political and economic arena, I think the ideas of the extreme right and well as the extreme left are misguided and bad for the country. But on a social level, the work they do is exemplary, and at a level of commitment that few others can match.

IV: When time stopped on the coast

The RSS did outstanding relief work during the Bhuj earthquake and the Orissa cyclone, and no praise can do justice to the work that I have seen DYFI do during my trip through Tamil Nadu. They have walked through slush and lifted decaying bodies to burn them, they have worked tirelessly, not bothered about day or night or an aching body, in village after village on the coast.

The main reason AID India tied up with them was because they simply do not have the kind of manpower at the grassroots level that they need to implement their ambitious developmental plans, and DYFI does. Many of AID's volunteers are city-based part-timers (or one-timers, as in the case of so many who have volunteered to help out in this catastrophe), and they need grassroots people. DYFI has the manpower but not the funds or the planning ability of AID India. But they are working towards the same social purpose, and theirs is a perfect symmetry.

To those who are worried that DYFI or the RSS might extract political gain from their work, I have only one thing to say: if you oppose them in the political arena, nothing stops you from going out to the villages yourself and working as hard as they do to neutralise the goodwill that you are so scared they're getting. That kind of competition, in doing good, would surely be healthy. But complaining about people who are saving lives and helping survivors rebuild lives is just plain wrong.

The trouble with houses

I am back in Chennai -- though I will soon head back down the coast -- sitting in the AID India office with one of their main coordinators, A Ravishankar. Ravi is a soft-spoken, intense man who speaks and thinks lucidly, and is filled with energy whenever you run into him, despite the long hours he is on his feet, coordinating relief work.

III: They are not beggars, they don't like handouts

I intended to interview him about level three of the relief work that they are planning -- as I'd written about before, that is the phase in which they carry on long-term rehabilitation, getting farmers back their livelihood, helping them compete in the marketplace by forming cooperatives, and so on. I had assumed that level two, building houses etc, is relatively easy work, if the funds are there. But Ravi tells me otherwise.

"Level two actually has three phases," he tells me. "The first phase consists of fulfilling their immediate need for shelter, and we build them tarpaulin shelters for this purpose. It suffices for a very short term, after which we move into phase two and the problems start.

"In phase two," he continues, "we build skeet shelters [a kind of thatched hutment] for them. But we have to abide by the coastal regulations for this, which state that no permanent houses can be built by anyone within 500 metres of the shore." These laws were being flouted earlier, which was responsible for many of the deaths, but they obviously should not be flouted again. "But these men are fishermen," says Ravi, "and they want to live near the sea. If they live too far inland, it becomes a problem for them."

II: Despatches from Tamil Nadu,1

Phase three of level two involves building permanent housing for the affected families, which involves moving them out of the skeet shelters into proper houses, built using low-cost housing technology. The planning is fabulous, but quite apart from the coastal regulations, the big question that arises is of the land on which these are built. If it is on government land, who do the land titles go to? And will the government part with this land easily? Will it be close enough to the sea for these families to resume their old livelihood? Won't villagers unaffected by the tsunami and living in humbler housing resent the level of aid that the affected villagers are receiving?

There are many thorny questions that are hard to resolve, but looking at Ravi in front of me, I'm confident that there are good determined people who are not going to turn their backs to these issues.

The problems of adoption

There has been a flood of people from all over the world who want to adopt children orphaned by this tragedy, but that isn't as easy as it sounds. Ravishankar of AID India tells me that the government had stopped all adoption processes for affected children, and is taking the responsibility of looking after them on itself. They are worried, and rightly so, about the process being misused and an adoption racket springing up. That could result in a terrible human rights disaster, with a huge amount of child trafficking taking place.

"But how can the government look after the kids?" I ask. "Surely anything the government does will also be laced with ineptitude, if not corruption."

"Well," says Ravishankar, "that is why we want to try out an orphan resettlement program in the affected villages itself. There are many children who have lost parents, but there are also many parents who have lost children, and we want to try and bring the two together."

I: A picture of hell and no kerosene

It seems an ambitious thing to try and pull off, but if it works it is the perfect solution, as it does not remove the kids from their local culture. It would need monitoring, though, to ensure that such resettled children are treated well. A system and an infrastructure would need to be set up to look after the process. It's going to be a long haul -- and a tough childhood for some of these kids.

The government can work

I had written earlier about the government apathy at Nagapattinam, and about the diversion of government resources to look after VIPs, but the government is not so useless everywhere. I have heard from various accounts that the collector of Cuddalore, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, is doing a fantastic job.

He swung government machinery into action as soon as the tragedy happened, getting roads and debris cleared up, repairing damaged bridges, all within a day. He also did away with moribund processes such as the requirement to do post-mortems on dead bodies, and speeded up aid substantially. Rajendra Ratnoo, whom I have spoken of before, was one of the men who worked under him.

That, and the fact that the government has suddenly swung into action at Nagapattinam, indicates that the system is capable of providing good relief work, both in the short term and over a longer period of time. But the individuals running the show have to be able to spur the system out of its routine lethargy. Bedi and Ratnoo have certainly done just that.

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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