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The Rediff Special/Amit Varma

Uncivil war

January 10, 2005

The government can work

The host at the battered coast

One of the saddest things I have seen in my journey through Tamil Nadu is that in village after village, the villagers fight with each other to get hold of relief material. Say a truck comes with food handouts. Immediately crowds gather around it and fight to get the supplies being given.

Many of the relief organisations that drive down don't bother to actually spend time in a village and assess its needs -- they simply thrust things into the hands that reach out into their truck, and then they drive off.

The consequence of this is that the strongest people end up getting all the goodies, and this happens time and again, as truck after relief truck passes by. The regular winners of booty may even start hoarding the supplies they get their hands on. This, naturally, leads to fights, as those who don't get any relief, or who get too little of it, start fighting with the ones who do.

The irony in all this is that often the people who are most affected don't even go to the relief trucks to get help, they just sit in what is left of their huts, often in a state of shock. They think of what has passed, and not the truck that passes, while outside, people fight.

'This will also slip away from public memory'

No knives, some payment

We meet with Dr C S Ramachandran, a former governor of the Rotary Club. Rotary, with a network of Rotarians all along the coast, has been doing a fair amount of relief work all along the coast. Dr Ramachandran shares a couple of his interesting learnings with us.

One: "In the relief packages that we give the affected people," he says, "we make sure that there is no cutting knife. We have seen villagers fight among themselves for anything, and those fights become more common at such times, when there is scarcity of resources and everyone is on edge. So we do not give anything that could be used as a weapon."

Two: "After the initial phase of relief, we put a price on the medicines we give out. I have noticed, in the past, that when we give medicines for free, people are reluctant to accept them, thinking 'if it is free, it cannot be good.' But if we put a value on it, any value, they are willing to accept it. So some days after the initial emergency phase, we start selling medicines at one rupee. They may cost Rs 100, but the people don't view it as charity, and place some value on it. Later, we may start selling medicines for two rupees. People start valuing it even more, and buy even more."

No more fishing

"Some fishermen," says Dr Ramachandran of the Rotary club, "come and tell us, 'we don't want to go near the sea anymore, we don't want to fish. Give us something else to do.' So giving the fishermen a livelihood does not just mean giving them their boats and fishing nets back."

When time stopped at the coast

The hoax about contaminated fish

Warnings have recently been released, all along the coast, asking people not to eat fish from the Tamil Nadu coast as they may be contaminated, having possibly eaten dead bodies. This is a ridiculous warning, says Nityanand Jayaraman, an independent journalist and activist. "They (the government) routinely dump nuclear waste, toxic waste and the city's shit into the rivers, and they are worried about fish that have eaten people? It's ridiculous."

Jayaraman points out that in any case you can't be sure that any fish you're eating hasn't eaten a body, as bodies float out to sea all the time anyway, and the Ganga is, in fact, a reservoir of dead bodies. Also, 2,000 or so bodies floating out into the sea, dispersed along the coast, hardly constitutes a reasonable reason to assume that fish could be contaminated. Scientifically, this belief does not hold water. Could there be another motive for the warning then?

Could someone have an eye on the coastal property? But how does one usurp the land if the fishermen are to be rehabilitated? One way could be by diverting them elsewhere so that they change their livelihood. A small number of them may already want to do so, and this number can be increased by destroying the market for fish, or by not allowing fishermen to fish for an extended period of time, which is also being done by the government as a 'precautionary measure.'

They are not beggars, they don't like handouts

This is, at the moment, just a conspiracy theory, and I normally ignore those. But some conspiracy theories do turn out to have some truth in them, and the warning about contaminated fish, coming from the government, make no sense.

Something to hide at Kalpakkam?

Actually, there could only be one plausible reason for the warning to everyone to not eat fish: the sea being contaminated with nuclear waste from the Kalpakkam nuclear reactor near Chennai. The authorities have so far denied that the nuclear plant was damaged at all, but rumours keep coming of a cover-up. If there was a leak from there, you can bet the government would try to cover it up -- or they'd be slaughtered in the next election. And if any nuclear waste did enter the sea, the only way to stop common people from finding out would be to stop them eating fish.

No tsunami effect on nuclear plant

I'm sure environmental groups are monitoring the situation anyway, and I'll take this speculation no further. At the moment, the benefit of my doubt goes to the government -- but if a cover-up is indeed found to have happened, there'll be hell to pay.

And a nuclear leak would mean hell. Many people are now questioning the wisdom of locating the plant right besides the sea, where it is vulnerable to a tsunami or even a naval attack, but what is even more ludicrous is that it is just an hour's drive away from Chennai, a major metropolis with five million people. If nothing has gone wrong at Kalpakkam, it is not because of foresight, but due to sheer luck.

A picture of hell, and no kerosene

Despatches from Tamil Nadu

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: 1

Sub: very painful to hear

I fully aggre with your view and itis very painful to hear about the tamilnadu & the fishermen. But the TN govt have no time ...

Posted by nscsiyer


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