Tsunami Survivors Still At Sea

It is now over four years since the tsunami wreaked its havoc. For most people in India, the tsunami is a closed chapter. The national media no longer considers it important to talk about rehabilitation or the status of the tsunami survivors. After all, a four-year-old story is not 'breaking news', is it?

No news is good news, one assumes. Not in this case. Nothing can justify the current mess, nothing can pardon the government's egregious lapses, nothing can condone the fact that survivors are still living in tin sheds, unsuitable for cattle habitation, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

On the one hand, is the sheer neglect and failure of the state to provide adequate rehabilitation and its direct role in abetting human rights violations of survivors. On the other, is a more planned political agenda of using the post-tsunami climate to maximize gains at the expense of the survivors - the rise of what Naomi Klein has termed "disaster capitalism".

While survivors languish in tin shelters, sub-standard houses fall apart and coastal communities are being denied their customary rights and forced to relocate to distant sites, the government has refused to fund 'in-situ' housing reconstruction. Even the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 1991 faces threat of being replaced with the anti-people Coastal Management Zone Notification 2008. While multilateral development banks raise their post-disaster portfolios, funds are diverted towards infrastructure and other development, and houses being built for tsunami survivors shrink to a paltry 180 sq. ft. The 'public-private partnership' for profit maximization under the cloak of rehabilitation is slowly becoming evident.

Although the state claims to have developed a comprehensive rehabilitation package, Dalits and Irulas in Tamil Nadu find themselves being left out and women-headed households are being denied housing. Today, almost 95 per cent of the tsunami-hit in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands await permanent housing. The Supreme Court interim order calls for consultation with affected communities, but housing plans in the Islands fail to incorporate basic community needs and cultural preferences. While funds in India for tsunami rehabilitation amounted to a whopping Rs 1,19,070 million, the Public Accounts Committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) have highlighted diversion of funds and irregularities in spending.

The issue of the continued violation of human rights of tsunami survivors prompted several organizations and movements to hold a National Peoples' Tribunal on Post-tsunami Rehabilitation: Housing, Land, Resources and Livelihoods in Chennai on December 18 and 19 last year. Survivors from Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala came together to draw attention to their prolonged suffering and raise a collective voice against the government's failed rehabilitation. The Tribunal's jury, headed by former judge of Mumbai High Court, Justice Suresh, strongly condemned the government for its failure to meet its moral and legal responsibility. It also cited the absence of monitoring mechanisms and non-compliance with judicial orders which has resulted in not just debilitating delays but in grave violations of human rights to adequate housing, land, work, food, health, education, and security.

Disasters impact different communities disproportionately, and women always face the worse. In the case of the tsunami, too, their livelihood concerns have not been adequately addressed and they are not considered eligible for alternative housing. The aftermath of the tsunami has also deepened the feminization of poverty.

During the tribunal, Indravalli from Keechankuppam in Nagapattinam district, testified that she lost her husband in the tsunami, and now her livelihood was at stake. "Shifting us away from the sea and denying us access to the coast is like taking away our life. Our fishing activities are greatly affected," she said. Swapna Sundari from Nochi Nagar, Chennai, talked about the plight of Dalit communities, lamenting that "even four years after the disaster, relief is still a dream for us." Kalyani, an Irula tribal from near Mamallapuram, brought to light the fact that 13 Irula villages did not have electricity, sanitation, roads or drinking water. Several petitions were submitted to the government but no response was received.

Despite the fact that over 100,000 homes were destroyed or damaged in the tsunami, a comprehensive post-disaster national housing policy does not exist. Moreover, there has been no attempt to consult affected communities or to monitor housing. This has resulted in faulty designs and poor construction, with houses already showing signs of disrepair. Several housing sites are situated in low-lying flood-prone areas. Furthermore, families have not been given security of tenure over permanent housing. In Nagapattinam, people were given a conditional order stating that their houses could be taken by the government for a "public purpose" without any compensation.

In Andaman and Nicobar Islands, of the planned 9,565 permanent shelters only 250 have been allotted. The situation is horrifying as families have been living in minuscule sheds for over four years, and have to cope with overcrowding, leakages, excessive heat and humidity.

The absence of basic services in most resettlement sites has contributed to grossly inadequate living conditions. In Wandoor temporary shelter in Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar, people lived without electricity and water for a year. The distance of resettlement sites from schools and hospitals has caused dropout rate of children to rise and has adversely affected the health of residents. Instances of women giving birth in autorickshaws have been reported, as they were not able to reach hospital in time, have been reported.

Listening to the problems of the survivors, the great damage being done in the name of rehabilitation becomes obvious. The Tribunal's jury called upon the central and concerned state governments to adequately restore livelihoods; halt evictions of coastal communities; implement the SC interim orders and CAG recommendations related to the tsunami; urgently provide basic facilities in all resettlement sites; develop a comprehensive post-disaster policy, based on international human rights standards; and develop effective accountability, monitoring and grievance redressal mechanisms.

K.N. Mahalingam from Hut Bay, Andaman, had travelled all the way to Chennai for the Peoples' Tribunal. He wanted a chance to have his story heard, with the hope that it would make the authorities act. He wanted permanent housing, developed with people's participation. Tragically, he passed away the day after the tribunal ended.

Mahalingam died waiting for a house. Let that not happen to anyone else. Rehabilitation is not merely about compensation but about fulfilling the right to live with dignity and peace. Rehabilitation is a human right.

(The author is a human rights activist. For more information on the tribunal, including the jury verdict, see:


More by :  Shivani Chaudhry

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