Relief Needs No Language
More than a fortnight after the towering waves reared up from the sea without any warning, and snatched thousands of lives and millions of livelihoods in Asia, governments, NGOs and ordinary men and women are working ceaselessly to put survivors back on their feet.
In Tamil Nadu, people like Subhashini Sridhar, Shanthi Krishnan, Shanta Narayan and Bhuvan Pathak, and organizations like Samanvaya, Kuvempu Trust, Gandhi Studies Centre and CIOSA (Confederation of Indian Organizations for Service and Advocacy) have pooled their talents and resources to bring relief to approximately 400 tsunami victim families.
"Many of us first met each other in the aftermath of the Bhuj earthquake," says Shanthi Krishnan. Drawn together by their common inclination to help disaster- affected people, this motley group has stayed in touch - and worked together for other causes in the intervening years - though they are scattered in different parts of India and the world. When the tsunami struck, they rallied their forces once again.
Subhashini Sridhar was on the spot in one of the badly hit areas - Sirkazhi, about 65 km from Nagapattinam. Sridhar, who is in charge of the Sirkazhi unit of the Centre for Indian Knowledge Studies (CIKS), prepared a quick factual assessment of the situation and an immediate plan of action. She also started off a community kitchen.
In Chennai, Krishnan - who has a degree in public relations and has been interested in social work since the age of 10 - busied herself with collecting funds and essentials for victims close to the beach near her home. Then, in coordination with the others and within 90 minutes of receiving a request, she dispatched the first lot of essential items to Sirkazhi.
Krishnan is now in charge of resource management of the recently formulated group, the Tamil Nadu Tsunami Relief Initiative (TNTRI). This group includes a pediatrician, an auditor, the wife of the principal of a noted city school, and several social workers connected with NGOs. TNTRI has been active in badly hit areas like Thirumullaivoyil, Pudhupattinam and Chavadikuppam.
Krishnan has been mobilizing and dispatching endlessly - schoolbags for instance, filled with utensils, raw food provisions, stoves and such. When she arranged for 250 school bags for this purpose, the proprietor of a showroom in Chennai added 50 bags free of cost.
Meanwhile, responding to the distress call, a team of 35 experienced volunteers, mostly women, arrived in Sirkazhi from Raipur (Chhattisgarh) and Bhuj (Gujarat). Despite the language barrier this team faced, their relief work wasn't hampered. Under the able supervision of Bhuvan Pathak of the Uttaranchal-based Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas (SIDH) who, incidentally, knows no Tamil and little English, they set about the task of motivating the victims to clean up their villages and ready them for re-occupation.
"Although he knows no Tamil, Pathak communicates easily with children," says Krishnan. He got the children to help in the cleaning, but found it harder going with the adults, who were dazed, shell-shocked, gripped by lassitude and unable to bring themselves to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. The women refused to help in the community kitchen, preferring to sit and brood in the early days, says Krishnan. It was the children who convinced their elders to snap out their dark mood, and participate in the work. And what marvelous therapy work has proved!
The 400 or so families TNTRI has taken under its wing are almost back to normal, says Krishnan. Most of them have lost at least one member of their family. All have lost their livelihood. A family that has lost its children has taken in an eight-year-old orphaned child. The close-knit fishermen's community refuses to give up the boy for adoption, saying it will care for him as one of their own.
Meanwhile, Sridhar - an excellent administrator, according to Krishnan - is ensuring that things move like clockwork. She has succeeded in acquiring a three-acre plot of land in Pudhupattinam, and the work of building temporary shelters for victims is in progress. Sridhar and Pathak have worked out a plan to build these temporary shelters with locally available material at a cost of Rs 2,500 per unit (1US$=Rs 45). This is much lower than the government estimate of Rs 6,000 and above. While the men are actively engaged in reconstruction work, the women are busy in community kitchens.
In the weeks to come, TNTRI intends to use its resources to procure boats and nets for the fisher folk, and to build permanent homes for them - this time of bricks and mortar, so they won't be such easy prey to the might of the sea.
And then there are the children. Fishing is an art that has to be learnt young, and the fisher folk in general don't see much use in schooling. But TNTRI is mulling on a different approach to education - from a livelihood angle, perhaps - so that the children can pursue their traditional craft and use it to better their lifestyle in the future.
TNTRI is aware that people's psychological needs require attention. Although physical activity has succeeded to some extent in getting people to put the tragedy partly out of their minds, these women, men and children are traumatized and gripped by fear. As a first step, TNTRI plans to get priests - Hindu, Christian or Muslim, as appropriate to the community - to perform a ceremony to dispel the lingering aura of menace and tragedy, and to make way for peace and normalcy.
Post-tsunami, TNTRI has networked with about 15 grassroots agencies engaged in relief work in Tiruvarur, Sirkazhi and Cuddalore, including the Bharati Women Development Centre, Nagapattinam.
As TNTRI's efforts at providing relief have met with success, it is planning a more organized future for itself. "The response to our requests for help, from home and abroad, in cash and kind, has been overwhelming," says Krishnan. It has prompted us to think of forming a Trust.
But that's for the future. For now, the work must go on - the work of relieving the agony of thousands of people whose futures were washed away by the sea on that unforgettable December morning in 2004.
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