Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Chidambaram Trip for Relief – My views

There are certain points about this trip, which I would have to reiterate. There are certain issues, which I have to highlight. There are my own views, which would be a part of this report. So if there are any repetitions of what Suman / Anita have mentioned in their report, I would request you to just read on and get your own holistic view of the situation.

Sambandam, a fellow customer at the tea stall at B. Mutlur (stands for Bhuvanagiri Mutlur because there is another village called C. Mutlur where C means Chidambaram) reiterated the information we had initially gathered at AID India office in Chennai. As mentioned by Kiruba in his first post, Anu of AID India, was more than forthcoming to help us with information and they are doing a phenomenal job in the coastal regions. The list of villages he mentioned to be worst affected included MGR Thittu, Chinna Vaikkal, Pillamedu, Pazhayar, Thoduvam, Thirumullaivasal, Koozhaiyar, Nayakkarkuppam and the list goes on. These are villages that fall under the Cuddalore District. Sambandam also mentioned that there are villages where no one was spared.

My initial report and the photo essay gave a brief explanation of the Killai village and the fact that we overshot the way to Muzhukkuthurai & MGR Thittu. We decided to get to MGR Thitu because everyone we spoke to mentioned this village’s name and confirmed that this was one of the worst hit. Also, AID India wanted to get more information about the village for them to coordinate as much relief as possible. So we headed in that direction.

Suman had explained about the conversation with the guy in the Ambulance and the way the waves had caused destruction to the farmlands also. A picture is worth a thousand words. I made the mistake. While I took a couple of pictures of the greenery on the way to Killai, I don’t know why I missed a picture of the farmland destructed by the seawater by moving so deep inside! It would have showed the stark difference that the water has made to the land. It would be a long time before the land becomes cultivable and there is absolutely no one who has talked about the water causing destruction to the property of these farmers.

Anyways, I would like to bring to light my conversation with Anbazhagan – the boatman who took us to MGR Thitu and with Ranjith – the son of the MGR Thitu village headman. Anbazhagan gave me a few numbers, which was very disturbing. There were 180 families in that village. (I also got a list of the families from that village and it actually came to 177 to be very precise). The village would have had 750 people of which Anbazhagan mentioned that 64 were dead. Five persons are still missing. There were nearly 60 mechanised fishing boats (read boats and not launches) in that village. None of these boats, I repeat, NONE of these boats are now in useable condition. Using them with repairs can prove equally fatal. Also, the boats were unattended to till date (for obvious reasons). This means that the salt water would have seeped through the engines. These boats have also been lying in the beach / on top of houses / between the bushes and has been exposed to direct sunlight. This has caused the engine parts to rust. Since these fisher folk don’t trust banks for whatever reasons, they also lost money as cash to the waves. They had to choose between grieving for the dead and salvaging lost property. Being humans that they are, they chose to grieve and this has led them to further misery of not being able to salvage their property – whatever is left of it!!!

They now have two boats – one mechanised and the other a little larger and deeper than a catamaran which has to be rowed, which can be used only to get to the village and back. These two are only passenger boats. These two survived because they were at a good distance from the shore. The villagers lease this out to one family on a yearly basis for approximately INR 10000/- (approximately 212USD). The villagers use these boats to commute between the village and the mainland. The villagers pay Rs.2/- (.042 USD) while the visitors / tourists pay around Rs.10/- (22cents) for a round trip.

I would like to take a small digression to explain my take about the fishing boats. By boats, I mean small fibre / wooden boats which are larger than the catamarans and can hold upto a tonne and a half of catch. They are machine propelled equipments and they generally use Maruti / Yamaha engines of a slightly higher capacity to propel the boat into the deep sea. These boats cost approximately INR.60000/- (approximately 1280 USD) and they are then fitted with the engines to propel them. These engines cost around INR.35000/- (approximately 750 USD). In all, a fishing family needs around 2000 USD to start a life and actually be prosperous.

On our way back, I had a chat with Ranjith (son of the MGR Thitu village headman) and a few others (Malaiarasu, Balaiah, Madhiyazhagan) to assess the current situation and their needs. The people from the village are well off. Ranjith has a mobile and that is not the only sign of their prosperity. You may notice in the photo essay the kind of articles that was damaged and the kind of houses they used to live in. Most of them had constructed pucca houses and a few of them had dish antennas. The village has electricity obviously, but what startles is that they used to have satellite phones included to their list of properties since recently. The telecom revolution has actually touched every part of the country and the fact that we could make / receive calls on our mobiles from the village stands guarantee. Every other house had a wet grinder (to make typical South Indian dough / batter), mixer grinder (for dry grinding of spices), Refrigerators, Televisions and all that would constitute a prosperous household even in a city. In fact they would not have suffered the Conditional Access System (CAS) which Chennai suffers from, which means that they would have got all the channels that I don’t get to see now a days including HBO, STAR Movies, Discovery & National Geographic. If I had visited this place earlier, I would have probably felt jealous because they get to live in a beach resort with all the facilities all their lives. I now think different. This just goes to say that the loss to their property is even worse!

The 177 families had around 60 boats. A few people owned these boats, but the rest of the fishermen worked along with them and they shared the catch in whatever proportion they agree upon! They now have lost their land because the government does not want them to stay in that village, because of its proximity to the sea. They have been asked to move to the mainland and a 20 acre land has already been allotted to them. But they have to pay for it. It would cost around 10 lakhs for the villagers to buy that land and they don’t have money. The government has told them that they would be given constructed houses in the allocated land, but they would have to buy the land for availing this. The fishermen are in a fix. Reasons? A. They don’t want to move inland, because as Suman had mentioned, it would become a huge logistics problem for them to haul their catch to the markets. B. Their financial situation does not allow them to buy even the allocated land!

I would like to make a special mention about Mr. Gagandeep Singh Bedi – the collector of Cuddalore. I understand from the villagers and from the relief workers in that area that this man has done a phenomenal job. Everyone confirmed that the INR.1,00,000/- for the deceased was disbursed in less than three days to their families. Of course, the money has not been given yet to the families of the five missing villagers, but I still think that it is an outstanding job done, given the current set of resources. The INR.4,000/- for ALL families and ration (includes 60kg rice, some cereals, kerosene etc) has also been disbursed to all the recognised families. KUDOS to that man for actually making the official machinery work overnight. It requires extraordinary talent and he has just exhibited that!

There are cases where some families have not been recognised and the villagers are actually so united that they distributed the funds and the rations, equally between all the families. I am not really sure if I would have exhibited that kind of magnanimity given the kind of situation. My respects to all those people who shared not just their grief, but what they got as relief material. It takes a lot of strength to do what these people did! Just enough proof that they have the strength to face life despite the situation.

On my way back from the village I promised myself to keep reminding about the public for as long as I can, till as many of these affected victims roll their way back on the track of life. Public memory is very short and Media is a very ugly tribe. They will roll from one scoop to another and we can already see that very few people are talking about these victims. And in due time, there wouldn’t be many or any. No one talks about 1984 revolt (barring a film called Amu); people have forgotten Bhuj; and Kumbakonam is now known only as the temple town and not as the killer town where fire swallowed more than 80 kids. I wanted to do my might by reminding people about this for as long as possible. Life – at the end of it – will move on, but these victims need a hand, a shoulder and a push to get it back on track. It would take a long time for sure.

The villagers are still in the process of negotiating with relief agencies and the government to try and get their lives back on the wheels, but for now, I think that no one has a clue of where to hit the arrow so they get the result. They have at least been able to spell their needs and they are doing that with everyone! The situation is “Whoever gives Whatever – may they be blessed”. Little wonder that the fisher folk from Pillamedu (represented by village headman Govindan) were in tears when this little drop in the form of nets (collected by Anita, Arun & Joshi of Bangalore) fell their way. This sure is a little drop and there is certainly a long way to go.

After getting back to office, I was speaking to one of the volunteer coordinators (Vibha Ravindran) of AID India. She mentioned a view, which I think I have to echo here. “It is now that the relief work would become doubly difficult. With the media not talking as much about the current situation, the task would be Herculean to get funds, volunteers and material to ensure that the livelihood is back for these people.”

At the risk of sounding dramatic / over-reacting, I am making this appeal:

Please do not forget this incident. If you still want to… delay the amnesia by a couple of years at least. It is not a single man task. And it is not only about MGR Thitu. There is much more to be done and it is a long hard way. It would be better if the job were done in a coordinated way. “Bloggers of the world. Unite!”

Nanda Kishore Sethuraman, 18th January 2005.

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