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Tsunami: NGOs and Civil Society

(A Different Model of Aid)

by L.A. Samy
Renganathapuram, Tamil Nadu, India

L.A. Samy is the director of AREDS (Association of Rural Education and Development Service) in the Tamil Nadu state of India.

The statement made by one of the top bureaucrats of the Indian State Government of Tamil Nadu, R.Santhanam (who holds the position of the Commissioner of Revenue Administration) who recently expressed particular enthusiasm about the safety and security of the fisher folk by removing them to places which are at least 1000 meters away from the seashore that “the construction of permanent houses for tsunami victims has begun in some areas and the first (80 houses built in Pudukuppam in Cuddalore District) will be handed over in a few months” speak volumes about the callousness, lethargy and indifference on the part of the Government towards the unfortunate people whose are still groaning under the weight of the havocs of December 2004.

The construction of the houses is part of the ‘comprehensive rehabilitation and reconstruction project’ under way with the loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to be executed in three years. For him tsunami had also a bright side: “The collective outpour of emotional support of people to the victims, exposure to the vulnerability of environment, generation of greater confidence to deal with disasters, sensitization of environmental laws and rules,” he claimed, are some of the ‘positive lessons’ one learnt from the disaster. What he avoided admitting was, obviously, that the Government can hardly take credit for any of these. He somehow had to come nearer to the truth when he talked of the “coming together of the Government and several NGOs.”

Protests by fisher folk, Dalits, farmers

Everyday occurrences of protests by fisher folk; Dalits (untouchables) who depend on and helpful to the fisher folk to eke out a living, the people displaced from the traditional places of habitation like seashore and the neighbourhood slums; and the farmers whose cultivated lands were inundated by the sea water against the failure of the government in hastening relief and rehabilitation works, the partiality and nepotism of the administrators in distributing the doles, and the not-too-infrequent brutal methods with which the police deal with these agitators, are a sad reminder that only a bare minimum has so far been done by the Government to redress the grievances of the hapless people affected by the tsunami.

It is true that but for the instantaneous outpour of emotional and material support from just ordinary people, aid agencies, charitable organizations, NGOs and dedicated elements from various political parties, the magnitude of the destruction caused by the tsunami would have been much more greater. Men and women from these sections who rushed to the affected areas did not wait for the army or the police to remove the dead bodies, search for the survivors, and provide immediate and life-saving succor to those left to live.

The relief work started with the supply of cooked food. And since the government machinery was in total disarray from top to bottom, there was hardly anyone to co-ordinate the relief works, collate information about them, and channelise the food reached there in meaningful and effective ways, soon there were mounds of rotten and decomposed food. People started rejecting even the freshly cooked food as they valued their self-dignity and self-worth much more than the chances of survival. They preferred to have uncooked food articles and cooking vessels so that they can cook their own food. Bales and bales of used garments were also had to be left untouched by the people.

Then there was the question of shelters. There were scrambles to get a place in the makeshift shelters built by any number of agencies ranging from a leading Bollywood (Hindi) cinema star to the missionaries from various religious denominations, ‘spiritual gurus’, and of course a number of NGOs. There were countless repetitions and replications of the same things done over and over again.

AREDS, SWATE, local people’s movements organize

Shocked and moved by the unprecedented tragedy caused by the natural furies, we in AREDS whose theory and practice are not fashioned after any charitable organization or relief agency, couldn’t wait for too long to make ourselves part of those who were in relief work in the coast districts. We had to mobilise, at a very short notice, activists from NGOs and People’s Movements who are both in our immediate neighbourhood as well as with past experiences in joint programmes and actions with us.

An elaborate discussion with the representatives of a few and NGOs and People’s Movements led us to a decision of collecting and/or buying fresh biscuits for the children, bed sheets and towels, inner garments for women, men’s wears, saris and dhotis out of the contributions made by AREDS, SWATE, an organization of rural women, and also by several People’s Movements including Dalit organisations. The members of staff AREDS; the women members of SWATE, and the members of People’s Movements contributed one day’s wages each to the relief measure decided by us. Two organisations of farmers and marginal farmers contributed Rs 5000 each. It is pertinent to mention that the members of these People’s Movement are themselves poor and downtrodden and amongst them were the socially oppressed groups like Dalits.

Two teams of volunteers -- one to Nagapattinam and Thiruvarur districts and the other to Kanyakumari district -- were sent on 30.12.2004. Our contribution to the overall relief works was only a drop in the ocean, and just as the human beings were proved to be too fragile and too vulnerable to withstand the immense fury of the natural forces, we also learnt to be humble and less ambitious in any attempt to be part of the relief and rehabilitation work.

The total loss of life and property has not yet been properly and faithfully computed, but what struck us as an unbelievable tragedy much greater and graver than the destructions caused by the tsunami was the fact that death ceased to be an equaliser. The powerful waves that swept along in its mad rage thousands of humans and several billion worth of property and personal belongings, stood bedazzled against the solid rocks of castes and unsociability. Whether it was in the relief camps, or in the sites where mass burial pits were dug, or in the search operations of both the dead and living, the casteism kept raising its ugly head and showing the Dalits their ‘place’.

Small is beautiful

Our human sensitivities led us to envisage the rehabilitation of 2000 affected families, less visible because of their lowest level in the caste hierarchy to the gaze of the media, relief agencies and NGOs. It is true that the plights of the Dalit victims of the tsunami disaster came to be addressed to a number of NGOs but we wanted to focus on selected areas and adopt them as our own for rehabilitation work. Our appeal for funds to fulfill our target of rehabilitating 2000 families has not so far met with by any substantial funds from any donor agencies. But we learnt that the world is not bereft of genuine solidarity and concern for suffering humanity. We were deeply touched by the small contributions coming from children in Belgium who made pancakes, sold them to elders and gave the money to us for relief work. Just ordinary men and women, none of whose individual contribution exceeded 500 euros, joined them. This once again reinforced our belief that “small people with conscious and collective numbers can create another world”. Added to these were the generous contributions from Ouest France Solidaritite and The Community of Rumst, Belgium. All these contributions would make us help rehabilitate 200 families as against our original target of 2000. We are however quite satisfied with the small efforts we have made. After all, as Schumpeter said “Small is Beautiful”.

Even these small contributions converted into Indian money translate themselves into substantial help to people who can look forward to a future with hope and confidence. We went ahead with helping people with things that provide them with long-term sources of livelihood:

Cuddalore District

The first phase of our intervention started with supporting the livelihood resources of the tsunami victims. Bicycles were distributed to 30 fish vending men and baskets, scale and weighing stones for 35 vegetable vending women. An initial investment cost of Rs.500/- was given to each vegetable-vending woman.

Nagapattinam District

Nagoor Station

1. Cycle-rickshaws (pedicabs) with large wooden platforms fixed behind them have been given to 15 Dalit families of Nagoor Station of Nagapattinam Distirct. All of them are now sheltered in make shift camps. These carts will be used by them to transport and vend fish and other articles.

2. Bicycles have been given to five Dalit families for running cycle shops that hire out cycles and repair them.

3. Large cooking vessels were given to two Dalit families. These vessels can be hired out to people who need them for cooking for a large number of people on occasions such as marriage or other rites of passage.

4. One movable cart for vegetable vending has been given to one Dalit family. In addition an amount of Rs 2000 for initial investment for vegetable vending and weighing scale have also been given.

5. One Dalit family has been enabled to run a idli (fast food) shop by providing it with a mobile cart.

6. One Dalit family has been enabled to run a tea shop by providing it with a mobile cart.

7. Sewing machines have been given two Dalit families.

8. Initial investments amounting to Rs 10000 have been given to two Dalit families to enable them to buy and sell garments.

9. One Dalit family has been provided with initial investment to run a sweet stall.

Vizhunthamavadi Village

10. Fishing nets have been given to 50 persons.

11. 8 fishing boats have been given to 24 women (each boat will be owned by three women collectively). It should be mentioned that even amongst the fisher folk or even Dalits, neither the boats nor the nets have ever been owned by women. Boats have always been the exclusive property of men and this is the first time that in any fishing village, women have been made the owners of the boat. Though only 24 women own these 8 boats, number of men who go to the sea for fishing, and more number of men and women who collect, distribute, and vend the fish and mend the nets, would benefit from this assistance.

12. Fish carrying basket, Balance Scale & weighing stones have been distributed to 23 women fish vendors.. Besides, an initial investment money of Rs.500/- has also been given to each of them.

Thideerkuppam Village

1.75 acres of land has been purchased in Pappakovil village in Nagapattinam district to build houses for 46 Dalit families from Thideerkuppam village of this village. This is one of the worst affected villages in this district.

A different sight

Though our modest assistance may seem to pale into insignificance in the face of the magnitude of the relief and rehabilitation work needed to include all those affected by tsunami disaster across the State, it is our firm belief that if only the NGOs and other relief agencies would come together, pool their energies and resources together, conduct micro-level studies to ascertain the nature and magnitude of the destructions caused by tsunami in each village and find out the immediate and long term needs of the affected people, share their experiences amongst themselves, we can dispense with the Bill Clintons of the world who made a publicity stunt amongst the starving and depraved people of Nagapattinam district as well as all the soft and hard loans from the World bank and Asian development bank. We can do without the help and assistance from the corrupt and callous government agencies.

But what we see is a different sight. The coastal lines affected with tsunami waves are dotted with the camps of NGOs. The signboards and the banners inscribed with the names of the NGOs in the relief and rehabilitation work are ubiquitous. One of the fallouts of the tsunami is that the rented houses are in great demand in towns like Cuddalore and Nagapattinam. Maraimalainagar, a middle class residential area of Nagapattinam is brisling with the ‘activities’ of the men and women of the NGOs. There seem to be more than one NGO per capita amongst the people affected by the natural disaster. Building a civil society as an answer to the all – embracing power of the state used to be a subject hotly debated amongst the NGOs. Now literally and not metaphorically the NGOs have formed themselves into civil society. How civil is anybody’s guess. Instead of being motivated by selfless service to the people, many NGOs are now getting bogged down in the mire of outright careerism and publicity mongering. In the place of self-effacement, there is a craze to be in the limelight. To borrow a phrase from the late Andy Warhol, everybody wants to be famous for at least for 15 minutes! Many of the NGOs crowding the already over crowded streets of these provincial towns have no experience in grassroots work, let alone relief and rehabilitation projects. They are simply there because they have found some well meaning but gullible funding agencies and donors.

One silver lining in the dark clouds is a first ever systematic and scientific study to gather comprehensive data on each of the families affected by the tsunami by Action Aid-International, India which involved 1300 students from 29 schools of Social Work from all over the State during January-February this year who interviewed 90,000 people in 280 villages during January-February 2005. We only hope that these findings would help the well meaning NGOs to organise, regulate and channel their energy and material and spiritual resources in consultation and solidarity amongst themselves and also open the eyes of those who fund the former to exercise their discretion in better and meaningful ways.

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Published in In Motion Magazine July 17, 2005