In the Wake of the Tsunami

When I went to southern India, driven by a simple desire to help, I found devastation and recovery, cold shoulders and warm hearts

By Manjeet Kripalani

The January morning is sunny, and Madras seems so quiet -- very much the quaint, seaside south Indian city it is, albeit one that has been growing rapidly over recent years into a manufacturing hub. Everyone is at work, and the streets are clear, save for the usual spray of sand blown in from the Indian Ocean beaches, just 500 yards away. Who could guess that a tsunami recently lashed the city, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless?

It has been nine days since the waves hit South Asia, and much has been accomplished in that time. True, Madras didn't suffer as much damage as the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu state. Still, the city -- also called Chennai -- has had to recover bodies, clear debris, and get relief supplies to survivors.


  I came to Madras from Bombay, eager to help in any way I could. So I walked along the shoreline, near battered huts and low-storied cement buildings, searching for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to volunteer with. If I couldn't find one, then I could at least lend a hand to the many individuals who cook kilos of rice and dal, a kind of pea soup, in their homes and then package and distribute them.

I'm disappointed. Today, people at the many NGOs that had set up stalls to distribute provisions wear a forlorn look. A pickup truck with the sign "Oasis Ministries" is loaded with food, and a tall woman in a bright white silk saree is handing out packets of water and savory lemon rice and egg. She is Padma Mudaliar, a local who runs an orphanage.

I approach Mudaliar and ask, "Can I help?" Distributing her supplies with military-like precision, she doesn't look at me but asks "For how long?" I tell her four days. "I can do whatever you want, even tend the morgue," I offer. She tells me no. "Not for four days, but for a lifetime of commitment. Otherwise we don't need you." I slink away, crushed.


  Still, Mudaliar has a point. A good chunk of the tsunami-affected population in India has received the supplies that have been contributed so generously from all over the world. The work that's left to be done -- rehabilitating people, rebuilding their homes, returning them to their livelihoods -- requires commitment.

It won't be easy. In the seafront fisherman's slum of Nochikuppam, the long, fiberglass catamarans that were flung into the residents' flimsy huts are stranded at the side of the road. Even though the boats are blocking traffic, the fishermen say they won't clear their shattered craft and ripped fishing nets until the government has assessed the damage, allowing them to get the promised compensation.

This makes sense. These are the poorest fishermen in Madras, and none has insurance. Their boats cost nearly $2,000 apiece, and fishing nets can run as much as $400. Many of their vessels are write-offs, though some could get back on the water after, say, $500 worth of repairs.


  Yet there's no rush to return to the sea. Since the tsunami hit, people have been trying to deal with the great psychological toll as they try to collect pieces of their lives, says Sokalingam, a weathered 35-year-old with a damaged boat. Besides, it wouldn't be worth the fishermen's while to fish, even if they wanted to. Since many locals believe any catch might carry tsunami-related diseases, it wouldn't sell.

Until government institutions give the necessary clearances, people like Sokalingam will have to depend on charity. Yet he is determined to move forward. "I'm getting insurance," he vows, "so I never have to suffer like this again."

That's the kind of change people like Ashok Joshi, the chairman of the privately run Srinivas Services Trust and a former top bureaucrat in charge of Tamil Nadu's security and internal management, are hoping for. Joshi and his team of disaster-management experts spent three days touring the devastated areas of Tamil Nadu.

The massive effort to move people back to their villages, to rebuild homes, and give them the tools to earn their livelihood will soon begin. Joshi knows what he wants to accomplish, even if he isn't sure exactly how he'll do it. This is a chance to "create a world of new, organized villages, with proper sanitation and a community center," he says, going on to talk of "starting life afresh, better than how they were living before." Joshi's organization intends to adopt two or three villages and rehabilitate them along those lines.


  This is the time to bring the robustness of modern, contemporary systems into the thousands of villages destroyed in south India. When rebuilt, they could serve as models for the rest of the country. But the disorganized Indian government may not be up to the task, despite its best efforts and intentions. India has a national disaster-management plan, but it lacks focused implementation. No central coordinating agency or computer program exist that can efficiently distribute aid and volunteers, or plan what kinds of new homes or villages can be built. No wonder victims, such as Sokalingam, feel adrift.

I, too, am starting to feel that way. As the day wears on, I grow tired of being turned away by institutions unable to make use of ordinary citizens in their relief plans. The Ramkrishna Mission will only accept its own members as volunteers. At a beautiful, serene cathedral the priest in charge of relief "is resting," a church worker tells us. I hear that one major international relief group has shut down its office in Madras.

I'm dejected but decide to try the last address on my list: 20 Ratnam St., the office of the Association for India's Development -- AID India. How I wish I had gone there first. The green, three-story house is overflowing with supplies -- gas stoves, plastic buckets, baby's toys, sheets, blankets, cooking utensils -- and it's looking for volunteers to load and unload goods, make field visits, sort materials, collect clothes, even help with desk work.

AID is providing relief to the very remote coastal villages that few have reached. Twice a day, trucks and volunteers leave the headquarters and head south to help.


  In the office, young men and women are busy assigning jobs and answering phones. They're clean-cut and educated -- the best of motivated, middle-class India. AID's top coordinator, Ravi Shanker, an electrical engineer from the elite Indian Institute of Technology, now teaches at the Institute in Madras. Two doctors from Britain each want to volunteer a week of their time. "Oh yes," a young woman says to me, "put your name down, skills, and availability." A well-heeled man from Singapore comes in with containers full of donated items and money.

AID has something for me to do. Their volunteers are already in place for the distribution of relief, but they need help in their makeshift offices in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam, the worst affected areas, to write daily reports on AID and its volunteers. Since I'm a journalist, would I mind?

Not at all. So I am heading south. I'll start the next day distributing some relief supplies collected by local citizens, and later, I'll become the equivalent of a minute-keeper at a board meeting for relief efforts.

Manjeet Kripalani is chief of BusinessWeek's India bureau, based in Bombay

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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