The Pen, Too, Is a Rebuilding Tool

I left Bombay to work with the relief effort, but found I could be of greatest service reporting the story of India's condition

By Manjeet Kripalani

Any time of the day, but especially early in the morning, the East Coast Road that connects Madras to Pondicherry is a beautiful drive. The road hugs the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu. You can see the beach in the distance and the Indian Ocean shimmering beyond.

You can also see how far the Dec. 26 tsunami pushed inland -- almost to the edge of the road. The beaches and land beyond are now swamp, uncultivatable for two years due to the sea water soakage. Everywhere along the drive there is wreckage. The settlers on the beach have moved inland, just below the East Coast Road. They're now under green canvas or blue plastic tents, all in neat rows, set up by the Indian army, who were the first rescuers on the scene after the tsunami.

I'm headed to Cuddalore, one of the three most affected tsunami areas of India after the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Nagapattinam, a district just south of Cuddalore. We drive by the former French colony of Pondicherry, with shops that sometimes have signs in Tamil, English, and French. I'm looking for my contact, Damu of charitable organization AID India. I'm eager to help (see BW Online, 1/6/05, "In the Wake of the Tsunami").


  Cuddalore is both a town and a district. The tsunami has left the town swampy and full of debris that's unlikely to get cleared away any time soon. Damu's phone number is busy, so Sale Manikam, the social worker who's accompanying me, and I head for the home of a local resident who's active in volunteer work.

The house, in contrast to the town, is well-appointed and squeaky clean. M. Mahendran, our host, is gracious about the supplies we bring to distribute but says relief supplies in Cuddalore are in excess. What's needed now is for rehabilitation work to begin -- the building of homes and resettlement of communities away from the beaches, the repair and purchase of boats. In all, 2.5 million fishermen need to be resettled, according to Mahendran.

Already, the work is under way. Cuddalore -- both the town and the district -- is a hive of activity. The Tamil Nadu Finance Minister is here to assess the damage. M.K. Stalin, the former mayor of Madras, is here with an entourage of 100 followers in 20 cars. The residents watch this drama without much interest. They've seen it every day since the tsunami struck. They've also see the concern that their fellow citizens have for them. Several people have told me that the work and the abundance of supplies has made them realize they aren't stranded or forgotten.


  I try Damu again. This time, his cell phone rings and rings. Two young women who hitched a ride in an AID truck taking supplies to Cuddalore tell me the supplies have already been distributed, and they'll be surveying affected families about their areas of greatest need. Since I can't locate Damu, I decide to follow them to the district interior.

En route, I pass the isolated island of Sonakuppam. This fishing village of 2,500 has been destroyed by the tsunami, and wreckage is everywhere. The army is here. Young Major K.L. Roy from the Madras Regiment says they'll stay till they clear all the debris. Unfortunately, the villagers are going to be relocated -- it's too risky for them to resettle, and the village headman is searching for a suitable habitat for his people.

Meanwhile, they're not lacking for attention. Everyone seems to be in Sonakuppam today, apart from former Mayor Stalin. New Delhi has sent a truck load of provisions like rice and lentils, plus blankets and towels. The Communist Party's youth wing is giving away bed sheets. The children have toys to play with, thanks to Unicef. Rural health-care workers in pretty white sarees with green blouses have been inoculating the village's children against measles, polio, and dysentery. "Whatever even one child in any village contracts, we immunize them against," says health-care worker M. Uma. There are ministers from the Church of Scientology, from Britain, Scotland, and Australia, and 28 monks to provide trauma counseling.


  It occurs to me that the tsunami has done something not even Mahatma Gandhi could: It has brought fundamentalists together to work for a common cause. Since Dec. 26, three sworn enemies have been working with each other on the relief effort: The RSS, the Hindu extremists who are part of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party; their fierce rivals, the Marxists in the Communist Party of India; and the Jamaat, the authorities who run the mosques and serve the Muslim community.

In fact, on Dec. 26, the mosque in the town of Cuddalore had cooked lunch for a wedding. As the waves came in, people rushed to the mosque for shelter. The wedding was called off, and the wedding feast was fed to the victims. Ever since, the local mosque has been providing free afternoon meals to those left homeless by the tsunami.

I have no luck calling Damu, and everyone I meet keeps telling me that the best way for me to contribute is to report the unfolding story about people's needs. I start to think they're right, so I'm eager to find out as much as I can. I learn that Cuddalore has the nonstop efforts of district collector Gagandeep Singh Bedi to thank for its plenty and the relatively smooth process of relief.


  The modest, 36-year-old bureaucrat, who is the top administrator in the district, canceled a vacation that was due to begin on Dec. 26. Within two hours of the tsunami, Bedi had mobilized the hospitals, police, community leaders, state transport and phone authorities, and nongovernmental organizations and helped coordinate their efforts. I decide to settle for being a plain old reporter and seek out Bedi, as he's called.

I catch up with him at Annamalai University, in the temple town on Chidambaram. He has taken the state finance minister around the district to survey the damage. Bedi is calm and generous, despite having scarcely slept since Dec 26. He says much of the credit for the pace of recovery belongs to his staff, especially Rajendra Ratnoo, the baby-faced subinspector of Chidambaram.

The story Bedi tells me is already familiar: The rescue and relief work are mostly over, and now now the group has to work on building houses, rehabilitating the villages, and procuring new boats and nets. He wishes corporations would sponsor the boats. He would also like the reconstructed villages to be well-planned, low-cost structures suitable for coastal living.


  I think back to what someone told me earlier in the day as we passed the submerged village of Killai and the neighboring submerged island of MGR Thittu. A senior politician was being brought back from the island, which is now uninhabitable. Incredibly, some of the islanders survived the tsunami. The politician told me that the government will endeavor to rehabilitate the islanders on shore. One of my traveling companions, an engineer from Madras, whispers to me that politicians aren't afraid of breaking promises, they're only afraid of the press.

And he's right. India has a dozen 24-hour news channels -- the most in the world. They're all offering nonstop coverage of the disaster and the relief efforts. So much scrutiny is focues on the government, relief organizations, and politicians about their responses to the devastation that any slipups become national news and prompt heated debates. Although I had wanted to volunteer to help with relief efforts, I now don't mind being a reporter again.

I head back to Pondicherry for the night. It's a long drive, after a long day. Tomorrow, we leave for Nagapattinam, which was devastated and had little help from the government for almost a week. I hear things are better under the new relief co-ordinator, Vivek Harinaryan, also a top bureaucrat. I hope so.

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

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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