India's Daunting Road to Recovery

As the tsunami's waters recede, the larger battle begins to restore homes, rebuild industries, and fan the fires of hope

By Manjeet Kripalani

You can see the devastation 15 miles before the road turns to the Indian town of Nagapattinam. The by-now familiar dark, taupe-colored swamp, sometimes four-feet deep, is spread over large tracts of land and reaches all the way back to the sea. Lord knows how many bodies are under it, never to be found. It will be two years before that land can be put to productive use. And debris -- plastic, metal, wood, brick, shreds of clothes, torn and uprooted trees -- is everywhere.

Unlike the neighboring district of Cuddalore, which saw plenty of aid, on this road we pass only a few trucks carrying relief supplies (see BW Online, 1/6/05, "In the Wake of the Tsunami", and 1/7/05, "The Pen, Too, Is a Tool for Rebuilding").

Perhaps those trucks have already delivered what the residents need, I think as we speed along. Or perhaps Nagapattinam is just too far from Madras -- a seven-hour drive -- and too much trouble to reach.

FAMOUS TRIANGLE.

  But as we get closer to our destination, I see more trucks filling the narrow lanes. There are relief trucks from other states too, and medical tents set up by foreign aid groups such as Medilor France.

Nagapattinam is a minor port, known mostly as a center for the local fishing industry. But although it is a secular town with a mixed population, it's also famous for three religious symbols that form a triangle around it: a Muslim shrine in neighboring Nagoore, the Hindu Sikkal Singaravelan temple dedicated to Lord Muruga in Nagapattinam, and a church at nearby Verlangini. Thousands took refuge in the church on Boxing Day and were saved from the tsunami.

In the city, much of the debris on the roadsides has been cleared, and it now looks relatively clean. The streets are sprayed with a disinfectant to keep away disease. Even so, not many vehicles or residents are around, and the few people I see wear surgical masks. We pass a large area covered in ash: This is where the mass cremations recently took place.

CENTER OF ACTIVITY.

  The homes of the poor, made of thatched palm leaves, have been destroyed, and many of the brick buildings, too, were blasted, leaving exposed rooms and walls. In contrast, the office of the collector, the district's chief administrator, is situated inland and is standing tall and untouched, a large, ugly structure painted government green and blue and set in large grounds.

Nagapattinam is the administrative center of seven subdistricts, most of which have suffered as a result of the tsunami. The collector's office, the center of district relief operations, is buzzing with activity. Doctors, donors, citizens, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), police, faith-healers, reporters, tech experts, the famous, and the ordinary -- all are there, hoping to help (see BW Online, 1/11/05, "India Pulls Together amid Disaster").

A well-known dancer, Padma Subramaniam, has tears in her eyes as she recounts her trip to the town just four months ago to conduct an ancient religious festival for the fisherfolk. She's come to look for the scores of people she had worked with and also to lend moral support. "I want to reach out," she says. "People are mentally devastated."

TRAGEDY'S SCOREBOARD.

  In the building's lobby is a board with a gruesome list that's regularly updated: the number of villages destroyed and the tally of people dead, injured, or missing. The district has 96 relief camps, 200,000 people affected, and 6,000 dead. Thousands more are missing.

The collector of Nagapattinam could not cope with the devastation, so help was sent from Madras. The commissioner in charge of relief, now based in the collector's office, is Vivek Harinarayan, who in his regular job is the state's information-technology chief. He has created a Web-based Tsunami Crisis Management System. The site helps coordinate nongovernment workers, and offers details of the damage, a page for donors, and regular updates on the relief effort.

Today, Harinarayan is also conducting an important meeting with experienced disaster-relief experts from four large aid groups. They're concerned with the overwhelming supply of relief materials and suggest that aid be stopped for a week because locals are getting things they don't need.

DANGEROUS RESULTS.

  All people really need now is what one of the activists, Shushma Aiyengar, calls a "family package" -- blankets, potatoes, onions, grain, and cooking utensils, which will keep people going for the month or so before they can move from shelters into interim homes. What's really worrying her, though, are the spurious and unnecessary products pouring in with the aid.

Good intentions don't always produce good results. For example, a Canadian donor has sent an enormous consignment of advanced antibiotics that aren't required -- and the customs department in Madras had stopped them for inspection. This is more than just a hassle. It could have dangerous results, since people unfamiliar with antibiotics sometimes take all the medicine at once.

Then there's the 9,000-ton shipments of milk powder, much of it unusable. Besides, villagers are accustomed to fresh milk, and don't know what to do with the powder. Some of the children who drank improperly prepared milk became ill. Bewildered, the citizens sent the powder back to the NGOs that distributed them. Developed-country solutions don't always work in developing countries. Locals sometimes have to find their own solutions.

REGAINING CONTROL.

  Tons of precooked food has been sent, but village folk are used to eating just rice and fish curry. The NGOs and government put out a plea to citizens not to send precooked food, no matter how lovingly prepared. So now relief workers are arriving from all over the country, helping set up community kitchens where the tsunami victims can cook their own food using dry provisions. They don't have fish, of course -- the fishing has stopped due to lack of boats and fear that the fish could be contaminated with tsunami-related diseases. But the townspeople are happy enough, at least for now, with rice, lentils, and spicy pickles.

Finally, the group gets back to the really pressing matter -- rehabilitation. It's a tough, long-term job. People need trauma counseling. Just as daunting is the business of getting the region back to the routine of daily life. That means making sure the water supply is safe. Roads badly need repair. And people need their homes back. In Nagapattinam, an estimated 10,000 homes will have to be rebuilt -- quickly.

But the most important task is getting people back to work and once again in control of their destinies. The east coast of Tamil Nadu is a fishing community. The people have lost their boats and nets. Each new fiberglass boat costs $2,000. The government has promised to do what it can, but help needs to come fast so people don't lose heart. Many of the fishermen want to return to sea by mid-January.

NEAR AND FAR.

  Some don't want to go back to the sea, however, and alternative work will have to be found for them. Commissioner Harinaryana estimates losses at the harbor are running to about $120 million.

Farmers, too, have lost their livelihoods. Agricultural land degraded by the floods needs to be identified, assessed, and treated. The NGOs say they'll appeal to people from around the world with expertise in this area. The World Bank has the knowhow and the experience, but Commissioner Harinaryana says he'll need more help.

And remember, this is just one relatively small spot in India. And I think of the enormous damage other countries -- Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Burma -- are facing. How will they cope? They don't have many of India's advantages: economic growth and increasing self-sufficiency, a functioning bureaucracy that can rise to a crisis, and a dedicated and diligent civil society that manifests in the form of NGOs and the press.

The road to recovery will be a long one for India. I can't begin to imagine how much longer it will be for the others.

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

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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