Impressions from the Devastation

The authorities and citizens of Sri Lanka's northeast and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu reacted differently when the tsunami struck.

Non-governmental organisations swarmed like locusts to Sri Lanka after the tsunami of 26 December. They would have dearly liked to do the same thing in India, but New Delhi declared itself perfectly able to deal with the disaster. For this ingratitude India was severely criticised by an international 'donor community'. There was also enough criticism to go around in Sri Lanka as well: how dare the Tamil Tigers claim they can coordinate and funnel all help through their own, indigenous NGO, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), instead of letting foreigners run loose in the countryside! This chatter subsided quickly enough, once it became clear that the TRO was virtually the only efficient ngo in Sri Lanka when it came to dealing with the tsunami aftermath. It got so bad, for a while, that one would have been forgiven for being cynical: what was worse? The tsunami or the floods of aid-givers who arrived afterwards?

How India and Sri Lanka dealt with the tsunami is a study in contrasts, as is the response of the citizens in the regions that were hit. Whereas the government in Sri Lanka was mired in donor administration and coordination of NGOs, India decided to go about the task itself and kept a tight control on the assistance. The fisherfolk of the Tamil Nadu coast up and down the city of Madras were a picture of self-confidence in the aftermath of the tragedy, active in self-help and in challenging the government. On the other hand, across the Palk Straits in Mullaitivu in the LTTE-controlled northeast, the locals living in camps were but passive recipients of aid. There was a lethargy evident, and unwillingness to help with the reconstruction, which was perhaps the result of despair related to years upon years of war and destruction, followed by a tsunami of the kind of magnitude that it was.

Northeast disaster

In Sri Lanka, 37,000 died and 300,000 were rendered homeless by the tsunami. The devastation was concentrated on the coast between Galle in the south and Trincomalee in the northeast, the latter taking a direct hit that claimed 17,400 lives. Mullaitivu is the little market-town along this coast fiercely contested during the war. It is now part of the LITE-controlled area, the Vanni. Having seen the place after the war, it seemed that more destruction was not possible. Where in the past there was rubble and ruin, now there was virtually nothing. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives here on 26 December, and 21,000 were displaced. The town was nothing more than dead branches, fallen trees, concrete slabs, a gutted post office, and the façade of a ruined church that had survived the earlier fighting. A children's home situated along the seashore had 98 of its 150 or so young residents swept away.

Most of the 23 transit camps had been established mainly in schools, and the one we visited was clean but spartan: eight families to a classroom with cement floor, palm-leaf roof and partition walls. There were no doors and little privacy. The TRO looked after the people together with the Red Cross, Unicef and other organisations. The people appeared well looked-after, but were still disoriented and apathetic weeks after the event. In economic terms, the tsunami has hit the fishing community hardest with nearly 14,000 boats lost in the northeast. The sums needed for reconstruction were estimated to be highest in the northeast – USD 774 million – compared to USD 387 million in the south.

Though the Colombo government had declared a national state of emergency by 27 December, help arrived tardily. Private organisations were on the spot much faster. It took until 24 June for the government to sign an agreement with the LTTE on the mechanism for distribution of assistance. However, this agreement has had to be suspended because it was challenged by one of the parties in Colombo's governing coalition, the JVP.

In northern areas under its control, the LTTE was able to establish help and recovery measures speedily. However, further down the east where it wrestles for control of territory with the government, things were more difficult. There was also a tug-of-war between the assisting agencies, quite apart from the hundreds of ngos that arrived in the wake of the disaster. There were mounting complaints that the bulk of government assistance went to the south, where the devastation was less marked. Even private help and donations from various organisations went to the south at first, not least because the international media had infested Galle and preferred to report from the comfort of the 5-star accommodation available there.

Meanwhile, tons of aid and supplies were stuck at Colombo harbour, because the government slapped customs and excise on goods that were allegedly 'not suitable' for disaster relief. The smaller ngos were unable to pay the high fees and so could not retrieve their relief supplies. The goods fell to the government by default and were auctioned publicly. There seemed enough proof to confirm allegations that goods destined for the north and northeast were taxed unless they were handed over to the government to distribute at will.

The situation was complicated by the political situation, with a fragile ceasefire just holding up between the Tigers and the government. Things came to a head when the JVP, as the coalition partner of the Kumaratunga government in Colombo, refused to allow the LTTE to be charged with organising relief in the area under its control. The flow of relief goods to the Vanni was also hampered by officers at the lower levels of military and bureaucracy, who had a history of scoffing at the regulations on transport of goods and people even under the ceasefire agreement of 2002.

The TRO, which coordinates and funnels all relief to the northeast, was founded in 1985 by supporters in India and Malaysia. While sympathetic to the LTTE, the organisation has acted as an independent support group for Tamils affected by the war, and now it is responding to the tsunami. The TRO was extremely efficient in organising the recovery of bodies and helping the people after the disaster. Many of the old and new ngos elsewhere, on the other hand, simply, as someone said, "stood on each other's toes and organised the chaos."

What does retard the TRO's efforts is the apathy among the people in the relief camps, visible even months after the disaster. When it was discovered that traditional shelters of brick were much better than the tents being distributed by the Red Cross, which were hot and muggy inside,

the TRO decided to promote the rapid construction of these prototypes. However, the problem was how to get the people enthused. It was impossible even to get helpers to carry the bricks required for the construction. It is this apathy that is the greatest challenge to the TRO's efforts to go beyond the first stage of direct relief, to medium and long term issues of reconstruction and rebuilding livelihoods.

Meanwhile, the national authorities are trying to implement a pre-existing regulation for a Coastal Exclusion Zone (CEZ), prohibiting permanent structures within a 100 to 200 m from the shore. The fisherfolk reject the CEZ because it inhibits their access to the sea. Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremasinghe, has supported their stand and recommended they take recourse to the law. Interestingly, the regulation is not supposed to apply to hotels and tourist establishments, because they are built of stone and presumably safer. As in Tamil Nadu (see accompanying article), the fisherfolk suspect that they are being targeted in order to benefit real estate sharks who have an eye on the seafront properties.

Comparision: Tamil Nadu

For India with its one billion inhabitants and massive economy, the devastation that the tsunami visited on Tamil Nadu and the Andaman and Nicobar islands was relatively modest. Whereas the tsunami was a matter of national significance for Sri Lanka, it was a regional matter in India. The annual budget of India passed shortly after the tsunami did not show any impact of the tsunami. Even Tamil Nadu's economy has been considered 'reasonably sound' in spite of the disaster.

While aid from the state administration was slow in coming, both the central government and ngos acted speedily after the tsunami struck. This created some controversy between the state and central governments, enough that the Centre sent relief funds to the affected areas via loans disbursed directly through public banks or the municipalities. Not to be outdone, in Madras, Chief Minister Jayalalitha promised generous credit schemes and grants to the affected families. India accepted help from foreign organisations and ngos only under stern conditions. In this sense, the Indian government acted with the same level of confidence as the LTTE in the Vanni, and in contrast with the attitude of the government in Colombo.

The coast of Tamil Nadu is about 1,000 km long, and the Chief Minister's idea of building a protective concrete embankment all the way through was greeted with ridicule and promptly dropped. Experts said it would be much more sensible to plant mangroves along the coast, which had in fact saved some communities from the brunt of the tsunami. In a transit camp just outside Mahabalipuram, the fishermen were unanimous in saying, "Tell the government, we do not want alms. We want to work." While they and their families are not the poorest communities in Tamil Nadu, they are considered 'low caste', and actually regard themselves as outside the hierarchical caste system. They are well-organised, are politically aware, and know their rights: they demand loans to buy new boats, nets and engines. But most of all they demand the right to stay in their traditional homesteads. Hardly had the tsunami washed over them and they raised their heads again, they went and sued the government because it intended to drive them out of their rightful places.

While Colombo asks for and relies on international donations for rehabilitation and reconstruction and sometimes complains that not enough of the promised aid is forthcoming, New Delhi and Madras have relied almost entirely on their own resources. While Sri Lanka thus puts its foreign policy in captivity in the wake of the tsunami, India preserves its autonomy. In the end, it was the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation of the northeast that was there when the people of the region needed them the most. On the other hand, the two decades of fighting seem to have sapped the strength and enthusiasm of the people themselves. And so when the waves came to devastate what little was remaining of their willpower and zeal, the people of the Sri Lankan northeast preferred to be passive recipients. In Tamil Nadu, by contrast, a people who had not seen the devastation of war, were able to organise, help each other, and challenge authority.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian