Tamil Nadu’s second tsunami

In the days after the 26 December tsunami swept up the Tamil Nadu coast, people united for the sheer common fortune of having survived. Shooing away the vultures, they came together to bury the dead in mass graves. No one bothered about the caste or religion of the bodies that lay on the beach. There was a groundswell movement by individuals and organisations carrying out rescue operations and fulfilling the most fundamental needs of the survivors.

On the first day, with the people scattered across different villages, the survivors were running about frantically seeking lost family members. The villagers opened their temples, marriage halls and theatres to the homeless, and had helped start communal kitchens by the next day.

By the second day, the survivors were able to concentrate their search for loved ones in the camps that had sprung up. Many student groups, ngos and others had moved into the ravaged areas, working to locate the missing, clearing the corpses, and providing much-needed medical support. Auto-rickshaws were commandeered to announce the names of stranded survivors. It took another couple of days for the communities and families to finally regroup. An approximate list of the dead was ready in a little over a week, the biggest problem being the identification of bodies that had been washed away from their home communities. In the end, such cases did not find registration on any list.

The immediate emotional catastrophe behind them, half a year later, the people of the Tamil Nadu coast are now confronted with the challenge of rebuilding their lives and livelihoods – how to settle down, where to settle down, and how to get back to the sea and off the dole. They want to take back control of their lives and emerge from their dependence. They want to rebuild their houses by the beach. But all this is easier said than done.

The women, the children

It was the women and children who were most affected by the tsunami. Women lost their lives while trying to rescuing their children. The entire coast is covered with a thick spread of thorny bushes, and so many who were trying to escape got their clothes tangled in them. Dresses were torn or pulled away by the waves, and many women never called for help out of a sense of shame.

After the disaster, it is the women who collect clothing, food, water packets and other relief materials, spending long hours in queues. The men, mostly, hang on to their masculine egos and only come forward when it is time to collect cash compensations. The day-to-day activity of men has come to a standstill whereas women are more engaged in keeping the house going.

The few psychologists who have worked with the victims feel their contribution in counselling has been totally insignificant in comparison to the volume of emotional distress. Thousands of children have seen dead bodies lying about, many of them would have been friends. They have watched the removal of decayed corpses. For days on end, the children were not playing, and their sleep is disturbed. They tend to talk a lot about death. Many who saw their parents carried away were rendered mute for long periods. The very word 'tsunami' is enough to evoke fear.

Coastal regulation

More than 75 per cent of the victims of the tsunami in Tamil Nadu were from the fishing communities that survive by the seashore. The challenge beyond the trauma of bereavement is providing permanent shelters and means of survival. The original shanties which were mostly by the beach are almost all gone, as are the boats and fishing gear. For these people, the beach was their world, where they worked, traded, socialised and played. Their worldview extended from the beach into the sea, rather than inland.

The Madras government has now taken a stand that all permanent shelters should be restricted to areas beyond 500m from the high water line. The basis for this diktat is the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), an old, ineffective law which restricts construction within the 500m zone. The authorities are using the opportunity provided by the tsunami to implement the regulation to go after the poor fisherfolk, already devastated by the high waves of 26 December.

In considering the government's invocation of the CRZ as part of its tsunami-rehabilitation policy, it is important to consider the situation of the coastal communities. Out of the 591 fishing villages along the Tamil Nadu coast, about 160 suffered severe damage. About 300 were moderately affected, while a hundred-odd villages suffered little or no loss. Interestingly, it is the villages which bore the brunt of the disaster that are now facing the wrath of the CRZ and the prospect of displacement from traditional areas, in effect confronting a second tsunami.

Right to homestead

While the ngos and some corporate houses have been engaged in the rehabilitation works, it is the government which controls the process and, most importantly, the placement of the new settlements. All the fisherfolk kuppams (communities) within metropolitan Madras have been asked to shift to temporary shelters, before they are finally moved to their permanent settlements. Those from the southern reaches of the city have been asked to move to Thoraipakkam, which is about 20 km away, impracticably far from their traditional beaches and without unhindered access to the sea which they require. It all boils down to the right to homestead land and freedom to practice one's occupation.

There is one more suggestion emanating from the bureaucracy and some ngos. It is that these shoreline people give up their artisanal fishing and shift to newer occupations. The young, it is proposed, will be absorbed into the government as and when jobs become available. This flies in the face of the well-known fact that there has been little or no governmental recruitment in the past five years or so, with the authorities preferring to recruit on a contractual basis through private agencies.

Youths and adults alike, the victims of the tsunami are resisting the attempt by others to control their lives. Their ancestors have been living in the kuppams for hundreds of years, and they have a natural right over their household area and also to unhindered access to the sea. The fact is that oceanfront property has suddenly become attractive to the wealthy and powerful, but how crass to try and use a tsunami as an excuse for evacuation of the locals!

Driving along the coast north of Madras, there are numerous permanent structures built well within 500m of the shore. Anyone can see that these structures infringing upon the CRZ are not the homes of fishing families. It is doubtful that these buildings of concrete and glass will be asked to shift when the time comes, while the beachfront shanties may just be emptied to provide, in time, prime urban real estate for some of the the city's rich and powerful. But it is not too late, and now that they have emerged from their shock and bereavement, it does not look as if the fisherfolk of Tamil Nadu will evacuate their beachfront quarters, come hell or high water.

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Himal Southasian