Tsunami Aid Distributed Unevenly Between India's Fishing and Farming Villages

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Tsunami Aid Distributed Unevenly Between India's Fishing and Farming Villages

By Ken Moritsugu
December 7, 2005

THARANGAMBADI, India - From fishermen cleaning nets to women sorting fish, the tsunami-hit shoreline of this town in south India bustles with activity. More than 300 fishing boats, brightly painted with the names of donors, blanket the beach.

A mile away, the scene couldn't be more different. Only minimal aid has reached the dusty, almost abandoned village of Pudupalayam. Residents have struggled to eke out a living since salt from the tsunami spoiled the fields where they worked as laborers.

Nearly a year after the tsunami raced across the Indian Ocean, bringing devastation to 13 countries and killing an estimated 225,000 people, international aid agencies have relearned a bitter lesson: Not everyone can be helped equally.

What's happened here also has happened elsewhere: Those who already were relatively well off are doing better with assistance from international donors, while those who were struggling before the tsunami often still are struggling.

Former President Clinton, meeting privately with aid groups last month as the United Nations special envoy for tsunami recovery, underscored the importance of reaching the region's poorest. "A successful reconstruction effort should ensure the protection of vulnerable populations," he was quoted as saying in a U.N. news release.

"The hope is that at the end of it, there's a better infrastructure, there's a more equitable social pattern," said Steve Hollingworth, the India director for CARE, a development agency that's active in the reconstruction.

"But the fact of the matter is that an emergency like this is an opportunity for some over and above others, and it makes vulnerable groups much more vulnerable than they were before," he said. "There's no way around it."

The plight of villages such as Pudupalayam (pronounced poo-doo-PAH-lay-uhm) is especially challenging in a country such as India, where a decade of economic growth has spawned shopping malls and a burgeoning middle class, but still hasn't overcome a social system that remains divided largely along gender and caste lines.

"All the aid agencies and even the government are only looking after the fisher-folk," complained Shivalingam, a young and outspoken community leader who like many here uses only one name. "They got their boats and their nets. We don't have any work."

The farm laborers of Pudupalayam come from the lowest caste in Indian society. Once derided as untouchables, today they're known as Dalits, a name that means "the oppressed."

Tsunami relief efforts initially overlooked them; many aid agencies weren't even aware the Dalit villages existed, let alone needed help. Now, a growing number of groups are diverting resources to the Dalit victims in hopes of keeping them from sliding farther down the socioeconomic scale, though the efforts come late.

It was only natural that the focus would fall on helping the fishing families of Tharangambadi (Tah-rahn-gahm-PAH-dee). About 300 people died here in the Dec. 26 tsunami, which claimed 16,000 victims in India. The village, about 150 miles south of Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras, suffered major property damage as the sea flooded inland, sweeping away boats, houses and shops.

Rescue workers arrived here within hours to assess the damage and begin the rebuilding process, aided by a tightly knit community that organized quickly to capitalize on multiple offers of reconstruction aid.

International aid agencies - flush with more contributions than ever before in response to a natural disaster - tripped over one another in the rush to build new boats for the town. The Indian government also reimbursed fishermen for lost boats. Anyone who received both a donated boat and government reimbursement was required to make a payment to the local village council, which presumably spent it on other needs.

The story has been very different for the Dalits of Pudupalayam and elsewhere. It was weeks before rescue workers visited most Dalit areas, and then only because some aid workers decided to see what was down a dirt turnoff they passed every day en route to a fishing village.

They stumbled on Marudhampallam, a Dalit hamlet of 371 families that had lost 138 cows and 200 goats to the tsunami.

"They were people who were never reached by anyone," said Saikat Mukherjee, who's from the West Bengal Games and Welfare Organization, a group that's distributing tsunami relief for Ireland's Hope Foundation. His group purchased cows and goats for the community.

Even today, few relief groups seem to be aware of Pudupalayam. Aside from government food handouts, virtually the only assistance has come from an Indian organization that works with Dalits.

The group, NESA, or New Entity for Social Action, is desperately short of money, said Peter Fernandes, who's overseeing its efforts to help 800 families from seven Dalit hamlets.

The lack of money shows. Other temporary housing shelters have thatched roofs to provide relief from the heat. At the camp built for Pudupalayam, a few palm fronds have been thrown on the tarpaper roofs, to negligible effect.

NESA hasn't been able to pay the 2,500-rupee ($56) monthly rent for the land for the past six months. Now the owner, himself a Dalit, has asked NESA to vacate by January, because he wants to sell the property. Permanent homes for the 46 families aren't expected to be ready by then.

Residents of Pudupalayam acknowledge that the tsunami's impact there was less dramatic than on communities closer to the coast. The water was about chest high when it surged into the village of 55 families. Only one person died.

But the water did wash away livestock and possessions and damage houses. Worse, the seawater deposited salt in the rice paddies, which a year later remain a desolate brown.

There are few signs of life in the village, which sits on an unmarked and unremarkable dirt road.

Selvaraj, a 50-year-old man, remains in the village to care for his cow, which survived. What he needs most, he said, pointing at the desolate rice fields, is work. An aid agency has ploughed the fields; when and if rice will grow again remains to be seen.

On paper, the government isn't discriminating against the Dalits, though activists say they had to prod officials to include Dalits in government-compensation schemes. Those who lost a family member in the tsunami received 100,000 rupees (about $2,250), just as fishing families did. Those who lost houses will get new homes.

But asset-based reconstruction isn't enough for the Dalits, aid officials said. Give a fisherman a boat and a net, and he's back in business. Helping the Dalits is a more complicated undertaking, requiring job training, temporary work and the rehabilitation of the rice fields.

So far, job training appears modest in Dalit areas. In one temporary housing camp for Dalits, two brand-new foot-pedal sewing machines have been set up to teach tailoring skills. But for residents of Pudupalayam no such progress has been made.

Meanwhile, the fishermen of Tharangambadi are back at sea. So much money was donated for tsunami relief that Tharangambadi, like many Indian fishing villages, is awash in boats. The community has 360 today, up from 155 before the tsunami, according to the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies.

The fishermen couldn't be happier. Many used to venture out to sea in primitive vessels, little more than four or five logs lashed together to form a short, shallow craft. Now they're plying the waters in 28-foot-long fiberglass-reinforced shells that run $1,900 apiece.

"It's more comfortable and it's safer," said Ravi, 35. "Our catch is good; the only problem is that fish prices have dropped."

The irony is that, while so little aid has flowed to the Dalits, the proliferation of boats may turn out to be a waste. Officials from the South Indian fishing federation think that more boats were distributed than the coast can absorb. With so many boats chasing the same resource, they predict that the catch per boat will fall, and some fishermen won't be able to cover their costs.

"More assets were distributed with good intentions," said Ephrem Soosai, who's overseeing the fishing federation's relief work in Tharangambadi. "Giving the poor an asset is a good thing. But it will not be sustainable over a long period."

For Dalits, the good fortune of their neighbors seems unfair.

"We need something too," said Anjalai, a 45-year-old woman from a Dalit community near the fishing village of Nagore, about 15 miles down the coast from Tharangambadi.

Her neighbor, Kaliyama, a woman in her early 50s, added, "There's nothing wrong with helping the fishing communities. But if the total is 100 percent, at least 20 to 25 percent should be for us."