The year 2011 came to a destructive end as the Cyclone Thane lashed across the coast of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. Wind speed over 120km/ hr smashed huts, dislodged tiles from houses, pushed electric poles down to the ground and destroyed acres of crops! Along with the union territory of Pondicherry the districts of Cuddalore and Villipuram in Tamil Nadu were stated to be the worst hit!
31st December saw people from various Non Profit Organizations like ours going out into the affected areas trying to guage the extent of damages. I have been part of this exercise since 3rd January. In terms of the scale of the disaster it was no comparison to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004- neither can it be compared to the AP/ Karnataka floods of 2009 or the Bihar, Kosi flood of 2008. I have been part of the post disaster damage assessments of all these emergency situations except the tsunami in which I have been deeply associated from the rehabilitation phase.
After about three grueling days out in the hot sun ( there are no leaves left on the trees that are standing to provide any sort of shade ) with peeling skin and long hours I am drained out! But what is bothering me is not the physical exhaustion but the mental fatigue.
Why I wonder? Have I gone numb after seeing destruction and damage in the various humanitarian contexts that I have been involved in ?What has made this experience so different?
I think that the first thing that struck me as different from the AP, Karnataka situation was the attitude of the Government of Tamilnadu. If there is something called “Megalomania” then the state government here displays it at its best! Information being the source of power, they wanted to hold on to it! They were refusing to share it with anyone. They kept declaring that the entire district has been hit while visual observation showed clearly that was not the case. For a Non Profit like ours it is important to get some information and idea about the scale of damage so that we can float an appeal for people to donate. I try to contrast this with the Krishna flood situation in AP and Karnataka- in both cases the governments were open to sharing information. In fact I remember meeting a Mandal Revenue Officer in Guntur district at 11.00PM. His office was humming with activity and when I wanted details of damages he gave me a print out with all the information I required. In Karnataka, the officers of the district administration in Gulbarga were keen to know when and where we would be distributing relief and whether we had plans to continue working in rehabilitation activities. They all but extended a written invitation..
The arrogance of the state government in Tamil Nadu however, is amazing! They want all relief operations to be coordinated by them. Infact the district collector is reported to have told some representatives of civil society organizations that they should hand over all relief material to the district administration!
While we were on our way to Cuddalore on the 4th of January, we had a drama in progress as former Chief Minister Karunanidhi came in by road to the district to distribute relief . Not to be outdone, Amma dearest swooped down from the skies on a helicopter distributing relief hours before the old man got there! There have been announcement after announcement about compensation.
But what about the people who are affected? Or should I say, people who live in the affected areas?
One of things that really depressed me was the way that everybody wanted relief irrespective of whether their houses were damaged or not! Pampered as they have been by a government that doles out freebies at the drop of a hat, they found it very difficult to understand why an organization would give out relief only to some. We had meetings with communities trying to convince them that we were a NGO working on limited funds and we could therefore only reach the most deserving! It is amazing how people living in nice pucca houses with a few damaged windows felt they were as entitled to a tarpaulin as those living in huts that had lost their roofs! We also realized that where the government was concerned they had enumerated all these people and their houses as “affected” or “damaged”. It was very demoralizing after a point to realize that people in this state did not even understand what a NGO was! The government had such a larger than life presence – almost like in China that no other presence was acknowledged by anyone including the communities we had come to help
People tell me that I am wrong- that this is a one off situation. They tell me that the government encouraged civil society participation in the post tsunami relief and rehabilitation activities. But people like me who have been here for so long , know better.. the Officer on Special Duty coordinating relief and rehabilitation activities on behalf of the government during the tsunami days, had quickly realized that NGOs had funding that could be leveraged for the reconstruction and rehabilitation activities. So what did he do? He “invited” them to participate in activities like livelihood and shelter reconstruction projects. While livelihood restoration took its own chaotic course with huge numbers of boats and nets getting dumped on fishing communities, the shelter program was another story altogether. The government asked NGOs to build using their funds but did not allow them to select the beneficiaries of the housing projects. The beneficiaries were selected by the government and the houses handed over the government to them. So what were we? Contractors?
The community in the affected villages “spoilt” as they have been through receipt of freebies from the government are today expecting something along the lines of the tsunami relief. We found dead animals being left to rot out in the field just so that the owner could claim compensation. We also found people giving us pictures of their damaged houses in cases where some repair work had been initiated. Everyone wanted something and the sad thing was that few understood who we were and who were funding us!
As a development worker engaged in humanitarian work, these Thane induced tussles with the government and the communities have been really frustrating.. Is it too much to expect to see that smile on somebody’s face and sleep with the satisfaction of having helped someone? But unfortunately what I saw in this disaster was largely discontent on one hand and some shrewd calculations on the other –both from the communities and the government. I also saw, I am ashamed to say, NGOs with eyes full of hope of mobilizing resources and keeping themselves employed. I also noticed among my own team mates, egos rising- people trying to manipulate village selection criteria so that areas which they wanted to be included got the required attention…