India: Witnessing continued progress in tsumani recovery
Tamil Nadu, India -- For an American traveler who has seen his share of the assorted ups and downs, hopes and challenges of post-tsunami recovery and rehabilitation, several days spent in southern India with Church World Service partner Church's Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA) can be reason to smile a bit.
Newly constructed homes for those displaced
by the December 2004 disaster feel lived in and comfortable; members of
once-traumatized communities are taking real and palpable pride in efforts
like disaster-preparedness and mitigation activities; all-purpose community-centers
-- doubling as emergency shelters -- appear to be popular and well-used.
As well, those who have suffered the brunt of discrimination in Indian society -- women and groups like the Dalits -- are finding ways to build better lives.
These are brief, imperfect "snapshot-like" impressions but their cumulative effect says that slow, but secure and steady progress is being made in places like Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state where CASA has been working in a host of communities since the 2004 tsunami.
The first of a two-day visit to CASA projects -- during what was coincidentally the same week CASA celebrated its 60th anniversary in some of its regional offices -- found Mathi Kanniyappan in the village of Kumarapettai, in Tamil Nadu's Cuddalore sector, preparing lunch in the house she and others in her family have lived in since October 2006.
The family lives in one of 93 homes CASA has constructed in the fishing village; Mathi finds it a more solid, secure and livable structure than the damaged home she and the family had to vacate after the tsunami. Mathi particularly praises the new home's flat, concrete roof -- an improvement over a thatched roof that afforded little shelter in case of floods.
"It's a very good house," Mathi said as the smell of peppery curry wafted through her sunny, airy home. "We can feel the breeze."
Just doors away from the home is the village's community center and shelter, a structure that Mathi's daughter Praveena, a community organizer who now works with CASA, says is being used most days of the week, be it for festivals, nursery school, family reunions.
Down the road a ways is Chinoor South, where representatives of Church World Service and several of its member denominations attended housing dedication ceremonies in March. In the half year since, it is clear that the exterior of the new houses -- 53 in all -- are taking on individual character, with fencing, decoration, and planted hedges evident. The village also looks greener with new tree plantings.
Clearly Chinoor South is taking the notion of disaster mitigation and preparedness seriously. Its young people have formed a disaster preparedness task force and are demonstrating newly acquired rescue and mapping skills: Just yards away from the village's shelter and community center stands a giant map the size of a small billboard to be used during any future evacuation.
A second-day visit to another region, the Nagapattinam sector, found a similar group of young people in the fishing village of Koolaiyar practicing rescue and roping kills with the help of Mr. Arumugam, a civil defense trainer on the CASA staff.
But perhaps the most striking is the work of a young women's empowerment group that is taking tangible steps together. Like CASA-supported groups in Cuddalore involved in small-scale efforts to sell sea shell and jute crafts, members of the group in Koolaiyar are using their skills -- in this case cooking for wedding parties and other events -- to establish a small enterprise they hope will eventually branch out to making and selling candles and other crafts.
If the scale of these projects seems small, uniting young women in common purpose is a large step for the young women, aged roughly 17-25. Given traditional cultural norms, they had no real interaction with each other before. Now members of the group meet once every two weeks and discuss common problems and aspirations and have found a new purpose and grounding.
"They're going to flourish in their lives," said leader Sudaroli Gunadevi, 22, "They never had contact with each other before. Now they do."
Down the road from Koolaiyar is the smaller village of Velu Nagar, where a community of 15 Dalit families live. This community of 86 people has always lived precariously, and the tsunami disrupted their lives of fishing and agricultural laboring. Their livestock was destroyed, but with CASA's help, new goats have been brought in, helping build a base for the community to sell some of the animals at a local market.
New permanent homes have also been built, replacing temporary, rickety post-tsunami shelter that was partially destroyed by fire. "We're now living safely," said R. Ramanujam, the village's leader. "We're happy."
Problems are far from over, of course: The community's economic situation remains a challenge, as the members of Vel Magar have no land to call their own and are dependent on the vagaries of working as fishing and seasonal farm laborers.
Still, the story of Velu Nagar is a microcosm of some of the dynamics of post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation: challenges mixing with change, and in many cases, providing a more secure basis for the future.
At the end of the day spent in Nagapattinam, a CASA field officer contemplated the various activities in and around Velu Nagar and Kooilaiyar.
"There have been a lot of changes," said P. Kabalishwaran, 26. "I'm so happy to serve the people here."
Lesley Crosson, CWS/New York, 212-870-2676; email@example.com
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526; firstname.lastname@example.org