India: In tsunami rehabilitation efforts, some "found their courage"

By Chris Herlinger Church World Service

KUMARAPETTAI, India A string of recent dedications of newly constructed post-tsunami housing in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu was reason to celebrate. But it was also an opportunity to take stock and explore ways to respond to future disasters.

Speaking at a beach area that had been covered with bodies immediately after the December 2004 disaster, Sushant Agrawal, the director of long-time Church World Service (CWS) partner Church's Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), said CASA and its partners could be justifiably proud of the reconstruction and recovery efforts in the two and a half years since.

This includes the construction of some 4,000 permanent homes, with more than two-thirds of the new homes already constructed and the remaining structures expected to be completed by June. In a number of villages, housing has also been supplemented by the multipurpose disaster shelters, which double as community meeting centers.

At one of the dedications, on March 28 in the village of South Chinnoor, Agrawal singled out the disaster shelter there as one of the ways communities can now better prepare for disasters in the future.

Taking note of the ways communities must "take ownership" in preparing for future risks and potential disasters, Agrawal said that "any disaster must be taken as an opportunity to change and improve and prepare for the future."

Agrawal returned to that theme as he spoke to two guests of CASA, representing Church World Service, on the beach at Kumarapettai. But he also made clear that much work remains to be done in affected areas, and that the challenges facing coastal communities are still daunting.

Take the issue of fishing. Anecdotal comments from fishing laborers -- called laborers because they do not actually own the boats used in fishing vary about the effects the tsunami have had on fishing.

But there is general agreement that one common--and at the time, necessary-- post-tsunami response of providing replacement fishing boats to those in the fishing trade helped create a surplus of boats along this stretch of the Indian coast and may be depleting limited local fishing stocks.

After the tsunami, many boat laborers--those who did not actually own boats and had been employed by large fish boat owners--were provided with boats to help them become their own "bosses" and potentially earn more. But this created a greater number of owners of fishing boats than had existed before the tsunami.

The situation is said to be so serious that a "13-year-old boy (who traditionally would become a fisherman) will now have to decide whether to continue the trade," Agrawal said.

Given such realities, CASA's rehabilitation programs are emphasizing the need for local communities affected by the tsunami to diversify their local economies in part by making use of sea and coastal products that otherwise might get unnoticed. "Alternatives need to be developed," Agrawal said. "People want to stay in their communities but are often afraid to work in a non-fishing sector."

There are small but sturdy steps being taken to overcome such fears. With CASA's support, a woman's group in the village of Sonangkuppam in Tamil Nadu's Cuddalore district, for example, has developed a crafts program in hopes of selling shell-based decorative items to visitors and tourists who are starting to return to the coastal areas.

While it is still too early to say if the four-month-old shell project will ultimately succeed, a recent visit with the women affirmed the group's determination and new-found confidence "the women are willing to talk openly about how, in the past, " women's work was not paid" and how, even now, as one woman said:"Me n don't change in their ways. They want to dominate us."

The visit was also proof that in small coastal communities like this, it is women -- who in the past have rarely been given a voice in the public life of their villages -- have kept community life alive and moving apace amid great difficulties and hardships since 2004.

CASA's support of the women, said CASA chief southern zone officer Sheila Jones, was just one example "that social equity is one of CASA's principles" "as is the need to rebuild lives with dignity."

The women of Sonangkuppam many of whom are also the backbone of a community disaster preparedness program being implemented with CASA's assistance -- say that their new strength and voice have made men in the village jealous of their success.

Paradoxically, said leader Kanimozhi, 30, in the tsunami, we found our courage. Not to mention their collective voice.