India: Weighing the options in Tamil Nadu

June 15, 2005 -- Akkamma sighs as she looks at neat row of corrugated sheet shelters that stand sentinel beside the quiet waters of the Bay of Bengal.

Almost six months ago, the killer waves had destroyed everything in her small fishing community in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, which had borne the brunt of the disaster in the country.

Then, as the elected head of the village panchayat (council), it had fallen on Akkamma to count the dead and help distribute food and kerosene oil among those who survived.

As relief now gives way to the long and difficult process of reconstruction, it is Akkamma's duty once again to assist her small and hardy community in regaining a semblance of normalcy and rebuilding their shattered lives.

Before the tsunami, Akkama's village was a bustling cluster of palm-thatched houses not far above the high-tide line. Like most fishing villages, it was built before the notification of the Coastal Regulation Zone in 1991, which prohibited construction close to the sea.

But, the fisher folk continued to live there as the short distance to the ocean made it easy to drag their catamarans out before dawn and haul in the catch when the day was done. On that fateful day in December, however, their proximity to the ocean spelled disaster.

Now, under the World Bank's Emergency Tsunami Reconstruction Project for US$465 million, those who lost their homes in the state of Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Pondicherry, will, as the reconstruction progresses, have access to new, earthquake and cyclone-resistant housing, outside the Coastal Regulation Zone at a safe distance from the shore.

Before reconstruction can begin, however, a number of issues still need to be addressed. In deciding where to build their houses, the fisher folk's need to be near the ocean has to be weighed against concerns for their safety.

The issue of land ownership among poor fishing communities is another matter which needs attention. Most fisher folk do not have titles to the land they "own". Instead, ownership rights are traditionally decided by the community, and houses nearer the ocean command a higher value than those further away.

For reconstruction efforts to be successful, these critical balances need to be achieved through the close involvement of local communities and civil society, with the government acting as the facilitator.

Now, as development partners come together, and the government consults with local communities, it is Akkama and her panchayat members who will once again help their people in deciding how to proceed in rebuilding homes and lives in this small fishing community in southern India.

The World Bank and the Government of India signed an agreement for the US$465 million dollar project on May 12. The money is a credit through the Bank's International Development Association (IDA) and is for reconstruction and recovery efforts in the affected areas over a three year period.

Together with US$61 million of reallocation within existing IDA credits from the Bank, and a special US$2.5 million World Bank grant, total Bank financing for tsunami reconstruction in India totals US$528.5 million.

The funding was provided on the basis of a damage and needs assessment report prepared jointly by the Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations, at the request of India. It estimated overall rehabilitation and reconstruction needs in the four mainland tsunami-affected states and territories of India at US$1.2 billion.

The total Bank financing is supporting rural water supply rehabilitation in Kerala, restoration of people's livelihoods in Andhra Pradesh, as well as the housing and transport infrastructure restoration in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. The financing will also support studies for longer term coastal management.