Indian coast crawls back to life after tsunami

By Y.P. Rajesh

THARANGAMPADI, India, June 21 (Reuters) - The aroma of fish cooking in a pungent curry in shack after shack mingles with that of paint being coated on boats at a repair yard nearby.

Songs from Tamil movies blare from a stereo or a portable television set in some shacks while children wrestle playfully in the sea or surf the waves on empty plastic fuel cans.

There is hardly any space on the narrow strip of beach as dozens of gleaming new fibre boats have been lined up cheek by jowl and more are coming back with the day's catch.

Six months ago, Tharangampadi on India's southeastern coast was a ghost village after giant waves of the Indian Ocean tsunami swept through it, killing 525 people, rendering thousands homeless and reducing houses to a bed of bricks.

When Reuters visited the fishing village two days after the Dec. 26 disaster, the smell of decomposing corpses, garbage, dung, faeces and putrid water made it difficult to breathe even through masks.

Dozens of survivors had briefly blocked a highway outside the town to protest a lack of relief and to press authorities to dispose of dozens of corpses, some of which lay by pathways wrapped in straw mats or were stuck under concrete slabs.

Now, Tharangampadi is slowly rebuilding itself.

"Life has improved since then, although it will never be the same again," said Arul Chelvam, a 26-year-old fisherman, after he returned from a morning fishing trip.

Chelvam worked in a garment factory in Malaysia when the tsunami struck. He quit his job to return home after he heard that his 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter were dead.

"My children are gone and I have few relatives left. But who will feed me and my wife if I don't work? I have to earn my living," Chelvam said.


Chelvam's sentiment runs through most Indian villages which bore the brunt of the Dec. 26 disaster.

An outpouring of aid brought new boats, outboard motors and fishing nets for hundreds of fishermen, who account for about 80 percent of victims on the Indian mainland and whose livelihood was washed away by the killer waves.

In contrast to countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the state government in Tamil Nadu has devolved power to local officials who have coordinated the relief effort in partnership with aid agencies, avoiding much of the red tape seen elsewhere.

The scale of destruction was also considerably lower here, with much of the coast protected by Sri Lanka and the waves not reaching as far inland as in some other countries.

The enterprising fishing community has been quick to grab the opportunity to return to sea. And this has in turn brought fish curry back on the menu after months.

"For how long could we depend on government dole or stay in camps doing nothing?" asks 51-year-old fisherman M. Thooradi, who said he was carried by the giant waves over the coconut palms and flung into a paddy field.

"Once the government stopped rations and funds we had to get back to work to survive, even though about 25 percent of fishermen may still be a little scared of the sea," he said as he strung a blue and green fishing net in the shade of coconut palms on the beach in Thazhanguda village.

Although fear of the sea may have ebbed, there are still reminders of the havoc wreaked by it, the most stark being the poor conditions in relief camps which house about 600,000 people in dingy, one-room shacks built of wood pulp or tin sheets.


Built in a hurry after the disaster, many shacks do not have floors, there are gaps between the wall and ceiling, the tin roofs bake people inside, drains leak and sewage tanks are full.

Worse, there is no sign of the permanent houses survivors are waiting for, although authorities say they are acquiring land and groundbreaking ceremonies have been held in some places.

"Permanent housing is the biggest need now since many people have got their livelihoods back," said M. Krishnakumar of Avvai Village Welfare Society, a local voluntary group.

"Initially people were told they would be in temporary shelters for six months or so, but now it looks like they will be there for another year at least."

Authorities agree there are problems in temporary shelters, but they were not unexpected as shacks had to be built quickly and required continuous maintenance and repairs.

"There's a lot of improvement going on there," said Ranvir Prasad, a senior government official who heads relief and rehabilitation in Nagapattinam, India's worst-affected district.

"Bamboo sheds are being built for people to rest when it gets very hot, sewage tanks are being cleaned, and low brick barriers are coming up to prevent water entering the shacks during the monsoon," he said.

"Both small and big boats are going back to sea and that is good news. As for permanent houses, they are going through labour pains and should be delivered soon."


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit