Southern India's tsunami survivors struggle to restore livelihoods

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Anjana Pasricha

New Delhi, 21 June 2005 - Six months after the December 26 tsunami battered the coast of southern India, tens-of-thousands of survivors are struggling to restore their livelihoods. Anjana Pasricha from VOA's New Delhi bureau, recently visited India's Tamil Nadu state, which accounted for a majority of the country's 11,000 victims. She reports that government support is beginning to dry up, but most families still do not have regular work or permanent housing.

Mahendran, 30, is the owner of a sparkling new blue and white boat. It was the donation of a volunteer group to replace one that was swallowed by the tsunami waves that struck Nagapattinam district in southern India last December.

But his face is despondent as he pulls his boat ashore after a hard day at sea.

He says he conquered his fear of the water and resumed fishing a month ago, but the daily catch has been meager. He says that is partly due to strong winds, and partly because he now nets more shells than fish.

Fishing in Nagapattinam, India's worst hit district, is slowly picking up, as dozens of small boats are given to fishermen. Many of them, like Mahendran, now manage to earn $2 to $3 a day.

But hundreds are still out of work.

They are waiting for new boats, which have been promised, but are still being built. Owners of more expensive motorized boats are repairing their battered vessels with the help of government loans.

Many of these people are living on money and supplies handed out by the government and aid groups after the tsunami.

But six months after the tsunami, the government subsidy of about $25 a month is drawing to an end. The administration says this is necessary to keep the community from becoming dependent on handouts.

But many residents worry about how they will cope in the coming months, since the long-term reconstruction of this devastated community has barely begun.

Annie George heads the Coordination and Resource Center of volunteer groups that have brought in millions of dollars to help Nagapattinam. She says some of the early momentum has gone, but the work that lies ahead is difficult to speed up.

"At this juncture, probably one would think that things are slowing down, but, nevertheless, on the whole, as we are dealing with long-term facts, like livelihoods, we are dealing with permanent shelters. We are dealing with people totally relocating and building up a totally new community. It is far better to go slow," she said.

Indeed, resurrecting the economies of all the tsunami-affected areas is a gigantic task, because not just the fishing community was hit. In both southern India and eastern Sri Lanka, where more than 30,000 people died, farmers and merchants are among those who lost their livelihoods. In Sri Lanka, dozens of tourism-related businesses also were lost.

In India, scores of villages were ruined when seawater spread inland to cover vast tracts of land, and seeped into canals and wells.

The farmers are now stuck with land that may not be fit for cultivation for at least a year.

Farmers say recovery efforts have been slow because initial aid focused on fishermen who were on the frontlines of the disaster.

A farm activist, M. Revathi, has helped a small village reclaim land and grow vegetables using a locally developed organic technique to reduce the soil salinity. But she says hundreds of coastal villages have no hope of planting a crop in the coming monsoon season, because mud brought by the sea has yet to be removed, and ponds have still to be cleared.

"In most of the villages, the debris is also still in the first day-scene of tsunami, and, still in some villages, seawater is coming every day, because [the] tsunami cleared all the boundaries [sea walls]," she noted.

People also are worrying about how they will cope in the temporary shelters, as the summer heat intensifies and the monsoon rains loom. These rows and rows of small shacks become unbearably hot when temperatures top 36 degrees Celsius.

Vinayaki, 45, is a fisherman's wife, who lost her home in the tsunami. She sits outside her shed to take advantage of a cool evening sea breeze.

Her voice trembles as she talks of the difficulty of coping with the stifling afternoon heat. She says she wants a new home with a thatched roof.

The administration says it is gearing up to build thousands of permanent houses. Ranvir Prasad, the government official in charge of relief efforts in Nagapattinam, says land and money is available, but the fishing community itself is divided about where to rebuild.

"As per their livelihood, they would like to be near to sea, but they are also afraid of tsunami again coming, so they want also protection away from sea. So, to accommodate this, we have to look at several options," he said.

Despite the delays, the Indian government appears confident that, given time, it will be able to put Nagapattinam on its feet again.

But in Sri Lanka, aid is being complicated by politics. Some minority parties have withdrawn support for the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, because she was working toward an agreement with Tamil rebels on sharing tsunami recovery aid.

In both countries, those who lost everything to the ocean simply pray that their governments' will to rebuild and the generosity of donors will last until they are once again self-reliant communities.