The Third “R”
SOURCE: The New Yorker, January 17, 2005
The South Indian fishing village of Komitichavadi, about seventy-five miles south of Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, is situated on a stretch of coast that was particularly hard hit by the tsunami. In the neighboring hamlets, fifty-nine people, mostly babies and the elderly, were killed. Hundreds were injured, and many are missing. In Komitichavadi, however, not a single person died; everyone has been accounted for.
The villagers owe their good fortune to the quick thinking of Govind, the headman of the local panchayat, a traditional village council of a kind that exists all over rural India. On the morning of the tsunami, Govind received a call on his cell phone from his wife. She was in Chennai, where she had felt tremors from the earthquake off Indonesia, a thousand miles away. Soon, Govind noticed the ocean rising, and his wife called again. The waters were flooding the beach promenade in Chennai, she said, and people were being swept away; she begged her husband to escape. Instead, Govind rushed to the ocean, where children were playing and fishermen were sorting through their catch. He ran along the beach, waving his arms in the air, warning everyone to flee. A few minutes later, the water rushed in. “Everyone just ran,” Govind said. “They didn’t even have time to save their nets. They just ran up the hill to the temple and sat and waited.”
Though no one died, the village was destroyed. Fifteen homes along the waterfront were demolished. More than a hundred boats were lost; fishing nets, some worth almost as much as the boats, were damaged or lost. The village prawn farm, where forty people were employed and a new building had just been constructed, has been shut down. January is usually a big month for fishermen: they can earn as much as ten thousand rupees (more than two hundred and twenty dollars) a week. Now those earnings, as well as those for the coming months, are lost.
People involved in crisis management like to refer to “the three ‘R’s”: rescue, relief, and rehabilitation. The last stage is in many ways the most important, as well as the most expensive and time-consuming—and therefore the most widely ignored. For now, the aid is flowing in; people seem resigned to living off charity for a few months. But once that dries up it’s anyone’s guess what the villagers of South India are going to do to get by.
On a sunny afternoon ten days after the tsunami, Govind, who is forty-seven, sat in his living room, the green walls decorated with portraits of deities, and spoke about the panchayat’s relief work. The sea was visible through his front door; it was calm, but the beach was deserted. There were no boats or ships on the water.
Immediately after the tsunami, Govind said, everyone had congregated by the temple, under a sprawling banyan tree. The whole village, in effect, had become a refugee camp. With no aid or government workers in sight, Govind borrowed a hundred and thirty thousand rupees (almost three thousand dollars) from some neighboring landowners and used the money to buy rice and build makeshift tents outside the temple.
A few days later, government aid workers finally showed up and assessed the damage. Relief—in the form of rice, kerosene, and two bedsheets per family—arrived soon after. No relief has come from international aid agencies. “We’re not Nagapattinam,” Govind said, referring to a part of the coast where thousands had died. “But we’re still scared.”
With other members of the panchayat, Govind went to see the local district collector, the highest-ranking bureaucrat in the region, fifty miles away. Govind told the collector, “Food and clothes and pots and pans are fine, but we need boats and motors and nets to keep alive. We need to start new lives.” The collector promised to help. Thepanchayat gave him a list of those who lost boats, nets, or houses.
Last Thursday, early in the morning, a group of four volunteers pulled up at Govind’s house in a maroon Maruti. Govind was outside brushing his teeth. They introduced themselves. Two of them, a man and a woman, were from Bangalore, more than two hundred miles inland, and two were locals. They were not affiliated with any organization; they had raised money and materials from friends.
Govind was thrilled to see aid workers. He took them to the beach, showed them how far the water had reached, and described how the boats had been sucked out to sea. He pointed out a damaged boat from another village that had washed ashore. They were struck by the neatness of the waterfront: the debris had mostly been cleared. They asked Govind how many people had died in Komitichavadi, and Govind said none. This seemed to disappoint the people from Bangalore. The woman mentioned that the scene did not much resemble what she had seen on TV. They had come looking, one of the workers later said, for “places that had been really destroyed.”
The group spent about half an hour in the village. As they were leaving, Govind asked, “Are you actually going to help us, or are you just passing through?”
They drove back onto the main road and headed south to a village about forty miles away. Sixteen people had died there, and twenty-five in the next village. Two hundred homes had been destroyed. The woman from Bangalore was much happier with this village. She said that it was a better use of her aid.