The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Back to sea, step by halting step
- Cuddalore counts its losses, Nagapattinam picks up pieces

Cuddalore, Jan. 4: Their houses, boats and all lost to the tsunami, the fisherfolk in coastal Tamil Nadu are like toddlers learning to walk: stumbling, falling, getting up, missing a step, balancing again and somehow managing to take a step.

A little over a week ago they crashed and fell face down under the fury of the waves; a little over a week later they are making token efforts to pick up the pieces and learn to live all over again.

The first signs of this showed up in the worst affected Nagapattinam district, where fishermen in seven boats ' put into some kind of working order by the army ' today stumbled out to sea, in the first such adventure since the tsunami struck.

Lest anything big is read into this, official sources were quick to clarify that the fishermen were 'only doing a trial run' and there was more 'tokenism' than hope in their actions.

The army had been hard at work here, clearing the tangled and mangled mass of bamboo poles, remains of houses, thorny shrubs, silt and stone debris, the sources said. Some 150 personnel had fanned out to 50 fishing hamlets, repairing the 'outboard motors' of the boats and trying to pep up the fisherfolk to put them back on their feet.

In spite of the best of efforts, however, the spirit of the people still seemed broken. 'We cannot even go to the shore for another one month, having lost everything, our house, our boats and nets,' lamented Devaki of Thevanampattinam village in Cuddalore district, about 150 km north of Nagapattinam.

Squatting in the ruins of what was once her house, she wailed: 'Look, this is all that is left of my house now.'

Devaki's daughter-in-law was more bitter. 'Even if my husband ventures out to sea, as fishermen in Nagapattinam are doing, nobody will buy our fish. People are scared the catch will be dangerous as the stench of the corpses is still in the air,' she said.

'The government gave us Rs 4000 in cash, a sari, a dhoti, 60 kg of rice and 3 litres of kerosene per family, but this is hardly sufficient,' added Devaki. 'We have to bide time with this until our boats are repaired. They are still counting the damaged boats.'

In Samiyarpatti, too, a little distance away, the buzz is the same. Half the houses in this fishing hamlet have been washed away and survivors are clueless how the paltry relief dole will help them begin again from scratch.

Narayanasamy said he was aware the government had shelled out Rs 4,000 to help fishermen rig up temporary thatched houses, but he had used the money to buy a nylon net at the temple town of Chidambaram, 25 km from his village.

'My catamaran has been completely damaged and I do not know how the government will help to replace it. I guess it will take at least two months. Meanwhile, my family members thought we could be ready with the net,' he said.

At Pudukuppam, another fishing hamlet, things were no better. 'In the last few days, fish prices have crashed. Fish usually worth Rs 1000 is going for just Rs 100. Nobody wants to buy for lack of hygiene,' a fisherman cried.

A four-member team from Delhi's National Institute of Disaster Management, which has been touring the ravaged coastal districts, said given the extent of damage to the boats, it would be impossible for the fishermen to go back to the sea soon.

On the Nagapattinam developments, Brigadier Khanna, who is heading the team, said: 'Of course, it can send a positive signal, (it will be) a psychologically reassuring factor.' The team will submit its report to the Centre soon.

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