The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Surge of relief, but of little help

Nagapattinam, Jan. 11: Piles of multi-coloured textile line a road in the compound of the district collectorate here. A few women rummage through the red shirts, blue pants and crinkled saris but mostly municipal workers are stashing them into jute sacks and hurling them into a larger pile, mounds of relief that bring no relief.

The clothes are donated by people from Kanyakumari to Kashmir but much of it is of little use to the tsunami-hit for cultural and weather-related reasons. Who needs blankets here' Who will wear old denims here' In the afternoons, it is hot and humid and the mercury touches 38 degrees Celsius.

An overflowing of misplaced concern for the people who have survived the disaster has meant that relief that is not managed can well go waste. But most of all, it is competitive care that dogs a stupendous effort mounted by the administration and the non government organisations.

This morning, good Samaritans of two volunteer organisations nearly came to blows in a field a short distance from the collectorate. Volunteers of the Thanjavur Multipurpose Social Service Society and the Amritanandamayee Group argued bitterly over who should build shelters for the homeless of Akkarapettai, the tsunami 'ground zero', as it were, in Nagapattinam.

The Thanjavur group wanted to build the shelters and said the district administration had allocated land for them. The Amritanandamayee Group did not want to be left out and said they cared for the people, too, and would not be helpless with their help.

Finally, the matter was resolved after a bureaucrat from the state administration stepped in and, like King Solomon, halved the care and decreed that each outfit will build 50 per cent of the shelters needed at the spot.

'I think one billion people of this country want to help and they are killing us with their love and affection. There is a terrific competition to build shelters, between the government and the NGOs and among the NGOs,' says V. Vivekanandan, indulging in some hyperbole. Vivekanandan runs the South Indian Federation of Fishermen's Societies and also helps run the coordination cell for the NGOs.

There are 77 villages in Nagapattinam district that have been declared tsunami-affected. There are more than 260 NGOs registered with the coordination cell.

The race to build shelters has picked up after Jayalalithaa's government decreed informally that all the tsunami-hit will celebrate Pongal, which falls on January 14, in new homes.

For the fishing communities on the coastline of Tamil Nadu, which took the brunt of the December 26 tsunami and who have lost so much of their own, Pongal is not a traditional festival. They live mostly on the fringes of the towns and cities that dot the shores but have adopted the celebration of a new harvest as if they farm themselves. During Pongal, families across Tamil Nadu boil new rice in their homes and make sweet delicacies of the cereal. It is not only a symbol of prosperity but also an assertion of familial ties.

Many of the families of the fisherfolk are now sundered. There are many men here with shaven heads, signifying that they have performed last rites. There are children without parents and parents without children, widows and widowers, all traumatised, who line the broken road and loiter in the vacant spaces of Akkarapettai.

But in the two weeks since the wall of water rushed in, many are beginning to pick up the pieces, too, and it is the uniformed personnel of the military and the NGO workers who are the faces of concern they come across. In what it believes is an undying assertion of the human spirit, Jayalalithaa has told her officials that Pongal must be celebrated as it has always been, even in Nagapattinam.

'We estimate that there are about 11,000 families that are shelterless. By Pongal, we intend to get 9,000 of them into the camps,' says J. Radhakrishnan, who was made Nagapattinam district collector yesterday. Till today, shelter units for 2,200 families have been built and a 100 families have moved in. That means, some 8,500 of the tsunami-displaced will move under new roofs in two days.

On the campus of the Industrial Training Institute, where three NGOs and the district rural development agency are putting up the shelters, families of Muslims displaced from Silakkadi, just north of here, have moved in.

Each family is allotted a room 10 feet by 12 feet with a concrete floor and walls and ceilings of bituminous corrugated sheets.

'We are trying to put in television sets to provide entertainment,' says Radhakrishnan.

For a man like Sheikh Daud, 45, this matters little. Daud, a watchman at Nagore Darga, was on duty when the sea swamped his hamlet and took away his wife, Hussaini Bibi, 35, and two daughters Sultan Bibi, 18, and Fatima Bibi, 16.

'I live,' he says. 'And now I have a roof over my head'.

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