The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Island races to rebuild lives

Port Blair, Jan. 13: From saving lives to rebuilding them, the focus has shifted in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with monsoon clouds looming large. Relief work may be far from over, but rehabilitation efforts are fast gathering momentum.

Food, water and shelter taken care of, providing temporary habitation to 44,000 people living in 120 relief camps across the archipelago before the rains in April, which last till October, is the new, daunting target.

Relative stability in these tsunami-swept islands has brought with it a change of guard at the top. Lt General B.K. Thakur, the commander-in-chief of the Andaman & Nicobar Command and at the helm of relief operations here, has handed over charge to Lt General Aditya Singh. Scheduled to take over as vice-chief of army staff in Delhi on January 1, Thakur had postponed his trip to coordinate the integrated search, rescue and relief mission mounted by the armed forces in the islands.

'I am fully convinced that we are over the hump. We are well into the next phase of rehabilitation,' said Thakur, who completes his 15-month tenure tomorrow.

The role of the army in a 'multi-pronged approach' is that of 'facilitator', said Singh. Resettlement on safe ground in temporary housing is the first priority, with an estimated 10,000-odd habitations needed to accommodate those now in camps.

The Nicobarese, for instance, want to rebuild their own homes and will be provided the raw material. The Supreme Court has relaxed restrictions on felling of trees to cope with the demand for timber, and bamboo is to be brought in from Bengal and Kerala. Other communities may be provided with pre-fabricated huts, which will be imported if necessary, according to administration officials.

Where government housing and buildings have been destroyed, these ready structures could also be used to speed up work. With a lifespan of around four years, the units will hold up till brick-and-mortar reconstruction is possible.

Roads, hospitals, schools, power and sewage are next on the list. Alternative employment schemes for those who cannot go back to their old jobs are also being considered.

The other aspect of rehabilitation is likely to be more sticky and prolonged ' monetary compensation. The lieutenant governor's fund has so far provided Rs 2,000 per family. 'This was just to ensure that those living in relief camps had the freedom to exercise choice,' explains a senior government official.

With the number of dead unclear and property swept away, actual assessment of damage is difficult. A compensation scheme that covers loss of life, injury, livestock, crops and means to work, among other things, is yet to be finalised. Once it is, a host of legal issues will follow, anticipate officials. What happens if all property documents have been washed away' Who is the recipient of compensation if an entire family has been killed' How will the value of lost property be determined' These are just some of the questions the administration is gearing up to face.

Even now, 19 days after disaster struck, most relief camp inhabitants are in the dark. Those who want to go back to their islands ' and there are many who don't ' only have a vague idea that temporary shelter will be provided.

However, the Nicobarese refugees, most of whom are determined to continue living on the devastated Car Nicobar, are well organised. They want to go back as soon as possible and build their homes away from the sea.

To earn their living, they will return to their mainstay: coconuts. Many trees are left and they will plant new ones.

'In the meantime, we want food-for-work programmes. We can make roads or dig wells, but it must be on the agenda,' stresses Martin Luther, who is from Tamaloo village, with the Nicobari Youth Forum. 'Otherwise, we are happy, but would like the government to speed things up a little.'

On these vulnerable shores, the fight against time and the elements is likely to continue.

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