2/1/05 Plenty tsunami relief update (FYI)
Former Plenty Executive Director, David Purviance lives in India with his wife Jean. Immediately after the Asian Tsunami struck, he traveled to the hardest hit areas and decided to help in any way he could. He asked if donations could be made to Plenty and forwarded to him for projects he was undertaking with a local Indian non-profit. The following is a report he emailed to Plenty.
Report on the Tsunami in India
The international news media have quoted United Nations and disaster relief experts as saying the Asian tsunami may be the worst natural disaster in over a century. The logistics of immediate relief efforts and longer-term redevelopment are staggering in their complexity. No one can recall a calamity that affected such a large area in so many countries. Compassionate people around the world opened their hearts and their wallets to those who lost everything in this tragedy. Like so many other people, I also was moved to help in some way. Because I live in south India and have an apartment just 60 miles from the coastline that was most devastated, I felt a compelling drive to visit the areas in Tamil Nadu (the southernmost state in India) and see how I might help.
On two occasions in early January, I traveled to Pondicherry and Cuddalore to evaluate the situation and help where I could. I visited again in late January and spent two days driving the coastline and walking through the villages. My experiences from the first trip were written up previously in another account and along with photos can be seen at www.plenty.org. Now I want to provide an eyewitness report along with an analysis of the situation and some suggestions for ways we might help at least a few people get back on their feet. My sources will be what I witnessed firsthand, what I heard from local Non-governing Organizations (NGO), and from news stories in Indian newspapers.
The tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004 struck three south Indian states: Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. Tamil Nadu suffered by far the greatest damage and the most deaths. It is important to remember that the tsunami affected a very narrow portion of land. In no case did the waves (three tsunami waves were reported in rapid succession) extend inland beyond three kilometers (about a mile and a half) and in most places, the waves receded after reaching about a half mile in from the shoreline. The reason this was such an immense tragedy was because so many fishing families live close to the sea. It was a population-dense area comprised of poor working-class families, who lived in bamboo and palm leaf thatch huts within a few hundred yards of the beaches. These people lost everything: homes, possessions, fishing boats, boat motors, nets, and family members.
The tsunami struck 1,356 miles of India’s coastline, destroying or seriously damaging 883 villages with a combined population of almost 1.2 million people. Over 10,000 people died in mainland India (not including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands). In one district alone, Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, it is estimated that over 10,000 fishing boats were destroyed and 6,126 boat engines damaged beyond repair or lost in the ocean. An initial estimate of the overall destruction in the four states was pegged at $1.2 billion.
There has been an enormous outpouring of support from governments, NGOs, and concerned citizens. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Promises made may not be kept. Donated relief items may not be the things that are really needed. Distribution is hit and miss. Charlatans and scam artists abound. The problems compound daily.
I spoke with Mr. Joseph Victor Raj, managing trustee of a Pondicherry NGO called Holistic Approach for People’s Empowerment (HOPE). They have surveyed the villages within Pondicherry and found that some villages have received surplus supplies while others, often tucked away from navigable roads, have gotten nothing. “Women in these villages normally have three to five dresses, but now some people have 10 dresses, while in a neighboring village the women have none,” Raj said.
The problem, he suggested, is that large NGOs that are not familiar with the area tend to go to places highlighted in the news media as being in need. After several NGOs have dispersed relief supplies in the same area, there is a glut in that location while other areas are ignored. He felt the government needs to inventory the entire coastline. But since that may not occur, or may only happen after some time, it is left up to the small, local NGOs with pre-established relationships in the affected villages, to determine what is needed.
The problem with the government’s emergency cash distribution plan, he said, is that the men, who are unemployed due to the disaster, tend to spend that money on liquor. News stories have confirmed this problem. Another problem with cash distribution is that people lost everything, including bank account information. Some of them have money in banks that they can’t access because they cannot prove they have an existing account with their bank. Many others have never dealt with a bank and don’t know how to open a bank account to deposit the money coming from the government. Newspaper reports tell of many villagers who have been cheated out of their government-distributed money by scam artists who offer to open a joint bank account with them.
Trucks of relief supplies from out of the area are met by imposters who pose as village leaders or government officials and direct the drivers to areas where they can control the supplies, either selling them outright or distributing them to family and friends. Even legitimate government officials have diverted trucks to areas where they use the supplies as political favors.
In one relief camp I witnessed how the strong, usually the men and older boys, push the weak out of the way, when supplies are distributed. News reports describe men muscling their way to the front of the distribution lines, where they get items which they pass to family members standing nearby, and then continue to take more, while widowed women and children are unable to reach the front of the lines.
A story in The New Indian Express described how a truck filled with supplies arrived at a relief shelter and as the legitimate victims rushed up to get the food, they were elbowed aside by a group of men who arrived seemingly out of nowhere. The reporter asked one of the victims, a 48-year-old man named Selvi about this incident.
“This happens every day,” he said. “These are men with political clout who have been terrorizing us even earlier. Now they want to make sure that only those favored by them survive. If these things happen in government-run camps, it could be even worse when we move back to our villages where the panchayat (village head) is all-powerful. Most of the panchayats are under the control of such ruffians,” he said.
What then is the answer for kind-hearted people who wish to help, but don’t want to line the pockets of a crook or a politician, or give items that are not needed? I believe the solution lies in working with previously existing, locally based NGOs that have strong connections with the affected villages.
My second visit to Pondicherry and Cuddalore was for the purpose of identifying a couple of reliable NGOs that could determine the legitimate needs of the villages they work with and ensure that donations are wisely used and benefit those most in need. During that visit I was convinced that HOPE in Pondicherry and BLESS in Cuddalore are two such reputable organizations. My third visit was to visit the villages where these two NGOs are providing assistance.
I have met four times with Mr. Joseph Victor Raj of HOPE and twice with Mr. L.S. Anthonysamy, the executive secretary of BLESS. (BLESS is not an acronym, it is the full name of the organization).
HOPE was formed in 1996 to assist Pondicherry area women, children, dalits (untouchable caste), and minorities to improve their lives. Their primary task prior to the tsunami disaster was establishing supplementary education and recreation centers and other projects benefiting children. The centers ware created as places where children could go after school and on weekends and in a relaxed atmosphere play games, get tutored in subjects they found challenging, listen to music, talk about their problems, etc.
The tsunami struck Pondicherry at around 9 a.m. on Dec. 26. By 11 a.m., HOPE staff had rushed to the areas in which they were working and visited five villages, which were all devastated. Over the next few days they provided biscuits, bread, toothbrushes and paste, soap and other items to these villages. They gave 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of rice each to 200 families.
They have identified four villages they want to assist with temporary relief and long-term redevelopment. Three of the villages are fishing communities; the fourth is a dalit village. The dalits earned money by purchasing fish from the fishermen and selling it in the city. Since the livelihood of all four villages was dependant on fishing, there is no income for them since the tsunami. There are 1,200 families in the four villages and 2,000 children.
HOPE has two projects for which they seek financial help. The first is a plan to provide clothing for children in such a way that the dignity of the family is preserved and the children get clothes that are individually made for them. We have donated 88,000 rupees (about $2,046) to begin this program.
Initially, 14,500 rupees will be used to purchase five foot-operated sewing machines. Each of the four villages has women who are tailors, but the tsunami destroyed their sewing machines. HOPE will hire these women to measure the children of their village and, using cloth provided by HOPE and the sewing machines we have purchased, these tailors will make a set of clothes for every child. When all the children have been provided new clothes, we will donate the sewing machines to the women so they can start their business again. This project not only provides clothing to each child, but also helps the village economy by hiring local tailors to make the clothing.
HOPE estimates it will need an additional 312,000 rupees ($7,260) to complete this project and provide clothing for all 2,000 children.
A second project that would benefit those families with children to support is a sponsorship program for the children of these four villages. Mr. Raj proposes that sponsors donate Rs 3,400 ($80) a year for “their” child. HOPE will hold the money in trust, distributing it in monthly allocations. The family of each child will receive a monthly stipend to pay for clothing, food, medical care, a school uniform, and school bags and books, etc. The sponsorship program primarily will target children who lost one parent in the tsunami. Where possible, the money will be given to the mother with encouragement and assistance to set aside some of the money in a savings account for the child’s future educational needs.
Twenty kilometers (12 miles) south of Pondicherry is Cuddalore. The local NGO that is most involved in development work in this area is BLESS. Founded in 1989 by Mr. L.S. Anthonysamy, BLESS’ primary purpose is empowering poor rural people, especially women, so they become economically self-reliant.
Working mainly in 18 villages with a total population of more than 31,000, BLESS established Women’s Self Help Groups (SHG), Men’s SHG, Disabled SHG, and youth groups. A total of 782 SHGs were established comprising 14,244 members. These groups were given training in income generation through a variety of classes, taught sanitation and hygiene techniques, and were instructed in the benefits of establishing savings accounts. Because of this assistance the SHG members saved in excess of 20 million rupees ($465,000) and have taken out 40 million rupees in loans for business ventures.
The organization also encourages village-wide sanitation plans called Total Sanitation Covered Villages. To date 50 villages have become TSCV. The plan was so successful that the state of Tamil Nadu made it a model program and a total of 17,600 household latrines have been constructed. The BLESS web site is www.blessnao.orq.
Mr. Anthonysamy told me between 650 and 700 people died in the Cuddalore district. The immediate need is income, he said. The people all rely on fishing for their livelihood, but without boats or nets they cannot fish and the fishing season is now through March. Even money saved through the 53 women’s SHGs is inaccessible since every family lost all bank documents.
BLESS will do both short-term and long-term assistance. They want to provide loans to their pre-existing women’s groups as start-up capital for new income-generating ventures.
During my first visit, I asked Mr. Anthonysamy what a small amount of money might accomplish in an area that would not otherwise be covered. He thought for a moment and then said there was one group he was particularly concerned about. He said at any given time about eight percent of childbearing age women are pregnant. He expressed apprehension that pregnant women who lost husbands or children were in need of immediate and continuous intervention, both psychological and material. He said his staff will survey the villages in which they work and determine how many women are pregnant and which of those lost immediate members of their family.
On my second visit, with Mr. Anthonysamy a week later, he told me the survey had identified 276 pregnant women in 51 villages that were struck by the tsunami. His team needed ten more days to complete their survey in such a way that the women were prioritized by their need, i.e. those who lost homes and/or their husband or children.
He said at this time all the women are receiving medical care from the various medical camps that are set up, but these camps will disband in February, leaving the women without medical assistance. Mr. Anthonysamy suggests we seek funds to provide an initial health checkup for each pregnant woman.
Three medical units would be created, comprised of two or three medical staff people and a psychologist. These three units would visit the 276 pregnant women and from that health assessment the BLESS staff will determine further needs for each woman.
Those women most at risk will be assigned a BLESS staff liaison who will visit them every week. The liaison will talk with the women, give them encouragement, and determine what requirements they may have. Housing, clothing, nutritional food, psychological counseling, small amounts of money or other needs will be met with funds donated for this purpose. I agreed to seek support for this project and Mr. Anthonysamy will begin collecting information about the numbers of pregnant women who lost family in these villages.
The program will continue for six months and then be evaluated to determine whether it should be continued or not. Funds that we raise for this project would be used to pay the salaries of the medical personnel, the medicines and vitamins distributed to the women, rental of the vehicles to transport the health teams to the villages, and follow-up needs for each pregnant woman. In the next few weeks, we will have a better idea of the estimated overall costs of this project.
In one village I was emotionally moved by a small child, perhaps three years old, who was in the arms of her grandfather. We were told this girl had lost her mother in the tsunami and her grandfather was oaring for her. There was no emotion on her face; the light had gone from her eyes and she clung with tenacity to her grandfather. I so wished I had a stuffed animal toy with roe that I could have given her. I had read in an Indian newspaper that a psychologist suggested children who had lost parents would benefit from having cuddly toys for their emotional security.
I determined on the spot I would seek funds to purchase enough stuffed animals to give to every child who lost a parent in the HOPE and BLESS villages. I asked Mr. Anthonysamy if he thought this was a worthwhile plan and he agreed. In fact, he said, the government person (district collector) in charge of tsunami relief efforts in Cuddalore had just asked Mr. Anthonysamy to concentrate on projects that helped bring joy back to the affected children.
I later priced cuddly stuffed animal toys and found a range of prices from $1.86 for small teddy bears up to $10 for very large stuffed toys. Toys for older children such as jump ropes for girls ($1) and soccer balls or cricket bats for boys ($2) are also available locally and would help put some joy back in these young lives.
In a meeting with the Cuddalore district collector, Mr. Anthonysamy agreed to sponsor children’s playgrounds that will be placed in the three most devastated villages in the area in which BLESS is working. I agreed to make an appeal for help purchasing the equipment for the playgrounds in the villages of Indira Nagar Pudupettai, Velangiranyanpettai, and Chinnoor-North. In the plan proposed by the district collector, each playground will consist of the following equipment with prices supplied by playground equipment manufacturers.
Tsunami Relief — India
Plenty Bulletin Spring 2005, Vol. 21, No. 1
Donors to Plenty have provided funds to build two playgrounds in villages that were devastated by the tsunami in southern India. We will build as many playgrounds as donated funds allow. Each playground costs $1,500 and includes swing sets/ slides/ merry-go-rounds, etc.