ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Inaccurate Criticism of Tsunami Relief

The criticism of the government of Tamil Nadu's tsunami relief and rehabilitation programme (April 19, 2008) does not accurately reflect the situation on the ground and the progress made.

DISCUSSIONmay 17, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly94Inaccurate Criticism of Tsunami Reliefc v SankarC V Sankar ( is officer on special duty, relief and rehabilitation, government of Tamil Nadu.The criticism of the government of Tamil Nadu’s tsunami relief and rehabilitation programme (April 19, 2008) does not accurately reflect the situation on the ground and the progress made.contingency. The aim of the government at that time was to give immediate homes to the families and to vacate common spaces like schools. Unfortunately, the NGOs and international organisations too could not bring up better models at that time.(iii)From Transitional to Permanent Houses: The government of Tamil Nadu was the first to formulate a permanent house reconstruction policy, the key fea-tures of which were:(a) Land of three cents (about 1,200 sq ft) in rural and 1.5 cents in urban areas would be given free of cost by the government. (b) The title would be in the joint name of the wife and the husband. (c) Each house will have about 325 sq ft of built-up area and will have disaster resistant features with a staircase, toilet and electrification. Internationally, the majority of tsunami houses have been built with cement sheets for walls and GI sheets for roofs whereas the specifications finalised by Tamil Nadu involve plinth and other bands for earth-quake protection with concrete roof to protect against cyclones. (d) No exemp-tion will be given under the coastal regu-lation zone (CRZ) notifications and no family will be asked to vacate against its will. (e) Each house is insured for 10 years against 14 different disasters at the cost of the executing agency.(iv) Government Support: It is quite un-fortunate that even publications likeEPW which do not need to sensationalise aber-rations gloss over positive developments and the authors after a visit to one or two places have concluded that families move in without electricity connections. The tsunami housing programme is the first programme where not only the inter-nal electrification but the deposits to the electricity board were both done by the government. To date, more than 39,000 families have moved to permanent houses and the government has provided electric-ity connections. I do not know the area where the families moved in without a connection, but I am sure that they would be aware that the connections are on the way and would have decided to move in for various reasons. In fact, about 5,500 This is in response to the case study ‘Post-Tsunami Housing in Tamil Nadu’ (April 19, 2008). At the outset, let me congratulate the writers for the crisp and lucid style of writ-ing. This is only to set the record straight on some of the points made.(i) Emergency Shelter: It is mentioned that even as late as May 2005, people were going from place to place during the day and stayed in the schools in the night. Tamil Nadu took quick steps to build the temporary shelters mainly to get the schools vacated and, in fact, the schools in Nagapattinam opened on January 12, 2005 and the situation of families having to depend upon schools in May 2005 clearly did not exist. In fact, about 50 ‘narikorava’ families who were in no way affected by the tsunami were given tempo-rary shelters since their being on the streets was being projected adversely in the media at that time.(ii) TransitionalSheltering: It is men-tioned that a number of families were forced to stay in such shelters as this was to be the proof of being affected and live-lihood support was being given only to such families. As your article itself men-tions, a total of about 32,000 temporary shelters were built. The relief and live-lihood packages were given to 1,18,580 families whose houses were damaged (this, again, is mentioned by the authors). In addition, 1,60,000 families whose live-lihood was indirectly affected were also given support packages for four months until May 2005. Perceptions and miscon-ceptions of families staying in these shelters cannot substitute facts. That the shelters had shortcomings and should have been built better has long been rec-ognised by the government and we have formulated guidelines incorporating Sphere and other standards for any future
DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200895such houses have been handed over to families belonging to scheduled tribes, the irulas, and scheduled caste agricultural labourers whose huts were not touched by the tsunami as theNGOs came forward to build for the poor families in addition to covering tsunami-damaged houses. These houses are also electrified.(v) Critical Issues: There was much debate while formulating the policy regarding owner-driven vis-a-vis con-tractor driven construction; the fisher-folk are not like agriculturallabourersor construction workers who would have preferred to construct on their own. The general consensus was for other agencies to construct with the government and, in some cases, the community providing the land. As in any development programme, sometimes the policy has to go by the “good” solution and not accept the “best” solution since building consensus across wide geographical areas and communities can cause delay and frustration. Gujarat went for a graded compensa-tion package for housing while Tamil Nadu opted for an equitable model to avoid issues of discrimination. It is true that the amenities in the housing sites have not kept pace with construction of houses, but one must also keep in mind that in this programme, more than 1,200 acres have been purchased in more than 200 locations and it is a challenging task to create fully developed habitats espe-cially in the low lying coastal areas prone to frequent spells of rain and flooding. Sanitation was a case in point. Interna-tionally, there is no perfect model which can provide a foolproof system for areas with high water table, soil porosity as well as opacity (clayey soil). Agencies likeUNICEF or the World Bank did not have any ready solution and the state government worked with several institutions and experts and came up with several site specific techniques including DEWATS. For taking care of operation and maintenance issues, the government has organised training programmes and also provided infrastructure gap funding. Building capacities takes time but the will is there. More than 250 school buildings were built byNGOs and an additional 150 buildings for schools were built by the government withMPLADS, World Bankand NABARD assistance. Dislocation doesaffect schooling in the short run, but schoolenrol-ment and retention have improvedinthe tsunami areas due to several other measures like scholarships from the PrimeMinister’s National Relief Fund. New habitations are handed over to the local bodies for further maintenance and there is no issue requir-ing “policy” clearances on this.The programme of constructing houses in the vulnerable areas up to 1,000 metres from the high tide line is to reduce the vulnerability of such families in any future disaster with similar standards of housing given to families living in thatched, mud walled houses and it is quite cynical to agree with a few narrow-minded fisher-folk that this is an attempt by the govern-ment to bring in non-fishing communities into the beneficiary list. AnyNGO which had worked in the tsunami housing pro-gramme will narrate the many demands made by the fishing communities and in some cases their refusal to assist in mak-ing the houses better. In fact, the present focus on reducing vulnerability, we hope, would become a model for any disaster rehabilitation programme. If there is one assertion that can be made with 100 per cent certainty, it is that the government of Tamil Nadu does not have or need to have any hidden agenda on such issues and at one point of time, every NGO was sure that the government’s only objective in the housing programme was to clear the beaches for commercial development. As already mentioned, the housing title is given in the joint name of the wife and husband and the state government has clearly stated in a government order that the spaces vacated will be used only for the community. In reality, in many cases, the fishers were staying on government lands like sea course ‘poromboke’, where no title could be given. Now, they will have titles for the houses given and the space wherever vacated will be vested with the community.ConclusionsThere is another case study in the same issue ofEPW (‘Reconfiguring the Coast’) about the village near the Koodankulam nuclear power plant in Tirunelveli district. The tsunami housing is 2.5 km away from the plant and is 0.5 km away from the outer boundary of the plant. There are similarly placed houses beyond the prohibited area of 2 km from the plant. The article also mentions Rs 3,000 crore as having been spent by the govern-ment alone. The total expenditure for all the relief and rehabilitation schemes including from the PMNRF, MPLADS, World Bank and Asian Development Bank is Rs 1,700 crore and not Rs 3,000 crore. While considerable time and effort have been spent by the authors on the case studies, we wonder as to why one of the main actors, viz, the government did not deserve to be talked to. The tsunami programme threw up many challenges and shortcomings were indeed seen. But, there was a tremendous effort undertaken to reduce the sufferings of the people and many standards in housing, sanitation, livelihood and eco-preservation were improved. There was a very high level of transparency (I have seen many write-ups which used the data we ourselves had given in our web site to ask further “probing” questions!) and an openness to work withNGOs and civil society organisations. There is a clear im-provement in education, health, sanita-tion, building standards, connectivity, alternative livelihoods (more than 38,000 self-help groups comprising mostly women have been assisted with revolving funds, training and economic assistance) and coastal protection. Many expected nega-tive impacts on trafficking, severe trauma, abandoning of orphaned children (the government of Tamil Nadu has deposited Rs 8.4 crore as fixed deposit for these chil-dren to help in education now and for employment, higher studies, etc, later), overexploitation of coastal resources, etc, but these never became a reality thanks to the many interventions and the social milieu of the coastal communities. Considering that many families are still in mobile vans two and a half years after the Katrina disaster, the initiatives taken in the tsunami rehabilitation programme need to be studied in detail over a period of time and while the feelings and fears of the affected require to be listened to sym-pathetically, equal time must be given to the other stakeholders who can place the issues in perspective.

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