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Tsunami Survivors Say Aid Agencies Aren't Listening To Them

by Satya Sivaraman

Mishandled Aid Could Easily Hurt Tsunami Victims

(IPS) CHENNAI, India -- There is enough money, material and manpower pouring in from around the world for emergency relief work to be in full swing across South and Southeast Asia, a month after the killer Indian Ocean tsunami struck. Nonetheless, something vital still seems to be missing.

Affected populations that are struggling to piece their lives together after losing everything to the Dec. 26 deadly waves, have rarely been allowed to have a say in community rehabilitation plans.

'In the last several weeks, affected communities have been pushed from one end to the other merely to obtain relief. They have not had time to reflect on their experiences and evolve plans for their communities,' said V Suresh of the newly formed Citizens' Platform for the Tsunami Affected -- a coalition comprising activists, lawyers and journalists based in this southern Tamil Nadu state capital.

'The rush to rehabilitate is being done with undue haste,' Suresh told IPS.

About 7,968 people are confirmed dead in Tamil Nadu and thousands more are still missing. At least 140,000 Indians, most of them from fishing communities, are in relief centers.

Among the official decisions tsunami-hit communities are being forced to acquiesce to quickly is that of their relocation, away from their former dwellings along the seashore, to places two or three kilometers from the coast.

While a section of the community has accepted this as a temporary measure, many are upset at the poor quality of housing and land they are being forced to live on as well as the impact this will have on their ability to earn a livelihood.

Everywhere there are reports of popular resentment and even rejection of relocation plans made by state agencies.

'There is no point in having survived the tsunami if we are now going to die for want of proper shelter or a regular income,' said Poornima, a fisherwoman from Selavanga Kuppam in Tamil Nadu's coastal Kancheepuram district.

According to Poornima, members of her community were threatened with police action if they failed to move to a new location where the government is putting up temporary shelters.

She and her fellow villagers complain that the new site chosen by officials is too far from the sea besides being prone to flooding from a nearby irrigation canal. Worse still, the small 8 by 10 foot houses provided for them are too cramped for their typically large extended families.

'It is important that the new reconstruction be integrated with the nature of the affected population's livelihoods,' said the Bhoomika Trust, a Chennai-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that has played an active role in relief work in Tamil Nadu's worst-hit districts.

'At least the next month should be utilized for the assessment and preparation of technical and design guidelines, before the permanent shelter rehabilitation policy is announced,' said the NGO in a statement.

Citizens' Platform Suresh suggests the government should allow decentralized, community- level bodies to discuss all relevant issues before taking any decisions.

'No attempt has been made at all to ascertain the views of the fishing community about the forced relocation, which has caused tensions and raized tempers in many places,' he pointed out.

In Sri Lanka, just across the Palk Strait from Tamil Nadu, the situation is similar with fishermen associations threatening to agitate if their community is forced to move.

Sri Lankan government officials are insisting that all new settlements be located at least 300 meters from the shore, a condition that is unacceptable to many of the country's displaced coastal populations.

More than 30,800 died when the Dec. 26 killer waves lashed Sri Lanka's coastline. The number of homeless is put at between 800,000 to one million.

Homes, crops and fishing boats have all been destroyed and the International Labor Organization estimates that at least 400,000 people have lost their jobs.

'You have to expect a tsunami from the people. We survived the first wave. We will not let the government sweep us out,' said Imtiaz Karim, a fisherman in the Sri Lankan town of Hambantota.

According to Amitava Mukherjee, the regional advisor for poverty reduction at the Bangkok- based UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific, all agencies involved in the rehabilitation of tsunami-hit areas should take into account the knowledge, capabilities, aspirations and technical know-how available within the communities.

'Rehabilitation programs designed without public consultation are bound to fail,' warned Mukherjee in an interview.

While the success or failure of rehabilitation is a critical issue, the Citizens Platform for the Tsunami-Affected is also making an important point about the need for governments to respect the dignity of the affected people and give them more time to get over their personal trauma.

'Being poor does not mean the government can treat them in any way it wants. They should at least be given time to mourn their dead properly,' said Suresh.

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Albion Monitor January 25, 2005 (

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