Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Tsunami Aid Turning Into Garbage In India Province

by Satya Sivaraman

Mishandled Aid Could Easily Hurt Tsunami Victims

(IPS) CHENNAI, India -- Despite an outpouring of national and global sympathy and an unprecedented flow of funds and relief supplies to populations in the tsunami-struck southern Indian province of Tamil Nadu, it might all go to waste due to the inexperience of local groups in dealing with post-disaster situations.

The lack of coordination on the ground is resulting in duplication of efforts, poor targeting and in some cases even diversion of relief materials to the wrong people.

Local television channels show roadsides littered with tons of donated used clothes, cooked food turned stale piling up in garbage bins and private do-gooders rushing about from village to village in the affected areas, often repeating work already completed.

A recent coordination meeting, in the provincial capital Chennai, of organizations carrying out relief operations, heard stories of multiple groups coming to the aid of the same community and even a discussion on the need for a mechanism to preclude the possibility of different medical teams giving immunization shots to the same people.

"The need to help is overwhelming the need for help," said Sushma Iyengar of Abhiyan, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that is working in Nagapattinam, 500 kilometers south of Chennai, where over 5,925 people lost their lives and entire settlements were leveled to the ground by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Currently there are around 150 NGOs engaged in relief operations alongside government agencies in coastal Tamil Nadu, where a total of at least 7,941 died when killer waves struck, spawned by a 9.0 undersea quake just off the northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island.

Tamil Nadu, with its 1024 kilometer long coastline, is the most devastated Indian state and 690,895 people are affected in over 362 villages -- a majority of whom belong to the fishing community. The Indian government estimates damages of over $1.8 billion in the tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu and the federal territories of Pondicherry and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Nonetheless, the bulk of the damage is still in Tamil Nadu.

"You ask for bread and you get a bakery," is another complaint relief workers are making, referring to the approach of some groups who, in their well-intentioned desire to help, are offering anything from advanced power intensive water-making machines, to a planeload of milk, disaster management training courses and scuba divers.

Amidst all this confusion there are also reports of some people completely unaffected by the disaster trying to garner or corner supplies, while some tsunami victims belonging to the 'untouchable' or Dalit community apparently get nothing due to caste discrimination.

"There are several cases of Dalit households being bypassed in the sharing of relief material or assistance in clearing up their devastated settlements," the Banglore-based Alternative Law Forum's Arvind Narayan, who's doing relief work in Nagapattinam, told IPS in a phone interview.

Though the Indian government has refused foreign aid to help its tsunami-affected population, there is no shortage of funds or material to carry out relief operations. Apart from financial contributions of over 70 million U.S. dollars to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund, members of the Indian public, from movie stars to school children, have donated materials generously to the tsunami-hit areas of southern India as well as the Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar.

All this is on top of large commitments of aid to tsunami victims already announced by the Tamil Nadu government. The Indian government too has pitched in by quickly deploying its armed forces to help with restoration and relief work and announcing immediate financial assistance of over 60 million U.S. dollars to Tamil Nadu state.

The record of the Tamil Nadu state government in providing timely and adequate relief to coastal populations, though mixed, has been somewhat better than the average sluggish Indian bureaucracy.

While in several districts the first bearers of relief were community organizations and civil society groups, in the worst-hit district of Nagapattinam government agencies took a definite lead.

"The first agencies to reach the populations in the district were police and local administration officials," said Dr. S R Srikrishna, community health specialist with the Bangalore-based Community Health Cell, who was part of a delegation led by the British relief agency Action Aid to survey affected villages in Nagapattinam.

In other places, after the initial shock and confusion, district level officials have organized shelters for the homeless, medical camps for the injured and a clean-up of affected areas to prevent outbreaks of epidemics. There are currently 402 temporary relief centers sheltering over 300,000 displaced people in the state, who are being fed and provided with medical attention at state expense.

There are doubts, however, about how long this bout of official enthusiasm for carrying out relief work will last. For example while tsunami-affected families are right now getting regular food rations and even a subsistence allowance from the government there are indications that such relief might be stopped after the first month of the disaster.

"We have lost our homes, the tools of our trade and even the confidence to go back to the sea. So if they stop giving us relief aid we will have to starve," said Krishnan, a fisherman in Satras Kuppam -- a fishing hamlet 70 kilometers south of Chennai -- who lost all his possessions including his house to the tsunami.

Some are also worried whether the state machinery's current show of concern will become transparent, participatory and well-designed rehabilitation programs for the tsunami-affected populations.

Given the scale of the disaster, a truly mammoth task awaits all those really interested in helping out with the long-term rehabilitation of the tsunami-affected people, whose needs range from getting over the psychological trauma of the disaster and looking after orphaned children to rebuilding houses and restoring livelihoods.

"What is clearly required is a systematic, long-term approach whereby those who want to help can pitch in at different levels and different times in a coordinated manner instead of everybody trying to do everything at the same time," said Srikrishna, the community heath specialist.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor January 10, 2005 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.