India Uncut

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Friday, December 31, 2004

Despatches 4: The collector

At Parangipettai we notice a crowd gathered in a compound, littered with old clothes that people are walking on. We walk in, on a wall there are posters of dead people, kept there for identification. There is one with the faces of six dead babies, their heads bloated, their faces contorted in a bizarre manner. What mother could bear to see this?

Inside, speaking to community leaders, is the milk and dairy development minister of India, S Ramachandran. He is busy speaking to people, but we corner the man who seems to be in charge of things. He is the sub-collector here, and his name is Rajendra Ratnoo.

“We are planning for the long term,” Ratnoo tells us. “When the disaster happened we set up community kitchens and fed them, but we encouraged them after that to go back to their homes and cook, and they did just that. We don’t just want to take care of their short-term needs and let them go. We need to give them their livelihoods back.”

Ratnoo tells us that the government has just approved a package whereby every fisherman who lost a boat will get a new boat (each boat costs Rs one lakh). They will also be given life-support systems, and until they are self-sufficient again, they will be given support like free rations etc.

“What do you think of the role the NGOs are playing in this?” I ask.

“They are duplicating work,” he says. “First of all, they are getting too many clothes. They come and throw piles of clothes on the street and they feel like they have done a great deed. And the ones who don’t get clothes end up duplicating each other’s efforts. They should just come here and coordinate with us.” I am impressed by the man’s sincerity, but I know only too well that the governmental systems have been utterly ineffective all across the affected areas.

He ends on an interesting note. He tells us of a village called Sasniyarpettai, by the coast, where he conducted disaster managements courses two months ago for floods and cyclones. Villagers were assigned different responsibilities, and techniques like how to hang on to tree stumps were practised. When the tsunami struck, only 22 out of 3000 villagers died, a fantastic percentage for a village like that.

So even if forewarned is not always possible, fore-prepared can also save lives.
amit varma, 11:44 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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