India Uncut

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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Despatches 27: The trouble with houses

I am back in Chennai – though I will soon head back down the coast – sitting in the AID India office with one of their main coordinators, A Ravishankar. Ravi is a soft-spoken, intense man who speaks and thinks lucidly, and is filled with energy whenever you run into him, despite the long hours he is on his feet, coordinating relief work.

I intended to interview him about level three of the relief work that they are planning – as I’d written about before, that is the phase in which they carry on long-term rehabilitation, getting farmers back their livelihood, helping them compete in the marketplace by forming cooperatives, and so on. I had assumed that level two, building houses etc, is relatively easy work, if the funds are there. But Ravi tells me otherwise.

“Level two actually has three phases,” he tells me. “The first phase consists of fulfilling their immediate need for shelter, and we build them tarpaulin shelters for this purpose. It suffices for a very short term, after which we move into phase two and the problems start.

“In phase two,” he continues, “we build skeet shelters [a kind of thatched hutment] for them. But we have to abide by the coastal regulations for this, which state that no permanent houses can be built by anyone within 500 metres of the shore.” These laws were being flouted earlier, which was responsible for many of the deaths, but they obviously should not be flouted again. “But these men are fishermen,” says Ravi, “and they want to live near the sea. If they live too far inland, it becomes a problem for them.”

Phase three of level two involves building permanent housing for the affected families, which involves moving them out of the skeet shelters into proper houses, built using low-cost housing technology. The planning is fabulous, but quite apart from the coastal regulations, the big question that arises is of the land on which these are built. If it is on government land, who do the land titles go to? And will the government part with this land easily? Will it be close enough to the sea for these families to resume their old livelihood? Won’t villagers unaffected by the tsunami and living in humbler housing resent the level of aid that the affected villagers are receiving?

There are many thorny questions that are hard to resolve, but looking at Ravi in front of me, I’m confident that there are good determined people who are not going to turn their backs to these issues.
amit varma, 7:41 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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