India Uncut

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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Despatches 35: The fisherman’s mafia

Nityanand Jayaraman, an independent journalist and activist, has been working on various projects in Cuddalore for the past few years. He enlightens us on what is happening in one of the worst-affected areas there, Thevanampattinam.

First, some background. In many of the fishing villages around, Jayaraman tells us, the locals don’t trust the local justice system, so they have their own internal mechanisms to deal with disputes and crimes – even murder. When problems cannot be sorted out in the village concerned, they go to Thevanampattinam, which is a sort of Supreme Court in this system. But the dispute resolution process in Thevanampattinam is run by a local mafia, which basically consists of thugs.

What has happened now is this: World Vision and the Bollywood film star, Vivek Oberoi, who was on the flight to Chennai with me when I came here from Mumbai, arrived here some days back and announced that they were going to “adopt” the village. Then they went off. And as soon as they did so, the local mafia took over. They beat up a local policeman who was trying to direct relief supplies, and took charge of all supplies themselves. Now, normally it would help a village if all supplies went to a single source and were given out, methodically, from there. But here, things are different.

Thevanampattinam is a hotbed of caste problems, with four different castes here that do not interact with each other. The mafia, as you’d expected, is diverting all aid to its own caste, its own people. Even the relief lists that the administration is getting, for purposes of compensation etc, are skewed because the mafia is making these lists. Jayaraman has prepared alternate lists that are comprehensive and intends to hand them over to the district administration, but even they will have a tough time navigating these waters.

“Tell me,” I ask Jayaraman, “haven’t the people from different castes come together at a time of crisis like this?”

“No,” he says, “the tsunami has, in fact, worsened relations. Earlier they were getting by just doing their own thing, and they could afford to ignore each other. But now they are competing for the same resources. It’s getting worse.”
amit varma, 8:08 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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