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Report of Tsunami Relief Work at Nagapattinam

By Dr.V. Mohini Giri, Chairperson, Guild of Service

The nation stopped breathing for some time on the 26th of December as the cataclysmic disaster struck the southern shores of India. As minutes passed into hours a clear picture of the extent and enormity of the catastrophe gradually began to emerge.

In my four decades of work from 1965 war widows to 71 war then the 1984 riots to Uttarkashi to Latur to the Gujarat earthquake to Godhra I had never witnessed such destruction that could displace and kill thousands of my sisters, brothers and children. I've never seen such calamity which has left thousands homeless, hopeless and harassed. For several days I kept hoping and was happy to see that this time my young children were involved all over in the total disaster management and in assisting victims of the tidal waves. However something inside me compelled me as if saying that I was avoiding my duty and I could not be a silent spectator to this grave situation specially when I have had the experience of relief and rehabilitation operations. I was aware that Mani Shankar Aiyer's constituency was badly hit and I rang up Suneet his wife if I could be of any assistance. Suneet did not even think for a minute she said, "Mohini I am leaving tonight, will you come.." And there I was traveling towards Chennai towards deluge and towards my sisters who were wanting to be heard and consoled.

Our first stop was at the Palaiyar Village in Tamil Nadu. Palaiyar village is 60 km away from Nagapattinam and has approximately 150 families. This was a small and beautiful village on the seaside consisting of fishermen families. Total number of dead in this area is 120 and 613 houses were damaged. The village dominated by fishing community and most of the boats / catamarans were destroyed. Houses were badly damaged. We were immediately surrounded by all the women of that area. We asked them to come and sit down and just talk to us. I would like to mention here that each women and child wanted to be heard wanted to tell their own story and impress upon us the fact that they needed help, they needed rehabilitation and they needed strength to overcome such a big loss. Cynthia and Radha from The Peoples Watch, Suneet and Mr.Rajiv Sethi, Ms.Asthi Bhartia and Ms. Sangita Singh were in our group and each of us interacted till sunset with all these women. The team interacted with

  1. Villagers
  2. Government functionaries
  3. Non-Government organizations
  4. Individuals

It was amazing that inspite of such a big calamity they could still think clearly of the needs of building up understanding and restoring fractured relationships. Our dialogue with these 400 odd women drew different kinds of responses and we were grappling whether it could be possible to initiate a process of empowerment for all of them. Cynthia was busy taking down the list of widows (Encl.)

While Suneet was talking to the orphaned children Rajiv Sethi, Ms. Asthi Bhartia and Ms. Sangita Singh on the other end were discussing to find out ways and methodology of relief and rehabilitation.

It was to the credit of the Government, NGOs and activists that a sense of peace existed in that chaotic situation. The doctors from the Escorts Hospital, Delhi had put up a huge camp and every injured human being was being treated and looked after. The sea kept its motion of coming to the shore and going back unmindful of the turmoil that it had created throughout the length and breadth of the country. Boats lay scattered and broken. Men sat huddled together not knowing what to do. A school building had broken down notebooks and files lay scattered all over but the women did not give up courage and kept their dialogues with us. After a great deal of discussion a plan of action and strategy evolved slowly. We discussed with the women the futility of wasting time and also the urgent need to evolve a participatory empowerment network immediately. Slowly the women gained confidence and trust in us. We explained to them that power and strength is inside them and that they need to get empowered. The previous day Rs.4,000 each in cash, dhotis and saris, bed sheets, cooking oil and rice were distributed by the Government. Most women present told us that the money had gone straight to the liquor shops and they were left without any money. We asked the women if they could manage the finances and see to it that their hopes and their aspirations can be met by themselves. The women slowly realized the importance of their power in togetherness and agreed to form a 10-member group of management among themselves. Rajiv Sethi asked the women what they should name this group and one of them suggested that they should name it Meen Shakti (the strength of fish) as most of them depended on the fish for their prosperity and livelihood. Rajiv Sethi asked them to bring a little rice and the women drew the shape of a fish on that rice and the rice was given to the youngest member of our group, Ms. Asthi Bhartia. A 10-member committee called Meen Shakti Committee was formed then and there and members were:

  1. Ms. Kavitha
  2. Ms. Janaki
  3. Ms. Poornam
  4. Ms. Anjali
  5. Ms. Kasiamma
  6. Ms. Dhanlakshmi
  7. Ms. Minal Kodi
  8. Ms. Sugi
  9. Ms. Suganthy
  10. Ms. Devaki

Action taken during meeting with the women's group:

  • Detail discussion of the problems took place
  • Women group decided to work together
  • Formation of group took place representing 13 main members.
  • Selection of the members was done by the women group
  • Selection for important post such as Secretary was done by the group
  • The team only facilitated the selection procedures
  • Name of the group was decided as 'Meen Shakti' & Gangai Shakti
  • Group to deposit Rs 10 to be a member
  • A sum of Rs. 5000 was given to the group as a seed money by the team
  • The amount will be used for opening a bank a/c, printing of money receipt, purchase of registers and registration of society
  • This will be temporary group and will be functional for a month
  • Based on the outcome and the function of the group, further action plan will be developed

Expected outcome of the Meen Shakti:

  • Group to identify immediate activity, which is, required most. ( common kitchen was proposed by the members, but options are open )
  • Group to deposit Rs. 10 for its membership fees
  • Place to be identified by the group if it decides to have common kitchen
  • Member to identify individual who can run the kitchen and feed the community
  • Group to open bank a/c, purchase books/registers and register society

The aim of this committee was to take upon themselves all activities connected with the improvement and rehabilitation of the village. The Committee was registered with the help of Mr. Shiv Shankar a local ex-serviceman and it was proposed that Cynthia would send a social worker to guide and motivate this group towards empowerment. The enthusiasm and the commitment shown by the women of Palaiyar speaks volumes about the power of women to help themselves.

We will be visiting Palaiyar to see the progress on the 23rd of January and assure ourselves that the group gives help to the fishermen community within one month of the disaster. What is really needed is self confidence and a will to get up when you fall. The women of Palaiyar village have taken the first step of standing, they will soon be running towards progress. Meen Shakti will bring prosperity to this village.

By the time we left Palaiyar half of our group had gone away to a nearby island called Kodiyam Pallayam. This village had 230 families and a population of 4,000. There were 13 deaths in this island village and they said we were their first visitors. We decided that once Meen Shakti becomes an ongoing process towards a planned strategy then we would usher in a series of activities in these areas. It was getting dark and we drove up to Madavamedu village where there were 300 families with a total population of 800 and 20 deaths. The women were very anxious to talk to us and each one wanted to have their homes rebuilt. Here once again we talked about the empowerment group. Since we were getting late and had to go to two more villages we left a social worker to interact with the women.

Another very beautiful village was Kottayammedu. Kottayammedu has 60 families with a population of 300 out of which 22 had died. Young Lakshmi daughter of Anjalamma of 20 years was left alone. Apart from rebuilding their lives a major initiative would be to give economic skills to the women who are left alone. Kottayammedu had a woman Panch, V.Ponamma with whom we interacted. She assured us that she would soon call the meeting of the women who were affected and tell us their immediate needs and long-term needs of these women. All of them had to walk quite a distance to enter their village and were anxious to have a bus stop in this village. They wanted a road to be built till their village. It was heartening to see that women were talking about roads and bus stops forgetting their own personal tragedy and thinking of a future which was linked to development. In between their talk they would even drive away the mosquitoes which were dancing around us! I was taken aback by their concerns for us even in the face of such tragedy.

Our last stop that night was Nadu Kottayam a costal village of 450 families and a total population of 2,000. There were 26 deaths in this area and all the boats were destroyed, the houses were destroyed. A few furlongs away the villagers were huddled as their groundnut crop had been destroyed by the tidal waves. Children came running to us asking for school bags and notebooks, as very soon after Pongal they would require this. It was heartening that they were picking up the various threads of their lives and thinking of schools, thinking of livelihood and restoring a sense of transformation towards rebuilding.

We spent the night at Mylavaram and planned the various options towards rehabilitation. Next day in the morning we left for Tharangambadi. a Dutch colony on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The architecture of the village still remained Dutch and the tidal waves had not washed away the old fort which stood the ravages of the sea for several centuries. As we entered the village we could hear the morning Azan from the Mosque, the Church bells and the Temple bells all reminding us of the unity of God. The villagers all stood to gain from such diversity unified towards humanism. The condition at Tharangambadi shook us to the core. 600 people had died several missing and indescribable destruction. We stood silent not knowing what to say and what to do. It was as if we were hit by a sudden earthquake. Amidst this we could see women, children coping with the forces of destruction and environment all caught in this whirlwind of destruction and devastation. I could not fathom the sociology of this phenomenon of infinite destruction. Slowly the words of T. S. Eliot came to me," Where is the life we have lost in the living, were the living also like the dead." However before this wave of despondency could set in I gathered myself and ran across to those thousands of women gathered near the temple. There were several widows, several orphaned children who needed our care and we needed to be strong at the time. We talked to several groups of women and we came to the conclusion that come what may we will meet this challenge. Of course it is too early to talk about institutional care and its implications. The question today is how do we channel the transformation and how to give hope to those innocent victims of the tragedy.

In all the villages that we had visited we found several children desirous of going to boarding schools at nearby places so that their relations could visit them once in a while. It was such a blessing we found the sisters Sr. Mary Vianney, provincial and St. Mary Anne, superior at the church of St.Theresa. We at once got down at the church of St.Theresa and met the Mother Superior Sr. Mary Anne. We told the mother superior that we wanted the children who had been orphaned and children of the single parents to be admitted in the boarding school. The mother superior Sr.Mary Anne at once agreed to our request and told us that she would be willing to take as many children as we want in the boarding school. We were indeed very happy as we felt the best thing for a child is to get a sound education in a proper environment with secure child-friendly surroundings and facilities for study, recreation and personality development as they grow up amidst their own kind of people and atmosphere. I had already done this experiment when I was faced with a large number of children of war widows after the 1971 war. Mrs. Indira Gandhi had declared free education to all the children affected by the war but there were no hostels attached with the schools. So the children could not avail the offer of free education. We undertook the construction of small hostels attached to Kendriya Vidyalas on a war footing at Jajjar, Pauri, Chichrauli, Bulandshahar, Meerut and many many other places. This experiment has produced children who are champions and experts in many fields and today they are the pride and joy of their families.

While we have been working in Kashmir we have had several instances of children being ill-treated by uncles and aunts who take the sponsorship money and deprive the child of all amenities. My experiment with the war widows children has been a success and with that in mind we approached schools to at least take 1% of the children in their vicinity for boarding school education so that the child could visit either his or her relations during holidays or arrange summer camps for the children. I do hope that our mission will be successful and we would be able to provide access to education to most of these children hit by the tsunami. We are very grateful to Sr. Mary Anne of St.Theresa's Convent, Tharangambadi.

After talking to the women in Tharangambadi we came to the conclusion that many of these women who were left single wanted to be in a home which would be like a home to them and renew their hopes and aspirations. We are now looking out for homes for the widowed and the single women in that vicinity.

It was as if God was on our side that we came across Francis while driving past the sea resort being built by him. Suneet spotted Francis who welcomed us and was of immense help. After a quick soup at the broken Dutch sea resort with Francis, we left for Pompuhar where a huge Langar (food court) was being held by the Chandigarh Gurdwara of Singh Sahib. We met and spoke to several groups of women who also wanted to form a self-help group towards empowerment. We enjoyed a special Langar with the chants of Bole Sonihal - Satsriakal and found that nearly 400 people were being fed from morning till evening. The women were very appreciative of their gesture in giving food to them at any time of the day without reservations. This is the glory of India .. we come together towards humanism and forget what caste, creed and religion we are. There were staunch Tamilians relishing the Langar.

We are in the process of evolving strategies and to synergise proven models. The visibility of the women's movement would be achieved when we interlink various initiatives and networks to work with grass root level women and national level women leaders. Our endeavor would be to ensure accountability and transparency and to work towards creating women's voices in the affected region.

The group was in one mind and we all wanted to help each women to aquire the tools necessary to bring about the needed change in themselves. Our primary goal was to find an identity for the village women and thus take advantage of the strong bonding that women have. On our visit to Porayar we met nearly 500 women belonging to 400 families in a population of 3,000 people we talked to them and emphasized that women should be " doing something" as we have common issues as mothers, wives, daughters and we should become decision makers. Unless women decide to take up issues no development is possible. We told them that the role of women is to keep the nucleus together and the absence of women in the decision process would be an absolute disaster. All the women gathered at the Porayar village were anxious to have power with themselves. With this in mind they told us that they are willing to have a committee to look after their interests. Suneet asked them as to what they would like to name their committee. After a great deal of discussion they named it "Gangai shakti" meaning the shakti of water. Rani a young widow took charge and the following were the members:-

  1. Ms.Rani
  2. Ms.Revathi
  3. Ms.Mala
  4. Ms.Amritavalli
  5. Ms.Manjula
  6. Ms.Rajeshwari
  7. Ms.Dhanaballi
  8. Ms.Sitalakshmi
  9. Ms.Suneeta

The idea was that these women would learn about cooperatives, self help groups, leadership training, counseling, interpersonal relationship, status of widows and how to improve it micro-credit influencing society. We need to create the ambience and atmosphere so that women can find their voice and more grass root level women leaders would emerge. Our interaction with them was just one step in strengthening bonds that women have and giving them the skills to change the society and find their voice.

We met several children there who were going to the Shanmugha High School and Suneet came up with the idea that we should talk to the principal if he would give two rooms attached to the school for us to run a boarding school. There were several children there who were orphaned and several left with a single parent.

In the end we decided that we have to create a unique platform for the convergence of grass root empowerment with creative endeavor proficiency, precision and dynamic enterprise a collective effort of women seeking rehabilitation justice and equality. To some extent we were successful in our mission of creating a network for self-reliance and giving an equal opportunity. Our vision to establish a network of womens centres to support multiple activities addressing the all over empowerment of women.


Part II: Dr. Giri's Second Visit to Tsunami Affected Areas
Part III: Dr. Giri's Third Trip to Help Tsnami Victims
Part IV: Dr. Giri's Visit to Tsunami Victims in Tarangambadi

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