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Tsunami Relief India - Livelihoods

Tsunami Relief in India's eastern coast. Restoring livelihoods
Local Officials to the Rescue
Full Story
In India, Livelihoods Devastated by the Tsunami Spring Back to Life
Almost a year after last December’s tsunami, lives are slowly being pieced together along India’s eastern coast. The frenzy of rebuilding has breathed new life into the area as boat builders, bricklayers, carpenters, and masons – many from faraway states – hew wood, hammer steel, and set bricks.

Most fishermen are back to sea, fish landing jetties swarm with activity, and village fish markets are abuzz. At the temporary fish landing center at Akraipettai in Nagapattinam, boats just in after the morning’s catch disgorge bellyfuls of fish. Laborers unload noisily, and small groups of women haggle for great pots of crabs and sardines to sell at village markets. In all the chaos and confusion of the trade, fish are cleaned, catches are weighed, and vans stand by to transport the day’s takings to markets further afield.

In the temporary shelters of Nagapattinam too, where each lane carries its own tale of loss, there is now fresh hope. Children are back at school. Young girls and women, including many widows, are being trained in a new range of skills, from sewing and catering to paper and candle-making.

As the women band together into Self Help Groups (SHG) to dry fish with solar power, sew bags for export, or weave garlands of jasmine flowers, they introduce the habit of saving to a community that has always lived for the day. Findings show that SHG records are maintained systematically and over 90 percent of bank loans are repaid.

In an effort to rebuild better, a social revolution is in the making. A new generation of young people, mostly children of illiterate fisher folk, perfect their computer skills to take their place in the work force of tomorrow.

The Village Computer Center in Cuddalore, set up with NGO assistance, broadcasts the latest weather report five times a day, giving details of wave heights expected, and enabling fishing families to sleep in peace. The Center soon aims to introduce e-governance to the insular fisher folk, with ambitions to bring in tele-medicine in the not too distant future.

Agricultural lands have recovered quickly as the good rains in April washed away the salt deposited by the waves, and fields along the delta are now green with new paddy.

“Although no one could have wished for this tragedy,” says M. S. Shanmugam the government’s district revenue official deputed to oversee relief and rehabilitation in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district, “it gave us a huge opportunity to change people’s lives for the better.”

Reviving the Economic Chain
Given the scale of the disaster – with some one million households directly or indirectly affected by last December's tsunami – reviving the chain of economic activity was not easy; especially in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry where the sudden annihilation of the traditional fishing fleet, the backbone of the coastal belt, had crippled the local economy.

“Time is of the essence in restoring livelihoods,” says Shanmugam. “We needed to get the fishermen back to sea as soon as possible,” although some were afraid to venture out into the water again, and others were reluctant to resume fishing for fear that they would become ineligible for relief.

Explains Shanmugam, “For every fisherman who sets out to fish, there are at least six others – laborers, traders, ice-makers, rickshaw pullers, truckers – who depend on the catch for a living. Besides, we didn’t want them to survive on the dole for too long. And, they could earn far more from the sea.”

Agrees Shyamal Sarkar, World Bank task leader for the multi-agency India Tsunami Reconstruction Program: “It is the rebuilding of these intangibles – a whole range of social and economic linkages – that is, perhaps, even more important than physical reconstruction.”

Now that livelihoods are springing back to life, efforts are on to upgrade the damaged fisheries infrastructure. This includes the improvement of fish landing centers, drying platforms, and auction centers, and the dredging of river mouths to remove the silt deposited by the waves. Larger infrastructure works to be supported with World Bank assistance are also on the anvil. These include the reconstruction and upgradation of five fishing harbors.

Too Many Boats, Too Few Fish
But a big question mark hangs over the future of fishing is the region. Even before the tsunami, catches were dwindling. After the disaster, NGO assistance has left the area with more boats than before.

In an effort to rebuild better, boats have been upgraded, and many wooden catamarans or country boats have been replaced with fiber-reinforced-plastic (FRP) craft with outboard motors. While the fishermen complain of smaller catches, experts fear that the glut of boats is likely to affect the long-term sustainability of fishing in the region and possibly lead to conflict between boats at sea.

Already, some mechanized boat owners are willing to leave marine fishing and move to other activities if they are allowed to use their financial packages for repairing and replacing their boats to start up new business activities.

To better understand the long-term implications of the problem and suggest solutions, the World Bank has set aside US$2.5 million in grant funding for studies on the future of fisheries in the region. Other studies will evolve an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan, with the participation of the local people for the protection and judicious utilization of coastal resources, and the mapping of coastal vulnerability. “It is what we leave behind for the long term that is important,” says Sarkar.

The reconstruction program is also placing emphasis on helping fisher folk supplement their income with microenterprises like dairy and poultry farms and fruit and flower farms.

“I doubt if I’ll get another such chance in my career for doing so much development work on the ground,” says Nirmal Raj, Shanmugam’s counterpart in the neighboring Kancheepuram district, one of the 13 affected in Tamil Nadu. “Hopefully,” he adds with enthusiasm, “you won’t recognize these areas next year.”

By Vinita Ranade, World Bank Office in India. Picture by Sona Thakur, World Bank Office in India.