Lessons from Nagapattinum: Post-Tsunami and the Panchayat
In Vilunthamavadi, one fisherman said he saw a baby goat tied to the sand swept atop a 100-foot high water tank, 50 meters away in the blink of an eye. In P.R. Puram, another said the second wave, blurred ocean and sky in a sheet of indigo-noire, and the third wave’s aftermath left human and cattle corpses strewn in coconut trees, on the beach, on tea shop roofs, over potholes, in the ponds, swallowing villagers like a hungry elephant, its tide dragging them out to sea like the elephant’s trunk while it eats.
The 2004 tsunami, causing much devastation to coastal districts of South India, almost 4 years later, still afflicts a string of Panchayats along Tamil Nadu’s southeastern coast. Local NGO’s are slowly collecting demographic data, but there are no current official statistics as of yet in these areas. In P.R Puram, there are 626 houses. In another Panchayat, Kameshwaram, there are 480 houses, and in this string of 5 Panchayats along the coast, over 2500 families directly and indirectly affected by the tsunami, of which only a portion are beneficiaries of state/NGO/INGO aid.
From a development perspective, Nagapattinum resembles the Eastern province without war. There are lessons to be learnt by Sri Lanka in the arenas of governance, the Panchayat Raj, development NGO-dependency, impediments to post-disaster community building.
From international NGOs such as Save The Children inspired by helping children in poverty and need, to lesser known local NGOs as Sevalaya inspired by Ghandian ideology, the capacity building and rehabilitative efforts of the NGO/INGO network in the Nagapattinum district of Tamil Nadu can serve as an instructive model for challenges, developmental strategies, and post-tsunami social reconstruction initiatives possibly applicable whence a sustainable post-conflict scenario reemerges in Sri Lanka’s eastern province.
Within Nagapattinum, the district hit hardest by the tsunami in all of India, the 5 Panchayats most severely impacted in the region by the tsunami were: P.R. Puram, Kameshwaram, Vilunthamavadi, Poothupalli, Vettaikaranirroppu.
In each Panchayat there are the same problems.
The tsunami waters came inland up to 1km from the coast. Within the 1-2 km range, regarding housing and livelihood, there had been extensive loss in terms of dwelling units, household assets, and productive assets like boats and nets. The tsunami had most adversely hit the livelihoods of those that were already poor and marginalized, a vulnerability amplified by these communities’ a priori indebtedness to big merchants and money lenders with whom many had borrowings, lack of adequate access to markets and credit, absence of social security nets and preexistent socio-political marginalization within the traditional Panchayat Raj institution.
Aside from death tolls and destroyed infrastructure, the waves brought high volumes of salt and deep sea mud, ruining soil used for paddy and vegetable cultivation, contaminating fresh water ponds used by locals for irrigation and drinking water. Three years later, even as the government machinery and NGO/INGOs were focused on relief and rehabilitation of fishing communities in tsunami hit areas of Nagapattinam district, the damage caused by the sea water intrusion of paddy and groundnut crops on thousands of acres had almost gone unnoticed, aside from selected land restoration projects implemented by local NGOs such as Sevalaya.
Complicating recovery efforts, the constellation of villages within each Panchayat create a network of interdependent local informal economies in the agricultural, fishing, livestock, and landless labor sectors, where a drop of demand in one impacts the need to supply in another, and vice versa, in turn impacting livelihoods of families and their children. This, over the past 3 years, has triggered a domino effect where slowly, unemployment has spread and settled and costs of sustainable livelihood have increased, affecting tsunami-affected areas directly, non-tsunami affected areas, indirectly.
According to popular consensus by villagers in the area, the post-tsunami economic problems in the region are compounded by a catalogue of impediments to sustainable reconstruction: crumbling domestic infrastructure, pervasive poverty, high illiteracy rates, increased pregnancy rates, increased suicide rates, children issues from orphans to uncompetitive education to post-traumatic stress syndrome, Dalit and scheduled caste empowerment and rights-based issues, post-tsunami widow and pregnant widow livelihood issues, imminent risk of an HIV/AIDs epidemic due to post-tsunami migrants, increased levels of domestic violence.
The biggest impediment however appears to be donor-dependency and in retrospect, the short-term humanitarianism which governed the international response to the tsunami in this area. Today, drivers of the structural inequality pervading the area are unchanged: poverty, isolated and fragmented local economies, weak social security nets, developmental neglect from the center vis-ÃƒÂ -vis infrastructure, malnutrition, caste discrimination and landlessness, uncompetitive education, NGO-dependent sustenance of participation of local communities in the local Panchayat Raj institution, vulnerability of communities to disease and natural disasters.
There is a weak presence of the center in the area in development schemes, and if not for the NGO/INGO presence it would appear there would be little to no reconstruction, rehabilitation, or platform for local self-empowerment at all. Shortcomings aside, there is a lot of ground-breaking work being done every day at the grass roots.
The NGO/INGO network in concert take these devastated communities, traumatized children, and semi-paralyzed local economies and inject knowledge, change, hope. The INGOs Terre Des Hommes and Save The Children partnered with the local NGO Sevalaya for example, in villages through all five Panchayats conducts child-led awareness camps aimed at capacity building in disaster risk reduction and preparedness, covering themes such as early warning, evacuation, shelter management, search and rescue, and first aid. Within the community, self-help groups and task force groups are created comprised of community members, and sustained by the NGOs, actively institutionalizing and building group-based decision-making, intra-community cohesion, a savings account for the community, after-school programs for the children, and mock drills preparing the community for evacuation in case of another tsunami, or similar disaster. There are HIV/AIDS prevention awareness programs, human rights awareness, microfinance investment in Dalit empowerment small business schemes, distribution of cows, goats, coconut and mango seedlings, and paddy cultivation assistance.
The NGO/INGOs active in the area are vital stakeholders, an involvement which in the long-term, may potentially materialize as a double-edged sword. While they contribute to growth, stability, and cohesion within and among Panchayats in the Nagapattinum district, they may impede local self-empowerment and hide weak engagement of central governance in these peripheral regions.
In the Nagapattinum context, another obstacle to implementing a centralized response to promote post-tsunami social reconstruction is the Panchayat Raj institution as it functions on the ground. The participatory integration of local communities into the Panchayat Raj institution in the 5-Panchayats in Najapattinum is predominantly NGO-dependent, sustained by weekly meetings at the grass roots and constant facilitation of knowledge, awareness, and motivation to village members of the incentives and importance of participation in the Panchayat. Certain political concepts of community, rights, membership in a larger human society still have not been socialized, a task the NGO communities have taken on. Also, the multi-Panchayat region from P.R. Puram to Vettaikaranirroppu, possesses minimal trans-Panchayat cohesion and programs cultivating community building across the Panchayats. Each Panchayat entity and the villages within are ostensibly isolated politically, socio-economically, in the contemporary context. Only when the Panchayat Raj is strengthened as an institution can it become a central axis around which the decentralized needs and demands of its villages can be consolidated, debated, and addressed in a common forum.
In the post-tsunami Nagapattinum context, the marginal engagement of the center in reconstruction at the periphery, the pervasive NGO-dependency driving most empowerment and community building initiatives, the active promotion of local self-governance stipulated by degrees of disengaged governance from the center, a weak but strengthening Panchayat Raj institution amidst decentralized village needs, and persisting voicelessness of the marginalized and vulnerable communities in this multi-Panchayat region, are all factors which will continue to plague development in the region.
Creating conditions conducive to sustainable local self-empowerment will involve among a long list of milestones, greater long-term engagement from the center, greater social and economic integration within and between Panchayats, investments in education and health care, minimizing multi-sector NGO-depedendencies, and strengthening of participation in the Panchayat Raj institution at the village level.
Today, the tsunami waters have dried. Everyday, in the 5 Panchayats, within 1 km from the coast, there are 1st-5th grade after-school programs still running on tsunami aid for local children. A few hundred meters outside 1 km, there are children without slippers, shirts, or schools collecting water and firewood. The INGO-funded lattice of concrete houses in fishing communities that made good photos ops in early 2005, have begun to leak and crumble at their creases, while the patterns of structural inequality have begun to gradually dampen the internationally funded project-per-project based efforts of local NGOs in certain areas.
Since the communities are poor, they won’t complain. NGO/INGO-driven development in Nagapattinum is decentralized, it is project-based and not conducive to trans-Panchayat self-sustainability, it is not guided by a strategy that integrates and empowers the entire region, without discrimination.
Nagapattinum isn’t Lanka, but there is space to learn lessons and avoid mistakes from actors currently engaged in the region.
Editors note – Also read the following for related discussions:
SMS alerts during emergencies – Lessons from Sri Lanka’s tsuanmi alert on 13 September 2007
SMS news alerts during emergencies – The experience of JNW and the tsunami warning of 13th September 2007