Sunday, January 02, 2005

It's so unbelievable, it could be true

Villages along the coastal road all the way to Mahabalipuram have been adopted by NGOs. The Indian Express had a red and black flag flying high at the entrance of a number of villages, but even where there was no red and black, there were other colours - other people, other help. Already the first steps to rebuild had been taken. At Nemmeli, the locals planted trees beside a newly-laid path to the village. As we drove by village after village, first steps were being taken everywhere.

We finally stopped at Mahabalipuram, and discovered that the boat that had crashed into the Krishna temple was gone, as were the others that had cluttered there last night. Debris covered the access area between the beach and the homes, but the streets were clean. The government had joined hands with the locals and washed the alleys clean a few days after the waves hit, before anything worse arose. This was surprising, because in nearly every other way, the government officials still lagged behind.

Somasunderam, the local minister, paid the village a visit on the 27th and then on the 1st. The first was an eventful one, for he promised each family Rs 4000, kerosine and 60 kilos of rice. A week later, not a grain, not a drop, and not a paisa were seen. There has been a question mark over the conduct of politicians in normal times, but even now, at this dire time, the question remains, which shows them in even poorer light. The officials who came by asked for ration cards. The fishermen pointed towards the sea. The Fisheries Co-operative Society remained unmoved, and no steps to alleviate pain were taken. Their primary function, as we understood it, was to add 600 rupees for every 600 the fishermen put in, and the lump sum would be the fisherman's after a year - like a provident fund. Much more was expected, in every possible way.

As we made our way down to the beach, slipping on rotten fish, entangling ankles in useless bundles of fishing nets, between homes and restaurants with cracks on the sides and gaping holes that were once entrances, a group of fishermen followed us. Boys who should have been somewhere else - out playing, studying? - untangled nets. It was torturous to watch. A dog nibbled at a strand. A number of the men, all clad in lungis, had fresh white bandages wrapped around arms and legs. One of them told us about Somasunderam's promises. He did not call them promises, but it was clear to everyone. They were not bitter, nor had they accepted that this was how things would come to pass. They believed they would have the aid meant for them.

Only a month ago did the village send the Fisheries co-op a list of the number of boats in the village in exchange for a 5-rupee concession on each litre of diesel for their motorboats. The documents they needed for the concession had not yet arrived. Once they have their boats, they will need the documents more urgently than ever. Will they have them? Noticing where our thoughts were headed, one of the men, Prabhakaran, told us what they really needed. "We need nets. Four different types of net," he said. "8 kgs each. The boats can come later."

Mahabalipuram is a popular tourist destination, and a good source of revenue for the region. The Shore temple is only a short stroll away. The town had not been ravaged. There was no significant damage to homes, though the buildings that faced the beach were completely devastated. Two casualties. But when the waves came and swept through the unprotected areas, the three freshwater wells the village relied on were filled with salt. They needed help. For two days they had it, and then the government stopped providing water.

"We told them," said Bhupalan Mamallapuram, the village chief, referring to the local government, "that the water [in the wells] had salt in it. They told us they were providing us water in the taps. But it is salty there too." They now rely on handpumps to extract groundwater. (Is groundwater a limited resource? I have to figure that out.)

Just then, Govind's (our very own bouncy-haired translator from Infosys. He's actually more, much more than that.) phone rang, and the common thread that bound the north and the south was temporarily broken. I turned around, took a walk, and peered at the beach through a house where the front and back doors had been blasted off the doorframe. A family took a stroll on the beach. A cow walked by, sniffing at the remains of people's belongings. I'm reminded of what the owner of one of the only intact sea-facing restaurants said to a colleague: There are always animals here. But that day, when the tsunami struck, not one animal was anywhere to be seen on the beach. Just like the government. (I made up the last line.)

Just before we left, Govind began conversing with a man who had lost a lot. He cried as he told us that the men handing out 4000 rupees insisted with the villagers that they be paid a quarter of the amount. Tears trickled down his cheeks when he said that while the DMK and the AIADMK battled it out, the aid would never reach where it was meant to go.

It was almost believable. Yesterday I visited a BJP mla's home and it was filled with open crates of vegetables while he sat with us and sipped tea and his children squirted packets of fresh water at each other. Today there were more accounts of political parties stopping trucks carrying aid and hoarding it all themselves. It's all so unbelievable, it could almost be true.

Ps. The following day I found out that only one village had a complaint with the BJP minister. The first time they went to him for aid, he asked them to go away. The next time, he told them he'd think about it and give them aid if there was any left. I visited two other villages that confirmed he had been providing aid daily. My apologies to Ponvardharajan.

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