Memories of Tsunami Relief 2004 and Kerala Floods 2018

by K Vijayachandran

By Engr. K Vijayachandran F.I.E

The recent flood disaster of Kerala has driven more than a million people to refugee camps; that is around ten percent of the population in the State. It was the third natural disaster within a brief span of 14 years: All the three were water related and close to the coastal belt, and local fishermen and their class and mass organizations were actively involved in the relief work, organized by State Government.

The Tsunami of 2004 had struck my native village as well, and I had tried to study the dynamics of these relief efforts, at close quarters. The attached reports of 30-12-2004 and 27-01-2005 were based on my direct observations during these visits. I had copied them to the Chief Minister of the then UDF Ministry, as well as some of the senior officers including the Late Shri V Ramachandran, who was at that time serving as the Vice Chairman of State Planning Board in an honorary capacity.

Very typical of this great bureaucrat of Kerala, who had served not only the UDF and LDF governments of Kerala but also the GOI in different capacities, had responded to my Tsunami reports with a cryptic comment: “Your observations are to the point and perfectly rational, and hence unlikely to be accepted by the Government”.

Situation has not changed much even after fifteen years, and that is why I am publishing the two documents, today, as a wordpress blog.

22nd August 2018

(Report by K Vijayachandran dated 30.12.2004)

My ancestral village, Clappana, is right on the eastern side of Ayiramthengu Kayal; on the west is Alappadu, the worst affected village in Kerala with more than a hundred Tsunami deaths. Yesterday, on 29th December, three days after the disaster, myself along with my brothers, visited four refugee camps between Ochira on NH-47 and Ayiramthengu on National Waterway-3 and then crossed over to the disaster struck areas in a country boat.

Alappadu village panchayat is a ten kilometer stretch of land, hardly a kilometre wide, starting from the Kayamkulam pozhi on the North. A population of 25000 is distributed over thirteen wards and the worst hit were the three northern most wards, starting from the north side of Amrthanandamayi Ashram. The seven storied RCC structure of the Ashram, housing hundreds of foreign devotees is the major landmark of the locality. There was no damage to this Ashram structure, but the few hundred dwellings nearby, built as Amma’s fiftieth birthday gift to the poor, were washed off in Tsunami fury. Amma and other inmates of the Ashram sought asylum in the Engineering and Ayurveda College premises, just across the backwaters. Possibly this is the biggest and least reported relief camp among the more than 150 that sprang up along Kerala coast on that black Sunday.

There was a camp within the premises of Ochira Temple, organised by RSS. On the other side of the road, within the Government High School premises, we saw a secular camp, from where volunteers with DYFI badges were being driven away. In the four camps we visited, there were heaps of garments and clothing, bananas, topioca, vegetbles, coconuts and other food supplies, which were pouring in under the initiative of numerous social and political organisations in the neighbourhood. Revenue officials who are asked to co-ordinate these spontaneous responses as well as the activities of other departments, can hardly cope up with that crucial function. This was a common complaint repeatedly heard from the victims themselves.

The northern wards of Alappadu Panchayat, were full of people during our visit in the afternoon. There were in plenty of idle visitors like ourselves. There were the volunteers of RSS and Seva Bharati who have come from long distances and the workers and contractors of Electricity Board, Water Authority etc who were busily repairing the damages. And, a large number of local residents had come on a short visit from their relief camps to have a look at their damaged homesteads coconut palms or feed the surviving cattle and poultry. Refugees were naturally keen to return from the camps at the earliest opportunity but the fear of Tsunami recurring and the backwater barriers were holding them back.

We had a lengthy dialogue with a senior citizen who had come on a short visit from the relief camp, along with her daughter, to feed the half a dozen cattle that had survived. He described how the awful Tsunami waves roused up to 3 to 5 meter height above the random rouble sea-wall and sweeping away people, cattle and week building structures but hardly any coconut trees, which were in plenty all over the place. And the whole show was over in less than five minutes; after spraying instant death, water receded leaving a layer of black illminite sand of some three to six inches thick.

Running away into the safety of the mainland was the only option and there was no question of loosing a moment. In the mass hysteria that followed, all possible crafts were commandeered by the sane, in order to cross the lake, carrying with them the children, the disabled and the dead. Panic crossed even the backwaters and people of the mainland joined the fleeing humanity, taking with them whatever little belongings they could lay their hands on. Even people living three kilometre east of coastline were in the relief camps on Sunday and Monday nights, even though they had no earthly reason to panic. This had exaggerated the number of refugees, possibly by a factor of four or five.

This raises certain fundamental questions related to rehabilitation: how many houses were actually damaged by tsunami and how many people were rendered homeless? A quick survey of the locality revealed that, nearly half of the dwellings in the area has survived the ocean fury and they were of good brick and cement construction or were located away from the sea front. Nearly a third of the buildings were marginally damaged and could be easily repaired back to good condition. Another third was totally destroyed and have to be built anew; these were mostly structures right on the sea front. There were around six thousand census households in 2001 in the whole of Alappadu Panchayat and the affected wards may account for about a third of this. Totally destroyed dwellings in Alappadu may not exceed 1000 and possibly the same number will need repairs. Compared to the totality of destruction brought in by the tsunami and compared to the damage inflicted on our neighbouring state, these damages look marginal. With the type of response forthcoming from all quarters, it is not a difficult task to give back the affected people their homesteads, to repair the roads and phone lines, to restore the supply of water and electricity, and to restore normal life in Alappadu Panchayat.

However, relief operations need to be revamped immediately, so as to refocus it directly on the people affected and not hijacked by the whims and fancies of official machinery and temptations of parliamentary politics. Instant promises of bridges on two locations and total reconstruction of panchayats etc. may appeal to vote banks and may have some long term relevance. Immediate need is to rehabilitate the people in relief camps and get them back to their homesteads and work places as quickly as possible. Following suggestions may be considered for this purpose.

(1) All major camps are across the backwaters and three to five kilometres away from Alappadu; this is a major impediment in rehabilitation work. As soon as the official controversy on recurrence of tsunami is settled, steps should be initiated to shift all the camps to the Alappadu Paaanchayat.

(2) All Government offices and public establishments like schools, hospitals etc in the panchayat should get opened and start functioning at the earliest.

(3) In each ward two or three relief camps may be set up in temporary pandals or shamiana, under the direct charge of the local panchayat member; he is to be assisted and guided by an all party committee or grama-sabha, as envisaged under Panhayat Act. All relief work in the ward should be routed through this legal arm of Alappad Panchayat. Coverage of a relief camp may be limited to about 100 homesteads.

(4) People in the present camps are to be persuaded to report to the appropriate ward level relief camps and this transfer process can be completed within ten days. People can stay in these camps, resume their vocations, tend the farms, organise repair or reconstruction of their homesteads.

(5) Changadam or Jhankar Service should be put into operation by the PWD in four localities, Ayramthengu, Clappana, Thurayil Kadavu and Vallikkavu for the safe and efficient transport of men and materials across the canal. Alternatively eight motor boats of adequate capacity may be hired for this task. Jetties and loading and unloading gears should be installed on either side with the help of Inland Water Transport Corporation (IWTC) who has an office at Ayiramthengu. All internal roads damaged should be repaired immediately and connected to the jetties thus constructed.

(6) Alappad is typical rural slum on Kerala beaches with a population load of over 2000 persons per sqkm. Alternative layouts and technologies may be tried wherever possible through the co-operative initiatives of the people. Well laid out roads, community spaces, farms and work places will add great value to these otherwise improvised human settlements.

(7) Alappad Panchayat may constitute expert committees, with locally available talents for advising on (a) healthcare, (b) house reconstruction, (c) transport and other infrastructure, and (d) fishing and farming. Services and involvement of public sector organisations such as, KSEB, KWA, KSRTC, IWTC, NTPC, KMML, IRE and their employees may be utilised for this purpose.

(8) The experts committees and resource persons identified during the Peoples Planning Programme may be put to maximum use wherever it is possible and desirable.

Similar approach as above can be adopted in the other affected panchayats as well, as per laws and Kerala Government may form a State Level Advisory committee to co-ordinate the work, and give policy guidelines taking into account the common origin of their problems.

This is the real political issue to be ceased on by all right thinking people and by the left and democratic forces. Trading on human misery is mean politics and enlightened opinion in the State should assert itself to save its fair name India’s political map. There is the example of West Bengal Government when it organised massive relief work with the direct involvement of elected panchayat institutions during the devastating floods of 1977.

(Former Chairman, Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation)
[end of first report]

(Second report filed by K Vijayachandran dated 27.01.2005)

1. Tsunami disaster killed 160 people in Kerala. Most deaths were on the seashores of the northern most six wards of Alappadu, our neighbouring panchayat. Our ancestral house is just across the Ayiramthengu kayal, some three KM the disaster area. Entire population of these six wards, estimated at15,000 had crossed the kayal seeking the safety of mainland and this fleeing humanity picked up many more people on its way by the evening when it reached the numerous emergency close to NH-47. About two dozen make-shift camps were active in this region, when I visited the area on 2nd January, seven days after the disaster. Many of these camps were closed down within the next few days, as the fear of repeat by tsunami receded. By mid January, the camps were being reorganised and moved closer to areas of disaster, as the first step toward rehabilitation.

2. I filed my first report after my visit on 5th January, and the present report is based on my second and third visits. On 14th , I visited the relief camps at Ochira and Ayiramthengu and on 27th January, I spent a whole day in the tsunami affected wards of Alappadu panchayat. The eight kilometre stretch of seashore, from the fishing harbour project in the North to the Ashram of Vallikkavu Amma in the South, was covered mostly on foot and partly by public transport (buses) which have resumed their operations in full swing. Walking on the heavy ilmenite surface of the beach roads was a joy, with dust free fresh air all around the tropical sun shaded by coconut crowns. There were men and women all along, walking, debating on the relief operations, playing cards, collecting water from public taps, sorting out damaged records, repairing, household articles or feeding the cattle. Overall mood was of leisure. No children were seen and possibly were in schools that had reopened were still bound to the far off relief camps.

3. More than half the people have returned to their homesteads with some five to six thousand continuing to stay in the five refugee camps. Only one camp was functioning on the sea shore and the other four were operating from across the kayal. Their inmates have to ferry themselves in boats every day and foot a couple of kilometres to reach their homesteads. Most of the refugees staying in these camps, other than children and the aged, cross the waters daily, and walk up this distance for attending to the cattle, watering of plants or repairing and cleaning up of houses and implements. This is delaying return to normal life in several ways and is a major irritant. Whomsoever, I could meet on the roads or in the camps were of one opinion: two or three small sized camps may be opened immediately in each of the six wards and the uprooted people moved as close as possible to their original habitats or homesteads. Smaller homogenous groups, by themselves, will serve as sources of comfort and strength and large heterogeneous crowds of refugees are not amenable to easy rehabilitation.

4. Such views were endorsed even by the inmates of the only camp operating on the seashore. It was operating from the premises of the fisheries harbour project in Ward No.1, close to the Kayamkulam Pozhi. I picked up a conversation with a couple of youngsters in this camp identifying myself as a local man. This soon turned out to be a large meeting of some fifty inmates, men and women young and old. Majority of the 2000 (number not based on any register) inmates of this camp were reportedly from ward No.1 and a few from Ward No 2. They were all critical of the emergency construction of the half a dozen camp sheds of 1500 SQF each in the harbour project area. In their view, this was a clear misuse of relief funds. Returning to their homesteads and work places at the earliest was top priority for the inmates of the camp. They look at this new construction with hostility, and as a conspiracy for holding them as hostages in the name relief and charity. I had a brief discussion with Camp Officer, the Village Officer of nearby Panmana Village: His main worry was feeding the inmates vegetarian food which is naturally resisted by the fishermen and providing with other comforts and daily necessities. Obviously, it was a tough posting for a man who has crossed fifty.

5. The second camp directly managed by Government is in a High School building at Valiakulangara, on the other side of the kayal and located some three kilometre mainly serving the refugees from Ward No.4. There were reports on the inmates of this camp revolting against the poor quality of relief and the prolonged stay away from their habitats: They have to spend much more time, effort and money for the daily routine visits to their homesteads. Even after a month in the camps there is no plan in sight for their rehabilitation. Inmates of the camp at Ayiramthengu were mostly from Ward No 3, just across the kayal. It is reportedly run by the Disaster Management Institute of Poona with Government assistance. The Jhankar service operated there, through an Ex-Servicemen outfit is of great help to relief operations in general and the inmates of this camp in particular. The two other relief camps on the other side of the kayal are run by Amma, in the hostel buildings of the new Engineering and Ayurveda College started by Amma last year. Inmates of these camps reportedly numbering over 2000 were mostly from the fifth and sixth wards. They are satisfied by the holistic approach of the camp authorities as claimed by the spokesmen of the Mutt which has opened more than a dozen food posts, two each for on every KM or ward along the coastline. Breakfast is served at 8.00 AM and Lunch at 1.00 PM. People of the locality gather in small numbers, collect their food and eat in leisure. For now, Amma is wholesome food, bliss and contentment, but the prolonged vegetarian diet is slowly biting into the nerves of fisher-folks.

6. People living in the relief camps hate to continue there. Torn away from their neighbourhoods and living environment, they feel fish out of water in the camps where they are forced to share things with strangers. Looking after the cattle, children’s education, security of personal belongings, attending to standing crops or coconuts, and repairing of whatever little personal belongings that were spared by tsunami are their daily concerns. Nearly half the population of the six tsunami affected wards have returned to their homesteads. The other half continues with their refugee status mainly because they see no hope of returning to productive engagements in the foreseeable future. Boats and fishing gears need to be repaired or replaced by their owners. There are no plans or funds to help them with capital expenses for restarting production. Owners want assistance for replacing the destroyed productive assets and replenishing the working funds which have just melted away. Maybe there are a greedy few, who are trying to misuse the situation and this has started creating bad blood among the refugees. Formal finance was virtually out of reach for the fishing industry here and I could not spot any formal financial institution on the entire eight kilometre stretch of the beach road. Informal financiers who dominate our fishery sector are possibly waiting for a kill. All these are issues to be sorted out first, if people are to get back to productive employment. How to re-establish, re-create or replace the pre-tsunami production relations and get back to the market is the priority question. Reconstructing the informal fishery economy in the area is a truly complex task, in fact a revolutionary task. But there are no signs of such initiatives by the State Government nor by the political parties social movements that are active in the locality. Rehabilitation work has not yet caught the imagination of the relief administration which is presently led by the revenue department. This is a major lacuna that need to be addressed immediately.

7. In fact a lot can be done by the Panchayat, provided the State Government and the mainstream political parties take the initiative for fully using their status granted under the Indian constitution. True, disaster management is possibly the responsibility of State Government but this can be selectively delegated to the panchayats by the State or Central Government. All over the area, there were sign boards of religious, caste, social and political organisations engaged in relief work but not a single one from the local panchayat elected by the people. Alappadu has a woman panchayat president. She was elected as a member from Ward No.1 and normally resides on the other side of the Kayal. My efforts to meet the President and the Members of the Panchayat did not succeed, mainly because of lack of time from my side: it was difficult to locate them.

8. My first report from Alappad had suggested setting up of two or three camps in each of the affected wards, under the direct charge of the concerned panchayat member who could be helped by local experts and an all party committees. Relief work in the central camps across the kayal and away from the homesteads of the affected people, under the supervision of revenue department, has now entered the second month. There is no sign of any meaningful rehabilitation programme emerging from the numerous committees announced by the Chief Minister and the sufferings of the people are mounting everyday. Life of even those who have returned to their homesteads is becoming more and more unbearable. There is no work and no income for meeting non-food expenses which are outside the scope of relief camps and indebtedness is rapidly mounting among the poorer sections. And there is no talk about how and when they could get back to employment or about unemployment doles and other benefits taken for granted by civil societies of twenty-first century.

9. Tsunami tragedy that has struck the people of Alappadu was nothing compared to the counterparts elsewhere, in Tamilnadu or in Andaman & Nicobar. Help of all sorts were poring in from all directions, but relief delivery at the local level was totally defective and rehabilitation measures have not taken shape even after a month. Total number of families to be rehabilitated in the State, including the worst affected Alappadu, may not exceed five thousand. Compared to the relief that has reportedly poured in, in cash and in kind, this must be a small job. But the entire state administration, with its numerous departments and institutions, seems to be incompetent to take on this responsibility. Tsunami disaster has thus exposed a basic flaw in our civil administration: near total absence of local level governments, responsible for the life and welfare of the people. Kerala, especially its Left, had always boasted for its grass root level democracy and the goodies brought in by the five years of the so called people’s planning, supported by all and sundry. None of the political parties, social activists and organisations, from the Left, Right or Centre, has demanded the effective use of Panchayat Raj institutions in relief and rehabilitation work. They had their own pet solutions and theories to offer, vane, self centred and typical of all elite groups quite out of touch with ground realities.

10 Amma of Vallikkavu was in her establishment in Ward No. 6 when tsunami struck Alappadu. It was my first visit to this part of the beach, after she had outgrown her surroundings and built up a huge establishment of her own. KSRTC operates Fast Passenger and Express buses to various destinations in the State, from Paraya Kadavu, not yet re-christened after its world famous Amma, a drop out from the local primary school who was recently invited to address a spiritual conclave under the auspices of UNO. She was born into the traditional fishermen community of Dheevaras, whose local Karayogam proudly owns some twenty cents of land and a small dilapidated commercial building, close to the bus stop. Just on the other side of the beach road are layers and layers of hutments of Dheevaras and Ezhavas, who struggle hard to retain their separate caste identities. The narrow, dingy and ill-kept lanes, right through the unhygienic cluster of dwellings of the poor, lead to the multi-storied estates of Amma, built in steel and concrete, possibly violating in letter and spirit not only the provisions of CRZ but also the usual norms for building living spaces. A large hospital complex, hostel complex and Ashram establishment, with a total inmate strength of three to four thousand, crowd an acre of land.

11. Amma has outgrown her community, her panchayat, the state and even the republic. However, she maintains an uneasy co-existence with her immediate neighbourhood slums, that continue to challenge her with some alien ideology. With her Rs.100 Crore offer in charity, for tsunami relief work, she could possibly adopt a hundred panchayats like Alappadu. But the idea of Alappadu Panchayat adopting Amma remain largely utopian. When I suggested the idea to a neighbour of Amma, a Dheevara youth, the initial response was not at all encouraging. My proposal was to transform a couple of kilometres South and North of Ashram, into a special economic zone of Amma Inc, for spiritual or religious services, with international prayer halls, conference halls and the like. The youth was living close by, with his ageing father, elder brother and family. Tsunami had taken away their catamaran and there was a new one being chiselled into shape, for replacing the pr-historic fishing craft. He slowly warmed up to my suggestions for rehabilitating his community around Amma Inc by moving into modern healthy dwelling places and by engaging themselves in diverse trades and disciplines. He was sceptical of the local Karayogam of Dheevaras agreeing to surrender its land and bury its identity. Nevertheless, he was quite enthusiastic about the idea and was even ready to campaign for it. For Amma the tsunami was a godsend for closing ranks with her own people: She has nearly achieved it by opening up the dozen or so gruel stations and the relief camps reported as wholesome by her followers. If they last long, I may visit them toward the end of the month.

K Vijayachandran