Two district collectors, Gagandeep Singh Bedi and J Radhakrishnan, of Cuddalore and Nagapattinam respectively, were praised for their swift response to the December 2004 tsunami. Eight and half years later, reconstruction is in last stages but the question remains: have the lessons been learnt?
With five coastal districts, including the two worst affected, now becoming the hub of mega thermal plants of 27.440 MW, shoreline erosion and accretion spell future danger. Estimates show the plants will emit 130 million tonnes of CO2, use 6 billion litres of sea water each day and discharge an equal amount of polluted water into the sea.
“Our vulnerability has increased. We will not need a tsunami, even normal cyclones can bring that kind of death and destruction,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, environmentalist and researcher. Some senior government officials admit Jayaraman has a point.
The state saw more relief than needed in the immediate aftermath; it also had a staggering 419 NGOs to coordinate with.
Despite the large numbers affected, officials and NGOs affirm that reconstruction has improved lives. ”Most victims are better off today than ever before,” a senior official said.
“In Cuddalore, within three days, electricity poles were re-erected; temporary shelters within a month, and permanent houses within two years,” recalled Bedi, now revenue secretary. For relief operations, collectors got complete autonomy and R1 crore cash to spend on immediate tasks.
The reconstruction challenge was more complex. Reconstruction of roads and bridges was underway till 2011.
Some means adopted: posting competent collectors with total functional autonomy; survey of all affected villages leading to a database of 2.8 lakh families; village communities involved in rehabilitation; establishing a centralised rehabilitation commissioner office; coordinating with NGOs; creating livelihood and skill building packages; focussing on most vulnerable and backward sections.
Yet, problems persist. Salvation Army built houses in Nagapattinam but these were later ordered to be demolished by the high court because of “poor construction”, said Sheelu, president of Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective.
In Chennai, 600 houses have not yet been allotted. There were instances where fishing community was rehabilitated but Dalit families across the road were not because the former decided rehabilitation lists. Complete rehabilitation is proving most difficult, especially providing work. “By giving everything free, the government and NGOs delayed rehabilitation; peo-ple preferred freebies to work,” Sheelu said.