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Ten years after the tsunami, we still don’t have any real port in a storm

Ten years after the tsunami, community preparedness has nowhere near kept pace with warning systems for risk reduction, writes KumKum Dasgupta.

ht view Updated: Dec 26, 2014 18:54 IST
Kumkum Dasgupta
Kumkum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
Nagapattinam,tsunami,tsunami 10 years on

Ramachandran is a middle-ranking official at the collectorate in Nagapattinam. A history buff, his weekends are usually spent on unearthing the port town’s past. “Everyone comes to Nagapattinam either to visit Velankanni [church] or for tsunami-related stories. Why don’t you write on this port town’s ancient maritime trade links with Southeast Asia, China, Rome and Greece instead,” he asked me lightheartedly.

Like Ramachandran, Tamil Nadu too seems to be suffering from tsunami fatigue — or rather amnesia. At least that’s what I felt during my recent trip to the coastal districts of the state, many of which were ripped apart by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 12,000 people and displaced 380,000, largely fisherfolk.

Individually, however, everyone remembers his or her losses to the last detail. Institutional memory is also strong. Districts that were hit by the tsunami are planning an array of events today: Candlelight marches, mock drills, human chains, tsunami awareness programmes, etc.

The tsunami amnesia and fatigue, however, are showing up somewhere else: In the past 10 years, there has been little training of coastal communities in disaster preparedness. After the 2004 disaster, India deployed a sophisticated warning system and joined forces with foreign governments and agencies for timely warnings. At the village level, public address systems were set up in public places to cascade timely warnings, SMS alerts on the weather situation were started and multi-hazard shelters, roads (to facilitate easy evacuation) and tsunami/cyclone-resistant homes were built (though their quality is suspect in many places and this underlines the dire need for stringent transparency in rehabilitation and rebuilding efforts after a disaster).

While these technological and infrastructural fixes have ensured a safety cover for the people, they alone are not enough. Communities have to be trained to react in a certain structured manner when a disaster strikes. Lack of community preparedness and a fixed chain of command at the village level can neutralise the advantages that hi-tech early warning systems (EWS) bring.

In other words, this means that once a warning is sounded, the community has to know what it needs to do in the least possible time. The 2005 Disaster Management Act also directs state governments to involve communities in disaster preparedness.

“This tsunami amnesia has been induced by the fact that despite plans, there has been little progress on the ground when it comes to disaster preparedness,” Amar Nayak, Emergency Manager Response for Asia, Action Aid, told me.

Nayak should know a thing or two about disaster preparedness: He was not only there in Chennai in 2004, when the tsunami hit, and travelled extensively in areas ravaged by it, he also works extensively in cyclone-tsunami-prone countries like the Philippines and Indonesia. “Both countries have excellent community-based disaster preparedness plans. They hold regular disaster drills; draw up responsibility charts and have a well-developed command system; trained community volunteers who do the first-line of rescue and rehabilitation before further help arrives,” he explained.

Take, for example, the multi-hazard centre at Cuddalore’s Chidambaram block. From outside, it looks to be in superb condition. But when I asked for the keys to go inside the building, none of the villagers around including a panchayat leader knew who had the keys. In an emergency, when people would need to rush into such safe shelter, this lack of coordination and basic information could prove to be fatal.

After the tsunami, Tamil Nadu did undertake a robust mapping effort down to the village level, and that took into account the location of each village, their vulnerabilities, the high tide line, and drew up different training modules for communities. Local leaders were trained in disaster preparedness, which focused on rescue, first aid, etc. But post 2005-06, this process lost steam. Some disaster management panels that included NGO representatives were set up at the village level but they hardly meet now.

Since India’s disaster management policy has a commitment to develop community-based/panchayat-level disaster risk-reduction and management plan, the government must leverage the country’s strong Panchayat Raj system to ensure fool-proof emergency response and recovery. To make response and rehabilitation better, communities must be consulted on how to ensure better access to information; create and strengthen institutional mechanisms for safety and security and ensure equity in designing and disbursing compensation packages.

Tragedies bring people together, and this has happened to the fishing community, especially women, in the state. While usually it is the menfolk who go out to the sea to fish (though in many fishing communities, women also go), it is the women who do the bulk of the pre- and post-fishing work. This includes an array of activities from stocking up the boat (food, water and diesel) to auctioning and selling fish, and mobilising funds.

After the tsunami, several hundred NGOs descended to help out in relief and rehabilitation. After four or five years, most of those NGOs moved from rehabilitation to empowering women regarding their rights. In male-dominated panchayat platforms they are now becoming frontline voices, working towards safeguarding their rights and also those of traditional fishermen. Despite this development, the women’s group’s (sanghas) have not been dovetailed into disaster risk reduction and their role in building resilient communities is hardly discussed.

But, as a report by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit says, in spite of high levels of gender inequality in many South Asian societies, anecdotal evidence suggests that women in South Asia can be an important human resource in disaster preparedness and response at the grassroots level. Yet evidence also points towards the ability of women to lead preparation and response to disruptive events. The study points out the intimate frontline knowledge women have of their local environment and this suggests their enormous capacity to be “transformational agents in community disaster and planning and preparedness and to play a significant role in bolstering resilience”. This is despite women being more adversely affected by disasters (an estimated four times as many women as men died in India and Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami, for instance) and despite numerous examples of their capacity to lead such efforts. Disaster management policies must be made gender-sensitive and also respect women’s rights.

The government must leverage the abilities and reach of the women’s and dovetail them into the disaster risk reduction and resilience-building efforts.

For safety, the strategy should be all hands on deck.

First Published: Dec 25, 2014 22:32 IST