The first phase – the relief phase – of Auroville's response to the devastating tsunami of 26 th December, 2004 , is now largely over. During this phase food and non-food items were distributed in 20 village communities to about 10,000 affected people. The non-food items included clothes, blankets, metal trunks and plastic buckets in addition to educational materials, like books, pens and schoolbags, for the children. The main distribution is now over, although late-arriving items are distributed as they become available.
Two other aspects of the initial relief effort continue. The village clean-up teams, constantly reinforced by new arrivals from abroad and India who have heard that here is an opportunity to make a difference, have been removing rubble, sand and badly-damaged structures in four hard-hit villages to the north. Now they are turning their attention to the neighbouring villages of Pillaichavady and Bommayarpalayam. Meanwhile trauma counselling for the victims has been going on since the second week after the tsunami struck. The Auroville Trauma Counselling team is assisted by a child psychiatrist from Canada and Dr. Tara from Chennai; three people from each of the affected villages are being trained as counsellors, backed up by an Auroville support team. This programme is planned to run for three months. The more serious and chronic cases will be referred to the nearby medical institute, PIMS, which has agreed to provide treatment free of cost. A longer-term programme for the wider community includes promoting joyful learning in the schools.
One of the immediate needs of those whose homes have been destroyed by the tsunami was for interim shelters. As many organisations had come for w ard to help in Tamil Nadu, coordination became essential and an NGO Coordination Group w as set up. Though not strictly an NGO, Auroville became part of the Coordination Group w hich assisted the Tamil Nadu Government in defining guidelines for interim shelters. The Government Order of J anu ary 6th took into account these recommendations. However, the order also stated that efforts should be made to move most of the people from the relief camps into the interim structures before Pongal, 2005, and the time pressure prevented Auroville getting involved in building temporary shelters.
Auroville was also requested by the Nagapattinam NGO Coordination Group to set up a website as a virtual centre for sharing information between the NGOs about what's going on in the villages, as well as knowledge of best practices. “We are strong in the latter,” says Hemant, one of the Auroville tsunami rehabilitation coordinators, “and we intend to create a knowledge centre in Auroville where all organisations can obtain the help they require. Our collective knowledge, be it in the field of sanitation, waste water and solid waste management, renewable energies, water supply, health care, education, housing, infrastructure, planning, environment, or community infrastructure, will be made accessible to those who need it.” With the invaluable assistance of computer experts from India and other parts of the world, this website is currently in the test phase and will become accessible through www.tsunamiindia.org .
As the relief phase of the tsunami operation ends and the long-term rehabilitation phase begins, there is a noticeable difference in the energy. As Dave Storey, one of the coordinators who has had long experience of this work puts it, “In relief you have a situation which is an emergency, so you drop whatever personal and political issues you have because people need help and you have to provide this as efficiently as possible. There's an adrenaline high and everybody's riding on that wave. But when you go into rehabilitation there's a sudden drop in the energy because it feels like business as usual. Everybody's feeling this now. The NGOs are no longer attending coordination meetings, many of our tsunami office staff are stepping back, meaning that we have to find new people and do retraining, and in the villages there's a lot of boredom and frustration, which is why we focus on providing things like sports equipment.”
This is the time of the less visible but no less essential work of building trust and new relationships with villagers, government officers, NGOs and donors. “The government is doing good work,” says Hemant, another of the Auroville tsunami rehabilitation coordinators, “but the top-down approach it embodies has prompted us to propose a fe w modifications. The experience in Kutch after the earthquake has demonstrated that only the habitations that have been built in partnership with the people have been a success. So we will work from the bottom-up.” Hemant explains that this approach implies building bridges, called paalams in Tamil, between Auroville, the villages, NGOs and the government. “The village, through its existing leadership, will appoint a few people to be part of a village rehabilitation committee together w ith people from Auroville. This committee w ould first do a need-assessment study. After this is done, we'll go into the planning, and then into the implementation. This scientific approach has been tested in disaster-stricken areas all over the world and it has been proven to work. It is a new idea for many people but the local Collector has been very supportive.” Dave confirms this. “For example, the Collector has agreed to our proposal that a proportion of the money go to the families to provide their own labour rather than paying for labour from outside. But ultimately we could not do these bridge-building activities in the villages without the assistance of the staff of Auroville Village Action. Their deep experience of village issues and their sensitivity of approach are crucial to the success of this initiative.”
For the rehabilitation phase, the Auroville tsunami team is putting together eight projects, each of which will run for approximately 18 months - 2 years. One of the most important of these involves providing permanent housing for some of those affected by the tsunami. “We've had a meeting with three panchayat groups from the closest villages,” explains Dave. “They were shown models of five climatically and environmentally-sustainable houses, each of 20 square metres, designed by different Auroville architects. They were very interested and proposed some modifications. Now the leaders have gone back to the villages to talk to the women. Then, hopefully, we will build prototypes somewhere on the beach. At present we're looking at constructing 900-1000 houses, which would cost approximately $4 million. We don't have that kind of money now, but we'll use the core funds we've already collected to leverage for more, possibly in partnership with international NGOs like the Save the Children Fund (UK), Concern, the French Red Cross and Borda.
“But the real issue now is not money: it's whether we have the human resources to carry through such a project. To implement the eight planned rehabilitation projects a core team of about 30 would be needed. Of course, much of the construction work would be done by local contractors, but it's important that Auroville provides the supervision and quality control. It's a great opportunity for Auroville to forge a completely new relationship with the villages, but it seems there are not enough Aurovilians who can stop what they're doing and switch to tsunami rehabilitation for the next two years or so. Another possibility we are investigating is bringing in experts from outside to help us. The Auroville International organization, which has just held a meeting in Auroville, is proving very helpful in making contacts here. However, the bottom line is we must be careful not to build up expectations in the villagers which we are unable to fulfil.”
Another issue which must be clarified before construction can begin is exactly where the new houses can be built. There is a law which prevents any construction taking place within 500 metres of the shoreline. If this coastal exclusion zone is rigorously enforced, it would imply that in some villages even houses untouched by the tsunami would have to be demolished.
Yet another rehabilitation project involves providing the affected villagers with new skills and means of livelihood. Many of the younger fishermen do not want to return to the sea –even before the tsunami it was becoming a precarious source of income—and now they and other villagers are being offered courses and training by Auroville units. “Various groups are getting together,” explains Bhavana, who is coordinating these activities, “to offer short-term training for up to 100 young people from the affected villages in English, metalwork, woodwork, computer skills, office management, marketing, tailoring, handicrafts etc., which are specifically what the panchayat leaders asked for. For longer-term training, which could include other villages as well, we would first have to conduct surveys of exactly what skills are needed and by whom.” “At the moment, this is the tsunami project which involves the most Aurovilians,” says Dave. “It suits Auroville down to the ground because we have so many people with practical skills living here.”
Other planned Auroville initiatives in the villages themselves include helping the fishermen repair the engines of their boats, and setting up some kind of local warning system which would alert the villagers in the event of an emergency. “At present,” one of the villagers explained, “we're exhausted. Even though we arrange that at least one man in each village now is always watching the sea, we don't sleep well. So any kind of warning system would help.”
Looking to the longer-term, it's clear that environmental restoration is a crucial part of protecting the coastline. Pitchandikulam, Botanical Gardens and Shakti communities have offered their help in watershed planning and planting shelter belts along the coast. The plantation at Eternity was the first Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF) area planted by Auroville to be affected by the impact of a tsunami and many foresters are studying it closely to ascertain which TDEF species can survive so that they can be planted elsewhere. In coastal areas where there is clay, mangrove forests offer another effective means of protecting the shoreline. Ways of preventing coastal erosion are also being studied by a team led by an Aurovilian and based in Pondicherry which specialises in water management schemes. The Auroville environmentalists are also working with the Auroville Geographical Information Systems unit to ascertain the best places to site shelter belts and to protect sensitive water-catchment areas. 200 test results from wells in 20 villages studied by Water Harvest show that after the tsunami the level of salinity in the water is between 10-12 times higher than permitted. The health of the villagers may also be impacted by the sudden elimination of fish from their diets: the fishing families, in particular, which before were one of the best nourished sectors of the population are now in danger of suffering from severe protein-deficiency. On top of that, farmland inundated by the tsunami is also heavily salinated and may take years to recover.
Nine Auroville beach communities were also impacted, to a greater or lesser extent, by the tsunami. Here the rehabilitation work has concentrated upon repairing damaged buildings, ensuring a clean water supply, restoring electrical connections and erecting fences. Trauma counselling has also been made available to the residents of these communities. Some Aurovilians from these communities no longer wish to live by the sea and alternative accommodation is being found for them. Personal emergency maintenances have also been disbursed to affected individuals to enable them to replace items destroyed in the flood. However, there are still insufficient funds to allow a full restoration programme for the affected individuals to take place. One of the coordinators estimates that another $ 23,000 is required to complete the Auroville beach communities' work properly.
So far the total donations to the Auroville tsunami relief and rehabilitation programme have totalled approximately US $ 450,000, of which the vast majority has been donated for village relief and rehabilitation work. “While this is insufficient to cover the full costs of the planned rehousing project for the villagers – for which the total bill may be between US $ 4-5 million—it gives us the flexibility to fill the gaps and adjust to changing circumstances without being dictated to by a major donor,” says Dave. “Actually, the support we have received from all over the world for our efforts is truly amazing. Even now there is a concert planned in Carnegie Hall, two more in France , there is an art exhibition in Canada and a pantomime happening in London , all to raise money for Auroville tsunami rehabilitation activities.”
How is the Auroville tsunami coordination team bearing up? “I believe you can say that we all are fatigued. But we are energised by the work,” says Hemant. “Now we've reached the stage in the core team where we have very deep and long conversations about important issues,” says Dave.” It's a good team, very reflective and with very different energies that work well together.”