Helpage India Offers Relief For Tsunami Survivors in Tamil Nadu, India


Khairun, At 60, Now Solely Responsible for Supporting Her Children: Her Gesture Says : "It is God's Will."

By Michele Leight

January 18, 2005 - The southeastern coast of India has always been an idyllic getaway zone - a beach-lover's dream come true, with ancient seaside temples greeting the incoming tide at sunset, palms set against a broad expanse of blue sky capping the green-blue waters of the Bay of Bengal, representing for many a necessary escape from clogged city life and work pressure. World-class resorts dot the coastline, from Fisherman's Cove to Kovalum.

Hundreds of thousands of coastal dwellers also live year-round in this open landscape of sea and sky, as they have done for centuries. Most are poor and have never known the luxury of electricity; they light their homes by hurricane lanterns as the twilight turns to ink-blue night. For the most part, their lives pass peacefully and uneventfully, intertwining with the tourists and the more affluent local communities who live in solid brick and mortar homes and resorts, well-stocked with TVs, gas-cookers and bright lights.

Although the region is no stranger to floods and earthquakes, the tsunami of December 26, 2004 must have seemed like the apocalypse to the fishermen of Kovalum and coastal Chennai - previously called Madras - the capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu. The fishermen and coastal dwellers live in flimsy hutted encampment wide open to the elements. The huts are made of dried palm leaves layered over bamboo frames.

MMU relief site

Helpage India Relief Site, Tamil Nadu

On this fateful day, the experienced fishermen negotiated their ageless, feather-light catamarans out to sea as they have always done, to bring in their daily catch as the sun began its ascent from the horizon. They had no idea what lay in store for them. Most of the poorer encampment dwellers in these coastal towns derive their income mainly from tourism, fishing and farming.

According to eyewitnesses in Chennai, the giant wave toyed with a group of fishermen, tossing them back and forth until it finally consumed the brave men clinging on for their lives to their catamarans, structures as fragile as balsa wood, which were no match for the power of the tsunami. In one town, several empty catamarans were swept over the roofs of homes on the top of the wave, said a stunned onlooker, crashing into a forest of palms further on, which blocked their passage. For those taking their usual dawn jog on the Chennai beachfront, the wall of water approaching appeared to be 40 feet tall.

Magapattinam railroad station

Temporary Relief Center, Nagapittatam, Tamil Nadu

Entire towns, lives, personal property and homes were destroyed and washed away, including identity documents for those trying to claim rescued children from hospitals and makeshift refugee camps, where authorities fearful of the very real threat of child and sex traffickers are refusing to release children without a DNA test - or identifying documents. Orphans sit and wait among concerned relief workers for someone in their extended family to claim them. For many, that day will never come.

Those who were fortunate enough to survive the treacherous waters and the chaos in its wake now spend their days awaiting news of missing family members, including children; they wonder how they will ever re-build their demolished homes and lives - and livelihoods. Many of these simple coastal dwellers had just finished paying off micro-loans that had given them the little security they had. They just stare blankly into space.

Destruction at Nagapattinam

General destruction at Nagapattinam

It is good to know, in the midst of all this tragedy, that there are NGOs that were already imbedded in Tamil Nadu before the tsunami struck, like Helpage India, headed by CEO, Matthew Cherian. This organization lost no time getting relief supplies and mobile medical units to the worst affected communities: but consistent funding is the only way they will be able to supply long term support.

The photos and testimonials in this article were sent to me by my childhood friend, Susmita Ghose, Director of Helpage India, Eastern Region, Kolkata, who requested them from Indrani Rajadurai, Helpage India's Regional Director (South).

This is from Helpages's press release of January 7th 2005:

Ramasamy, 71, Responsible for Two Surviving Grandhildren in Tamil Nadu

"When the tsunami struck Southern India, Agammals's 100-year-old, partially blind mother was swept away from her home in coastal Chennai, only to be brought back once the water receded. But not all older people were as lucky. Of those dead and missing, close to 30% are estimated to be older people, who are especially vulnerable during a humanitarian crisis because of their lack of physical mobility."

It seems the old and the very young suffer the most in disasters - besides the elderly, the other significant losses were borne by thousands of young children, unable to cope with the power of the raging, turbulent water.

Apart from the trauma of losing family members and everything they once owned or lived in, many of the elderly affected were either dependent upon a support system that no longer exists, or are now responsible for children and grandchildren through their earnings because there is no one else who can do so. It is difficult to imagine losing everything one has ever owned as these people have done.

Helpage India has already conducted a series of relief operations, distributing food and condiments, cooking oil, blankets, lanterns and stoves, clothing, bed sheets and other provisions. Six thousand destitute families have been adopted in the first phase and seven extensive relief operations will have been carried out by the end of January. Mobile medicare units - a feature of Helpage India's ongoing national efforts - have been working around the clock for rescue relief and medical help, serving the worst affected towns of Nagapattitam, Cuddalore, coastal Chennai, Kalpakkam, Pondicherry, Vetankanni and Kanya Kumari of India's stricken Southern coast.

As a rough guide of the kind of specific commitment Helpage India has pledged to the devastated families, 3,000 rupees - approximately $75 - provides one family with dry rations, blankets, stoves, lanterns and cooking utensils, as well as water sanitization and medical aid - the basics necessary to stay alive and maintain health till the next phase.

Helpage India is experienced and has done this kind of relief work before for 10,000 victims of the horrific Gujarat earthquake and the Orissa floods, so they were quick to act. Their previous relief efforts were made possible by generous donor support. In addition to their hands-on commitment, each Helpage India employee has donated a day's salary to the survivors of the tsunami.

Without aid organizations like Helpage India reaching out to the old and the young, it would be a "survival of the fittest," "dog-eat-dog" fight that the frail would lose.

When people are frightened and starving they rush for relief vehicles and helicopters, and the unsteady or young are most often trampled. Who can forget the throngs of villagers holding up their hands to the US Marines as they distributed precious food from helicopters? Sadly, I have seen that look of starvation more times than I want to remember - but it is one I never forget every time I sit down to a wonderful meal.

Mercifully, now there are mobile medical units from organizations like Helpage India and they are there for the long haul; they will provide vital medical support for local populations for many years, because this level of devastation will take years to put back on track. Disease is a constant threat until roads, drainage, septic systems, clean water supplies and toilet facilities are restored.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had seen the devastation caused by wars, but never anything like this destruction - uprooting roads, railway lines, bridges, laying arable fields to waste in salt water and washing away entire communities in a matter of hours.

The danger of being old in a fight for survival is described by a Helpage India aid worker:



When relief material was being distributed in Devanampattitam, close to Cuddalore, 75-year-old Perumal stood quietly alone in the ruins of his thatched hut, refusing to be part of the hungry crowds jostling for aid. When asked by Colonel Akhilesh Sharma, head of Helpage India's programs, why he did not join in, Perumal shook his head and said:

"It is no use. I have been pushed on earlier occasions and I have fallen on the ground. I know I will get nothing this time around too. Some cars came by and just threw the packets. The fastest gets the food, the strong one wins. The elderly and the injured don't get anything. We feel like dogs."

Despite what is being described as one of the largest relief operations in history, Helpage India estimates that in Cuddalore alone there were still 1,507 older people who received none, or meager, aid.

Perumal got his share this time. The seventy-five-year old man was brought to the Helpage India distribution site where he finally received aid. He has no other way of earning a living because his body is too weak to work.

Unlike Perumal, who has no surviving family, Ramasami, 71, a fisherman from Akkarapattitam, lost his daughter and son-in-law with whom he was livingin the tsunami, and it is now up to him to support his two grandchildren - but who will support him?

The photos of coastal dwellers devastated by the tsunami were sent by Shormi Roychoudry from Tamil Nadu. They show the beauty of India's southern seaside towns - and the vulnerability of coastal living. Most of all they demonstrate how mother nature can turn a paradise into a disaster zone in a matter of hours, removing all trace of lives lived on peaceful shores only a day before disaster struck. The following testimonials were sent from Tamil Nadu and give a sense of the obstacles facing some of the survivors.


Govindraj, Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu

Govindraj, 65, a fisherman from Devanampattitam, Cuddalore, hung onto a palm tree for half an hour with his foot resting on the roof of his devastated house. He lost everything and now has no means of earning a living, because his only boat was washed out to sea. For at least six months no one is allowed to venture into the sea to fish, as some say the fish have been contaminated feeding on dead bodies. Whether this is true or not, people won't eat the fish for a while.


Kali, a Cured Leper from Kovalum, Chennai

Kali, 60, has not had it easy. He is a cured leper and lives in a small village in Kovalum, on the outskirts of Chennai. A Helpage "Adopt a Gran" beneficiary, he was searching for betel nuts on the floor of his thatched hut when the tsunami struck. Kali could not walk but was saved by the local villagers. Today, he spends his time at the bus stand - across the road - as his house has been destroyed. He is too scared to go near the sea.

At the ripe age of 60, Khairun of Pattinapakam, shown at the top of this article, near the Marina Beach area of Chennai, was the only earning member of the family, as both her husband and son died some years ago. She was able to provide for the children's schooling and day-to-day household expenditures by selling the delicious South Indian delicacies iddlis and appam on the beach.

Khairun made a decent living for a coastal dweller, about 50 to 70 rupees (between $1 and $2) a day, until the tsunami washed everything away. Currently she lives in a makeshift tent of plastic covering with her children. The entire family looks forward to the relief workers eagerly - they are their only means of survival.

As the months pass and the fields clogged with salt and brine do not bear crops, the survivors will be threatened by hunger and the need for relief will grow greater when jobs are scarce. Thousands will be left orphaned, and women and young girls are always especially vulnerable to exploitation. But the old, bearing not only the burden of frail bodies and the threat of society's neglect must now resume responsibility for young family members left homeless and parentless.

India and the global community must not desert them in the tough years ahead.

If you would like to donate directly to Helpage India, you may make a payment by credit card by going to their secure site at You can also send a contribution to Helpage India's bank swift # SCBLINBB. FCRA A/C # 52510070171, or mail your check (including the swift #) to Susmita Ghosh, Regional Director (East),Helpage India, 162B, A.J.C. Bose Road, Kolkata 700014, India. For further information, e-mail, or call 011-91-33-(from the US)-2249-2526/2216-5913.

If you have questions in the US email Michele Leight at

Sincere thanks to Jael Silliman and Susmita Das for making this story possible

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at and at

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