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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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, 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 www.helpageindia.org.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 011-91-33-(from the
If you have questions in the US email Michele
Leight at email@example.com.
Sincere thanks to Jael Silliman and Susmita
Das for making this story possible