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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

An island mentality towards the Andamans

I was part of a team that visited the islands, and we were deeply shaken by the enormous heart-rending destruction of life, livelihoods, inf...

Written by Harsh Mander |
January 27, 2005

I was part of a team that visited the islands, and we were deeply shaken by the enormous heart-rending destruction of life, livelihoods, infrastructure and the ecology, with such ferocity and on such a stupendous scale.

In telling contrast to the Tamil Nadu government, which has established a vibrant partnership with a wide range of civil society and professional groups, the senior administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is at present blocking and actively discouraging them. We found a large number of aid workers with rich experience of rehabilitation in previous disasters, stranded without work in Port Blair, frustrated, their talents wasted.

The collective challenges of relief are further compounded by the complex ethnic composition of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is at sharp variance with the mainland. In the first place, there are the highly endangered so-called ‘primitive’ indigenous people. It is remarkable that whereas scientists the world over are still unable to predict earthquakes and tsunamis, we had goosebumps when we met Onge tribespeople who anticipated the disaster a full 48 hours before it stuck, merely by observing the changing mood of the sea and wild animals, and they moved to places of safety.

There is the highest toll of life and destruction of shelters, livelihoods, infrastucture and the environment, amidst the indigenous Nicobarese population, with its rich culture, traditional forms of local governance, and livelihoods based on local natural resources. Also badly hit are the settlers, including Bangladeshi refugees settled in waves by the government, the labourers and petty traders from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerela, the Punjabi ex-servicemen settled on agricultural farms again by the local administration, and the descendants of the convicts who served penal sentences on the islands in colonial times. Among the most vulnerable from the perspective of rehabilitation are the large numbers of illegal settlers, mainly from South India, who are not even enumerated and acknowledged in many cases.

The most immediate need that hits any observer to the tsunami affected islands, is the imperative to rebuild at the earliest the thousands of homes that were swept away by the raging tsunami waters. The survivors are housed in makeshift relief camps, which will extend no protection against the severe monsoon rains that are expected to set in from roughly the middle of April, 2005.

It is unlikely that permanent shelters can be built before the coming monsoons, especially given the logistical challenges of reaching building materials to far-flung islands where the jetties have been destroyed. We were shown the proposed government designs for temporary shelters for the non-tribal population, which relies primarily on GI sheets that need to come from outside the island. Apart from posing a logistical nightmare, this will prove very hot as well as prohibitively (and wastefully) expensive. For each 200 square feet temporary shelter unit, the government cost estimate is an astounding one lakh rupees.

One paramount imperative is to urgently establish trauma counseling and mental health services, to help survivors deal with the horrors of inestimable personal loss, terror, uncertainty and guilt. Past experience has shown that the best results are from local youth volunteers, mainly from affected communities themselves, who can be trained rapidly with basic counseling skills. Local doctors need to be retrained with a week-long capsule course in psychiatric medicine, to enable them to provide effective local referral services.

The most vulnerable survivors need early identification, such as widows and orphans, disabled people and old people left without care-givers. Indigenous communities already have vibrant community caring systems. These need to be sensitively supported. However, in affected settler populations, and even more so among the illegalised settlers, community based caring systems may need to be established by development workers, and in the longer-run, new foster families constituted from adults and children who have lost their loved ones may emerge.

So far, the best evidence of constructive state and civil society collaborations are evident in the field of education. Temporary schools have started in most relief centers, to the great relief of parents and guardians. New textbooks, stationery, uniforms, teaching learning materials, are efficiently being organised. There is thoughtful preparation to assist affected children to appear for their secondary board examinations.

Another set of unsung heroes of the administration is the electricity department workers and engineers, who have already restored electricity supply and street lights barely weeks after the devastation. The best technical advice and assistance in the country, and indeed globally, is required for the construction of temporary jetties on most affected islands within months, because without these, it will continue to be extremely difficult to offload materials, like foodgrains and construction materials, to most far-flung affected islands. Similarly, desalination systems to enable the treatment of drinking water sources damaged by the tsunami are crucial for long-term survival.

The soils of fields of land based farmers, dependant on a combination of predominantly paddy cultivation and horticulture, are currently heavily salinated, and often there are repeated incursions of the restless sea on these lands every fortnight, on full moon and moonless nights, during high tide. Advice is needed whether coconut or other plantations combined with on-field fishery are feasible solutions. Both small and large farmers are dependant in many islands on coconut plantations. Many of the coconut plantations are seriously damaged. Technical guidance is required whether the damage is permanent, or whether the plantations can be treated and revived.

Another category of people whose livelihoods are badly affected are fisherfolk.In recent years, their livelihoods are further threatened by corporatised trawlers and large monopoly purchasers. The restoration of their livelihoods requires not just the distribution of motorized boats and nets, but also positive discrimination to protect the small fisher folk and their cooperatives, from the further onslaught of multi-national corporate interests. The fishing boats and equipments should go to not just fish owners but also workers. The recovery of soft loans should be poured into a social security fund for the fisher folk. Modern technology should be harnessed for an early warning system, including when fisherfolk are out at sea.

Another large category of affected people are petty traders, mostly from among the settlers. Their revival is relatively straightforward. Their shops and temporary markets should be incorporated into the design of the new settlements themselves, and soft loans extended. Once again the illegal settler and encroacher should be treated on par with other small businesses for rehabilitation.

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