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Indian District Sets Course for Tsunami Recovery

  • Patricia Nunan

India's southern district of Nagapattinam was one of the worst effected by the December 26 tsunami that swept the shores of 12 countries, killing tens of thousands. Three-months later, the community is still trying to recover.

Few fishermen in the district of Nagapattinam have returned to the sea since the December tsunami. Many lost their boats when the waves pounded the shores. Others are now afraid of the ocean that brought such devastation to their community.

A local official coaxed a group of about a dozen men into taking a short fishing trip just a few hundred meters off shore. All appear relaxed, and much of their joking as they cast out their net revolves around the novelty of having a foreign reporter on board. But after three months of idleness, many are finding the work heavy going.

Fisherman Mahendra says he is suffering from the hard work - but he is satisfied.

Officials say 76 percent of those killed in the tsunami on India's mainland were from Nagapattinam - more than 6,000 people. Nearly 2,000 more were injured, and more than 10,000 fishing boats were destroyed. Only the Andaman and Nicobar islands, off India's southern coast, were hit as hard in the country.

People who lost family members to deadly tsunami, try to identify them from photos
In the three months since their boats were wrecked by the tsunami, grieving for lost family and friends has blended with problems associated with unemployment, such as alcoholism. Aid workers say in some cases, government compensation paid to fishermen for the loss of relatives and equipment has resulted in higher levels of drinking, especially since the men have nothing to do without their boats.

The men on the boat deny there is a problem.

Kumar says he and his friends drink the same as they always have, but no friends or relatives of his are drinking too much.

But Nagapattinam's senior district administrator, J. Radakrishnan, says it is a problem authorities have become wise to. Now the government hands out compensation in the form of food and household products - and gives it to the women in the family, who are much less likely to drink.

"So this is a conscious decision to ensure that that we take care of that basic requirement and not give cash to the man who is otherwise also used to taking a little bit of alcohol," he said.

The shores of Nagapattinam remain littered with the remains of homes and fishing boats - signs of the destruction wrought by the December 26th tsunami that killed nearly three hundred thousand people across the Indian Ocean region.

Mr. Radakrishnan says the government has provided temporary shelter, food, and compensation for all who need it, and there have been no outbreaks of disease among tsunami survivors. International aid organizations and the government are financing the repair and purchase of new fishing boats.

He expects the fishermen to return to the sea in the next few weeks, which will signal a real improvement in the district's welfare, and boost the economy.

"Many places you will see, the repair work is going on extensively," he said. "Once they go back to sea, these things will become normal - so I feel that in the next 30 - 45 days, a distinct change, compared to the shock and disbelief of December 26, will occur."

Fishermen are not the only ones who need time to readjust.

In the village of Akkaraipettai, a district health nurse named Ranjini sits on the floor, talking with two children - a brother and sister who lost their father in the tsunami.

The kids smile when she asks what they want to be when they grow up - a doctor, says the girl, and the boy says an engineer.

It may seem simple. But this is part of the trauma counseling carried out by the district administration in part to make children less afraid of the ocean, since - despite these children's career goals - many in Nagapattinam will have no choice but to earn a living by fishing.

Mrs. Ranjini says the conversation technique is part of a broader strategy.

She says that since these kids lost their father, it is important to build up a rapport and give them confidence to talk. If you find out what they want to do, it gives them more confidence and hope about the future. They become optimistic about life.

Returning to shore after their short trip, the fishermen are greeted by dozens of onlookers - some of whom swap places and take the boat out for a spin themselves. The catch was a paltry couple dozen fish, blamed on the fact they did not go far from shore.

But they say they are more than ready to return to the sea.

Govindan, 19, says he is ready to fish again, as soon he gets help from the government to buy a new boat.

Officials say they are taking steps to ensure that the material and money they give out do not lead the fishing community become dependent on government assistance.

They say the best tribute to be paid to the tsunami's victims is for the community to get back on its feet again, and for its fishermen to head back to sea.