Archive for January, 2005

The Bad and The Ugly

A number of disturbing (and predictable, and even more disturbing because of the predictability) practices were brought to our attention at a coordination meeting of NGOs working in tsunami relief and rehabilitation in Trichy (Tiruchchirapalli) on January 10, 2005.

  • Government estimates of death, missing and damage are still much lower than those found by local NGOs in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry during rapid situation and impact assessments conducted January 5th. and 6th.
  • Political parties have entered the picture, pressuring the Government to provide assistance to unaffected survivors.
  • Goverment policies change every day, with politicians bypassing agreements made between the NGOs and government officials.
  • “Hooligans” who during the disbursement of relief supplies diverted trucks and took the materials for their own use, are now demanding claims for rehabilitation. Apparently, in each village, whether affected or not, there are signs that read: “We also need relief.”
  • The Catholic diocese in Kanyakumari is not allowing other NGOs to work with the affected fisherfolk. (Most of the fisherfolk in Kanyakumari are Catholic.)
  • There is rampant discrimination by the Government, the Church, and by the fisherfolk communities against the Dalit and Muslim survivors.
    • Dalit communities are not being enumerated by the Government, with officials refusing to record the dead or missing. (“Your people have gone somewhere else. Wait, they will come.”)
    • Relief is not reaching the survivors, and those that have tried to join camps occupied by the fisherfolk have been forcibly removed. For the most part, Dalit survivors have had to go and stay with scattered relatives.
    • No infrastructure repair is taking place in former Dalit hamlets – there is no power or water supply, and small roads are not being rebuilt.
    • The dead of the fisherfolk are being buried in Dalit lands.
  • Dalits were brought in from inland areas to clear debris and dead bodies, but were not given any protective clothing or equipment, not even gloves and facemasks.
  • NGOs that are providing direct relief without coordinating with local government officials or with the other NGOs are causing problems, such as going in with insufficient supplies because they do not have the right statistics, or by distributing cash payments for damage, as opposed to replacing or repairing equipment and supplies.

This is just a short summary of an incredibly complicated situation. I hope to write more about other issues such as land, environment, and economics in future postings

Three Degrees

If we apply Moore’s Law to “six degrees of separation”, I believe we are now down to three.

Mark and I ran into Sita, a friend of Trishna’s, at the Fab India store on Woods Road in Chennai yesterday. We had gone to Fab India as a last resort, after exhausting our options at the various sari superstores on Usman Road in T. Nagar. We just could not find the right short kurta for Mark to wear with his silk “veshti” (“dhoti” for you North Indians) for Supriya’s arangetram.

Mark and Sita had exchanged “do I know you?” stares, but it wasn’t until I came out of the dressing room that Sita put it together. (I remember seeing her at Trishna and Deep’s open house in San Francisco, with a cast on her hand.) Sita is here attending a yoga seminar and exploring alternative healing techniques. She would like to help in the relief efforts, but the Swami at her ashram has discouraged her from doing so. “If you get sick from working at the relief sites, you might infect the many Westerners we have here.” We assured her that there would be more opportunities for her to help a little bit later, in the rehabilitation phase of the work.

Fab India, which is indeed, fabulous, did not disappoint.


Five degrees! That is the temperature difference between Auroville and the surrounding areas in Pondicherry.

When the intentional community of Auroville first started in 1968, the land was barren – dry, red, clay-rich soil, denuded of vegetation. Now, the only red you see is on the small footpaths and roads that are overwhelmed by green. Birds, attracted by the flowering trees and bushes, have come, nested, and stayed, including a resident flock of parrots. There are ponds and fountains and water tanks; and “dynamized” water to drink. There are no street lights, so you can see the stars!

Bhavana Dee, a friend of CharityFocus, writes a history of Auroville that you might find interesting if you’d like to learn more about the community. We met Bhavana briefly the night before we left to return to Chennai on our short working visit to Auroville. She recommended that when we return, we take the 3-day orientation to Auroville. Three days! You can take half-day tours of most major cities anywhere in the world.

Mark, Smita Jain and I took a bus from Chennai to Pondicherry on January 5 to work with Hemant Lamba and the Auroville Intranet team on a central information portal to facilitate the coordination of NGOs working on tsunami relief and reconstruction in Tamil Nadu. The almost four hour ride (marketed as two and a half hours!) on a Government bus via the ECR (East Coast Road) gave hints to some of the politics and economics at play along the coast. Long, narrow strips of land stretching from the road to the beach, most empty, some with homes or hotels occupying a small fraction of the property, far from the road, and several relief tent camps closer to the road.

We never got to see more of Pondicherry than the bus station and Kaarthik Pure Veg Restaurant. We got an auto rickshaw immediately after lunch for the half hour ride to Auroville.

The first thing that hits you about Auroville is that there are so many Europeans; French, Italian, and German are the languages most often overheard. The other is a sense of suspicion that surrounds any newcomer. “Why are you here?” is the silent question on everyone’s mind. Once your place in the world has been established, and your purpose in Auroville sanctioned, people are much friendlier, but not more relaxed. There is too much to do. You had better have a purpose too, because idle tourism is not encouraged here. Even finding out about Auroville via the website is not considered a worthy form of research – long-time Aurovillians rather you read books about the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

We saw nothing of Auroville except for Aurolec, which houses many small companies working in IT, architectural design, and ecology, where we shared a temporary office, and Vikas, the community where we spent the night, in Auralee’s son’s bedroom. We’re really looking forward to learning more about Auroville on our return.

Need to Help

I wanted to come to Sri Lanka yesterday (29th) and give my physical help to any and all who needed me. When I called the Red Cross and 4 other prominant charities’ Head Offices here in the UK and France, they said my help wasn’t needed. How can this be? Please let me know where to come and report to, and I will bring money, as many supplies as I can. I feel so helpless sitting here. I am trained in first aid and my trade is IT & Telecommunications – quite important I feel, in the given circumstance? Anyone at all, at any time, please call me if you want me.

From the ProPoor Blog on December 31, 2004

A cardiologist and his niece from Houston, Texas; a psychotherapist from Brooklyn, New York; two friends from Melbourne, Australia – these are some of the individuals that joined non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives working on tsunami relief initiatives taking place in the South India state of Tamil Nadu at an informational exchange meeting on January 2, 2005 in Chennai (Madras). Some, like the cardiologist and psychotherapist, got on a plane and arrived in Chennai a couple of days after the disaster. Others abandoned their vacations with family and friends and came from different parts of India to see how they could help. People from all over India, and all over the world, have come, given money, collected clothing, sent supplies, and researched ways in which they could help. Tsunami blogs have popped up every day. This tremendous outpouring of support is overwhelming the ability of many NGOs to effectievly coordinate the volunteers and material assistance. Most NGOs have so much used clothing that they have stopped taking such donations, and many are telling potential volunteers to wait a little bit, when help will surely be needed for the more difficult and time-consuming tasks of rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Where do things stand a week after the earthquake and resulting tsunami? It seems that NGOs, and surprisingly, the Government, have done an incredible job of reaching most of the victims of the tsunami in Tamil Nadu with immediate relief. However, relief efforts are still underway for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where much of the former coastline is still under water, and few NGOs operate in the restricted islands.

What can you do now? Unless you speak Tamil, or have a skill specifically requested by an NGO, wait. (If you are a Tamil speaking woman with counseling experience – we need you!) Send money if you can, because almost everything can be purchased in the area. (Do not send used or even new clothing, unless they are saris (and petticoats and blouses) or lunghis.) Most of all, do not forget the many millions of others that need your help. Volunteer in your community!

In Transit

5:30am. Mark and I spend a half hour wandering around Frankfurt Main, looking for some signs of life. I have refused to leave the airport to wander around the cold drizzle of pre-dawn Frankfurt (40 degrees farenheit), dressed for arrival in Chennai (kurta, pyjama, and sandals). “We have 5 hours here, what are we going to do?” He whines. “Sleep!” I reply. “Not a bad idea.”

We have both been sleep-deprived for the last week, staying up until 3-4am every morning, communicating with people about the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and how we may be able to help given the timing (fortuitous?) of our trip to South India. Mark, in particular, has had vitually no sleep, trying to clean out an office holding 18 years of life as a lawyer. Neither of us remember take off at 6:30am yesterday from San Francisco.

6am. My head on a bulky backpack (what is that lump just underneath my neck? oh, a flashlight), my knees draped over the armrest of the two-seat chair in a walkway leading from our landing gate to Terminal B, I doze in and out of sleep, a New Yorker magazine on my stomach, with the incessent clatter of luggage wheels on the pebbled rubber Perelli floors, the occassional electronic beeps of the electric “cars” taking the elderly or families with small children from terminal to terminal, the stamping walk of confident children, and … oh no! – the very loud squeeks of a little girl’s light-up sneakers … and beneath all that noise, a steady medium-loud snoring coming from the chairs next to mine…

7am. We leave the comforts of the hallway and go through passport control to get to the main hall. As we walk forward, looking for a place to eat, we run smack into a free Internet station – Samsung’s e-lounge (plug). A not-so-quick checking of email (if I were Mark, I would say that this keyboard is “out to get me” – the “y” is where you would find the “z”, and the “m” sticks), and it is already 9:15am.



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