Aid Money Brings a New Social Order

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune
Part two of a two-part series

KILLAI, India — At the edge of Killai, a village on India’s southeast coast, there is a collection of 163 concrete houses, single-story blocks set in neat rows and surrounded by open fields. This is the neighborhood of M.G.R. Nagar, named after M.G. Ramachandran, a much-beloved actor and former chief minister in the state of Tamil Nadu.

M.G.R. Nagar was built by aid agencies after the 2004 tsunami. It is home to around 300 people from the Irula caste, a tribe of traditionally nomadic and impoverished hunters.

On a dark, rainy Wednesday morning, with a cyclone brewing off the Bay of Bengal, I met an Irula man named T. Kannan. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with well-oiled hair. He walked me around M.G.R. Nagar, navigating puddles of muddy water. He showed me the Irulas’ school, and their “Knowledge Center,” a damp hall with two computers funded by a nongovernmental organization.

Kannan was proud of his neighborhood. He said that before the tsunami, his people camped in the fields and surrounding marshes. They were dispersed and disunited. They made a meager living hunting rats and snakes, and sometimes as agricultural laborers.

The Irulas lived at the mercy of higher castes. “They treated us like dogs,” Kannan said, adding that during religious festivals, the Irulas were forced to pull a chariot carrying the temple idol and to clean up after the festivities. If they refused, they were beaten.

The tsunami changed everything. Although the Irulas were hit hard by the disaster — at least six Irulas Kannan knew were killed — aid agencies and the government were quick to step in, providing food and shelter, buying boats and nets, and, eventually, building M.G.R. Nagar.

Now, Kannan told me, the Irulas have better jobs, more education and more power. Because they live together, they can stand together. They are a force to be reckoned with.

He told me about a conflict that had recently taken place between the Irula and fishing communities. A few months ago, an NGO had bought the Irulas equipment to catch crabs. But when the Irulas went to the river to lay their traps, they were stopped by angry fishermen, who claimed that the Irulas were impinging on their territory and profession. Heated words followed, and blows were exchanged.

Instead of retreating, as they would have in the past, the Irulas approached the police. But the police refused to entertain their complaint, mocking them for being poor and insulting their wives.

Kannan said he organized a group of Irula men to storm the police station. They marched in and pulled the inspector out by his collar. Government officials arrived soon after. They brokered an agreement that allowed Irulas to hunt for crabs.

Kannan told me about the agreement, but he returned to the inspector. “He was trembling with fear,” Kannan said, laughing, and the delight was all over his face. “Now, people around here know our power — they fear us and, most of all, they respect us.”

In my last column, I wrote about the many ways in which tsunami aid has transformed the social and economic order along the coast of Tamil Nadu, the worst-hit state in India, where almost 8,000 people died. Few of those changes have been as striking as the rise of the Irulas, traditionally at the bottom of the caste ladder.

But the social transformation Kannan described — and that I saw all along the coast — never comes easily. When one group rises, other groups get jealous. As the conflict over the crabs suggests, rival castes fight to protect their interests. For all the progress communities around here have seen over the last five years, they have also seen violence and social disruption.

Some of the most violent encounters have taken place between fishing and agricultural villages. Historically, fishermen have been subordinate to farmers — poorer, and less educated. But as the largest recipients of tsunami aid, fishermen have seen their fortunes rise.

Farmers along the coast complain that they have been left behind, and left out of the aid spigot. They, too, lost homes. In some places where the wave came deep inland, the ground has risen in salinity and fields have become infertile.

The resentment has sometimes broken into clashes. Outside the town of Cuddalore, two villages, one agricultural, one fishing, argued over the allocation of houses built with aid money. Five huts were burned down. The police had to be called.

Conflict has also broken out within fishing communities. As fishermen have been able to afford more sophisticated motorboats and nets, they have gone farther out to sea and caught bigger yields. As a result, the sea is being over-exploited, and boats have been forced beyond their traditional territories in search of dwindling fish stocks.

In the village of Thantirayankuppam, I was told about a recent battle with a neighboring village. A boat was rammed several kilometers out at sea. Its fiberglass starboard was shredded.

Such conflict is probably inevitable. Development is a disruptive process, and the money that has poured like a second tsunami over this stretch of the coast — more than $1 billion, by some estimates — has swept into complex societies that had remained essentially unchanged for centuries, perhaps even millennia.

The most successful aid programs I have seen are the ones that recognize that development is never just an economic process, and that financial aid has profound social consequences — programs that have directed aid to farmers as well as fishermen, for example, or that have sought to mitigate over-fishing by training villagers for new professions.

In a way, what’s happening around here is simply another version of what’s happening across India. As I have driven along the coast over the last few weeks, I have come up against familiar sights: rapid transformation, a new order in which there are many winners and fewer losers, and a sense of traditional societies bending, cracking, and in some cases breaking under the strain of new money.

Long after the waters have receded, the impact of the tsunami — generally positive, but unpredictable and at times wrenching — is still being felt.

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