Changed Forever by Disaster

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

THANTIRAYANKUPPAM, INDIA — Five years ago, I woke up on a Sunday morning, checked the news online and saw that a tsunami had hit my part of the world. Early reports were sketchy. I read about just a few casualties (in Sri Lanka, as I recall), and I remember thinking that the whole thing sounded exciting.

I went down to the beach, about a 15-minute drive from my house. I walked the sand. I saw a crowd of villagers standing in a circle. They were looking down at something. It was a dead boy.

I knew at that moment that this wasn’t exciting. I was witness to a horrible tragedy.

In the weeks and months that followed, as the full, almost unimaginable scale of the tragedy became apparent — more than 200,000 dead across Asia, and almost 8,000 here in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu — I returned again and again to the coast. Signs of devastation were everywhere: in the thatch and cement debris tossed far inland, in the village schools and temples crowded with refugees, and in the ambulances and hearse vans that drove up and down the East Coast Road.

The aftermath of the tsunami was evident, too, in a fleet of altogether shinier vehicles on that same road — the air-conditioned S.U.V.’s and jeeps that belonged to relief agencies swarming over the scene of disaster. These vehicles would crawl along the coast, stopping occasionally to disgorge teams of aid workers, many of them white, all of them in well-pressed clothes.

It was easy to be cynical. “Vultures,” I remember a friend calling the aid workers, and we scoffed at the way they jostled for media attention and the favor of government officials. Their concern, we were certain, was ephemeral. Their money, we were sure, would be misspent, and then quickly dry up.

Five years on, after again spending a couple of weeks driving along the East Coast Road, I have come to reconsider my cynicism. The flood of aid money — an unprecedented $12 billion to all affected countries and around $1 billion in Tamil Nadu, the worst-hit state in India — has transformed the region. It has rebuilt — and refashioned — the local economy. It has given devastated villages a second chance.

In Thantirayankuppam, a fishing hamlet of around 430 people, a woman named J. Sasikala told me about losing all her possessions in the tsunami. For months, her family was homeless. They slept in the open or in the temple courtyard. They were dependent on strangers for food.

She told me all this, five years later, sitting on the steps of her new home, one of 53 built by aid groups in the village. It was a simple structure, a concrete block with a small living room, a bedroom and a kitchen. But it was a great improvement over the mud-walled thatch hut she had lost to the ocean.

Ms. Sasikala and a friend, a woman named K. Laxmi, talked about all the ways their lives had changed since the tsunami. They talked about their new houses, their electricity and gas connections, and about the handicrafts training they had received from a nongovernmental organization.

They also talked about the fact that their homes were legally in their names. Not too long after the tsunami, government officials came through the village and announced that all new homes would be titled in the name of women (some were jointly titled to men and women). The men grumbled, but the officials told them they had no choice. Men drank and gambled, they said; women were more reliable.

Almost 50,000 houses have been built along the coast of Tamil Nadu. The result of titling these homes to women has transcended the economic gains of home ownership. It has changed the very social fabric of the coast.

In village after village, I heard stories of women whose status at home and in society had been utterly transformed. Wives spoke of a new self-confidence and about greater control over household finances. Mothers talked about insisting that their daughters went to school.

Men also talked about their wives’ new assertiveness. They joked — with an anxious edge — that they had learned to behave, for fear that they might get thrown out of their homes.

There have been many similar changes to rural society since the tsunami. Fishing villages, the biggest recipients of aid, have risen in status and wealth, often overtaking their traditionally richer agricultural neighbors. Young men and women, once dependent on the vagaries of the ocean for their livelihoods, have been trained for new professions. A growing number of residents in fishing communities don’t fish anymore.

In the village of Achikadu, up the road from Thantirayankuppam, I met a young man, a member of the traditionally nomadic Irula caste. He pointed with pride to the gray houses built by nongovernmental organizations for his impoverished community. For the first time in generations, perhaps in history, the Irulas had a place to call their own.

Not all this change has come smoothly, of course. The years since the tsunami have had their fair share of tensions.

But the overall impression here is of a huge relief effort that has not only met its initial goal of reconstruction but has in many ways exceeded it. The East Coast Road is proof that the global aid industry, so often maligned for inefficiency and corruption, can really effect long-term social transformation.

In Thantirayankuppam, I spoke to a man named K. Manipalan. He said that he had wondered right after the tsunami if the village would recover. Now, he thinks things are better than before. In a strange way, he said, the tsunami was a good thing.

“For the first time, the world understood the suffering of fishermen,” he said. “They used to ignore us, but this time, they stood with us.”

To mark the fifth anniversary of the tsunami, he told me, villagers would stand on the East Coast Road and light candles. The candles were as much to give thanks to the world as to remember the dead.

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