Category Archives: rehabilitation

Auroville rallies to help Pondicherry fisherfolk

Auroville rallies to help Pondicherry fisherfolk

December 30, 2004

The first wave of the tsunami hit the Pondichery and Tamil Nadu coast at 8 am on December 26. Seven thousand people died on the spot.

By 9.30 am, a team from Auroville, the international township inspired by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, and which is situated near Pondichery, swung into action. A first emergency meeting was called in the house of two Auroville residents and it was immediately decided to set up a camp for the people affected by the tidal waves.

By 12 pm, eight tents and seven shamianas were erected on a field near one of the Auroville communities. Two portable 5,000 litres tanks, two generators, a field kitchen with four cooking ranges, monitored by eight ladies and four cooks, were put into service. Three of Auroville’s load carriers, two tractors and two buses to pick up refugees were also commissioned.

The camp was manned by more than 60 Tamil youth from the villages within Auroville as well as many Aurovillians from all parts of the world.

By 2 pm, 750 people were fed and 350 food packets distributed. All throughout the afternoon, refugees kept streaming in. Another 1,200 people were fed in the evening. Blankets were arranged as the night was cold and windy.

On the second day, everyone was moved to the Kuilapalayam Trust School, which is run by Auroville, as there was a threat of rain. The refugees were spread out in eight buildings as well as two tents. Food was cooked this time for 1,400 people; another 500 food packets were prepared for distribution. Clothes and blankets were handed out.

The extent of the disaster was becoming clear by then. A quick survey was conducted amongst the villages and the Auroville communities that dot the beach. In Ganagashetikkam, a village of fishermen at the extreme limit of Pondicherry, the Auroville team was met by extreme desolation: the mud houses on the beach front had been destroyed or washed away. Broken furniture lay besides the road, television sets beyond repair were put into the sun to dry, pieces of thatched roof blocked the road, power lines had fallen down, the steps leading to an old temple had collapsed.

Three days after the catastrophe, women were wailing in sheer desolation. On the beach, the team met Ranjani (left). That fateful morning, her parents had gone to the market to sell the fish they had caught earlier that morning and she was left alone with her three-year-old little sister, Anasuya. She was cooking the morning’s meal, when suddenly her sister clung onto her. Ranjani looked up and saw a huge wave advancing towards the house.

“I climbed onto a stool. As the water reached my shoulders, I clung onto a rafter from the roof with one hand while holding my screaming sister with the other,” she sobbed. “After a few minutes my hands went numb and suddenly I saw that my sister had disappeared.”

Ranjani cried and cried for help, but nobody came. Anasuya was found a few hours later, a kilometre upstream in the flooded village, dead. Tweenty-six other people, mostly children and the elderly, lost their lives. Seventy-five houses were destroyed and 265 families affected one way or the other by the tsunami which hit Ganagashetikkam.

Next to Ganagashetikkam, one finds Eternity, an Auroville beach community. There lives a wonderful family: Yuval, the father, is an Israeli, his wife Hannah (right) is from Holland. They have five children, all raised in Auroville, each of them speaking several languages. Twenty years ago, Yuval and his family settled down on a piece of barren land on the beach where nothing grew. With hard work and dedication, they turned it into a green forest, a place of beauty and peace. They also painstakingly built houses in the community, mostly using local material: mud walls, palmyra leaves, thatch roofs, with one solitary concrete house.

On the morning of the 26th, Hannah had one of her daughters, Jitta, with her. Jitta has two children: a daughter of two and a son who is barely eight months old. As usual in Auroville, where everybody sleeps early, everyone woke at 6 am for early morning tea in the community kitchen. At 6.30 am, Yuval felt the earth shake and asked his wife in jest, “if she was dancing on the bed.” At 8.15 am, Jitta decided to put her son back to sleep on the ground floor of a house which was 200 metres away.

Everything looked so peaceful and no different from a thousand other mornings in the Eternity beach community. Suddenly Hannah heard a noise that sounded like the rushing of water. She went outside. “I saw this huge wave rushing toward me and it immediately flashed in my mind: ‘Tidal Wave’.” She grabbed her granddaughter, climbed to the first floor and asked her daughter to rush and get her son.

Jitta ran, with the water already swirling around her, got her baby just as he was being swept away, shouted at two guests who were sleeping in another hut — who would have otherwise died — and seeing that there was no way to go back to where her mother was, ran towards higher ground on the opposite side of Eternity beach.

Yuval and Hannah saw no sign of Jitta and her son and thought they had died. “We screamed and screamed and scanned every part of the community. The water was still rising,” Hannah recalls, weeping.

When the second wave receded, they found their daughter and grandchild alive.

Yuval and Hannah have lost everything and are painstakingly trying to salvage some of their personal belongings, thanks to an amazing wave of solidarity amongst Aurovillians and a lot of help from the nearby village.

“I put so much work in this land and God took everything back, but he spared our lives and that is a miracle,” says Hannah. Like the other residents of Ganagashetikkam, their lives have been shattered. Hannah still breaks down from time to time when she recalls the time she thought her daughter and grandson were dead, taken away by the terrible tsunami.

By the fourth day, it became clear to Aurovillians that they had to shift from immediate relief measures to long-term solutions for the affected villages.

Houses had to be rebuilt, lives had to be rebuilt, and more than that, fishermen the most affected group in Tamil Nadu, had to be given back their dignity, that is the means to earn their livelihood once more; that means boats and fishing nets, which were destroyed by the tsunami.

This is why it was decided to form a more permanent group. Areas were divided into north and south zone (villages) with a team and a leader each, to assess needs. A food group was constituted to stock and distribute food. A communication cell with an office, telephone, computers, an e-mail and a web site was obtained from Auroville.

Transparency was ensured by creating an accounting team and channeling funds through two newly created accounts in Auroville’s existing financial infrastructure which offers a tax rebate and a foreign donations facility (see below).

“What we need,” one team member said, “is approximately Rs 50,000 (about $1,000) to rebuild a house, Rs 100,000 (about $2,000) for a boat with an engine and another Rs 100,000 for fishing nets. Thus a total of Rs 250,000 (about $5,000) per affected family. We have taken charge of 225 families in our area. It is a lot of money.”

How to contribute to the Auroville Tsunami Fund

FOREIGN FUNDS

BANK TRANSFER via SWIFT following details:

Bank Name: State Bank of India
Branch: Auroville International Branch
Branch Code: 03160
Beneficiary Account Name: AV Fund Foreign
Beneficiary Account Number: 01000060095
Details/other Information: Village Flood Relief OR Auroville Beaches Relief

SWIFT CODE: SBININBB474

Under details please specify if you want the funds to go to Village Relief or for Auroville Beaches Relief. You could also give a percentage allocation.

FOREIGN CHEQUES

Please make your cheques payable to “Auroville Fund – Foreign” and send to the address below.

INDIAN FUNDS

Cheque/DD to be made payable to “AUROVILLE FUND”. On the reverse of the cheque please write if it is meant for Village Flood Relief OR Auroville Beaches Relief.

DDs payable at Pondicherry.

Please send the cheques to:

Auroville Tsunami Rehabilitation
Opposite Aurelec, Kuilapalayam
Auroville 605 101, Tamil Nadu, India.
E-mail tsunami@auroville.org.in
Phone: 0413 – 2622184.

Please note that Indian donations are exempted under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act.

Francois Gautier

Auroville’s tsunami relief effort

March 09, 2005

In Ganagachettikullam, one of the worst affected villages on the Pondicherry coast, there was this old lady who had lost her baby and kept crying: “I just took her hand in my own and my body language did all the talking,” says Bhavana, a volunteer from the Auroville Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme.

Auroville, the international township inspired by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, which is situated near Pondicherry, was the first to swing into action. On December 26, 2004, barely two hours after the first tsunami wave struck, a first emergency meeting was called in the house of two Aurovilians, Paul Pinton and Laura, and it was immediately decided to set up a camp for the persons affected by the tidal waves.

Three days later, Auroville realised it was time to switch from immediate relief, to a rehabilitation effort. An office was set-up with computers, phone, faxes and e-mail, the Auroville financial service was put to contribution to channel and account for the contributions which started coming (see below) and two teams were formed to make an assessment of the situation on the ground.

The Auroville rehabilitation story is about caring and it takes three aspects:

Cleaning up and clearing up villages: “Cleaning-up and clearing affected villages, is much more than what it looks like,” says Alok, one of the coordinators, “We establish a bond with the villagers, we work with them, we show them that we care, rather than come, distribute goods or cash — and then disappear after the photo op.”

Many of the students of Auroville schools have been engaged in village cleaning, in the worst affected of the coastal fishing communities. At first the villagers watched from a distance with curiosity, sometimes even with a little bit of hostility, but as they saw the enthusiasm of the Auroville children, some of them joined the cleaning effort.

One of the classes of ten year olds were asked to write about their experience, particularly about their reasons to want to help with the cleaning, their job and their feelings during and after the work. The following is an extract from one of the children’s writing, a girl from Holland: ‘On Thursday, my class and I went to the beach to help clean up the dirt left by the tsunami wave. We wanted to help cleaning very much because I felt really sad after seeing people crying near the streets or broken houses, and hearing horrifying stories. I felt something in my chest telling me I had to do something to help clean up the tsunami disaster. Sometimes people think of children as people that are irresponsible or that can’t do anything by themselves. Usually, I find that frustrating. So, I wanted to show that I care about what is happening and I would put some energy to help out a bit.’

Counselling: Aware that it is not only material needs which have to be addressed, but also the psychological needs, the Auroville Tamil Women’s Group, consisting of both Western and Indian women, visit the affected villages, not with goods, but with open hearts to listen and sympathise. At first they were a bit unsure about how this would be accepted in the villages, perhaps the people would only be asking for money or material things, but it was quite the opposite that happened.

“Our van, recalls Bhavana, one of the leaders of Auroville’s Women’s Group, brought us down the streets of the village — we could see how the houses got smaller as we moved closer to the sea — the richer people had built farther from the shore long ago, and newer poorer houses were of necessity located closer to the water. In one of these streets, with nice houses on either side, a boat was sitting — it had come up with the wave and been left stranded there. The last couple of rows of houses were the ones built just of mud and thatch — and you can’t see them any more — just a pile of thatch and some sign of former walls — all have been washed away.”

“We had coached ourselves that our mission was just to listen, so we asked people how they were, what had happened and heard their stories,” she continued. “There was a young man who had been caught between who to rescue first — his children or his old father, he’d chosen his children first, but also managed to bring his father to safety. But now they have nothing.

Another old lady was so traumatised that she took Phoenix, an, American’s lady’s hand and would not let it go. This work has only started and is bound to take many more months. Two counselling experts are coming from Bangalore to assist with the counselling process. At the moment there is still a big gap between what is given in the area of counselling and what is really needed.”

Every day, when the Women’s Group goes back to Auroville, they all sit in a circle. Women share how the people they meet had been so grateful for the visit. Some people even said how much they appreciated Auroville. “They said at their temple they always worshipped the sea,” recalls Bhavana. “It keeps holding up their boats, giving them fish and livelihood, but now it seems to have turned against them — perhaps because they have strayed from caring for others. But actually now it seems to them that people do come and listen to their woes. And thus they turn to Auroville with gratitude.”

Rebuilding: Donations of Rs 62 lakhs (Rs 6.2 million) have so far been received by the Auroville Rehabilitation Fund. About Rs 10 lakhs (Rs 1 million) have been spent. Rs 21.5 lakhs (Rs 2.15 million) have been received for the AV-Beach community fund, (which have also suffered a lot, Rs 3 lakhs (Rs 300,000) have already been spent. Auroville has a huge know-how in ecological, environment-conscious housing, using natural materials, such as bricks made of compressed red earth available locally.

Only 5% cement I used, and these bricks have shown that they are cheap, provide coolness and are waterproof and termite proof. The Auroville architects and town planners are now ready to put their skills at the service of the rehabilitation housings for all the coastal Pondicherry villages. In an emergency meeting, it was decided that the plinth of the reconstructed houses would be higher than the normal and have certain innovations to permit a flow through of water in case of flooding such as in the case of tsunami.

But to accomplish this, Auroville needs the help of the Tamil Nadu government, as well as the cooperation of the Auroville Secretary, Mr Sharma, an IAS officer posted by the central government.

1. Cheque/Demand Draft to be made payable to ‘AUROVILLE FUND’
On the reverse of the cheque please write for Village Flood Relief OR Auroville Beaches Relief. DDs payable at Pondicherry.

Please send the cheques to: Auroville Tsunami Rehabilitation
Opposite Aurelec, Kuilapalayam, Auroville 605 101
Tamil Nadu, India

For e-mail contact: tsunami@auroville.org.in Phone: 0413 – 2622184

Please note that Indian donations are exempted under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act.

Francois Gautier