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When the waves came crashing

Akkaraipettai, the village worst hit by the tsunami in 2004, now buzzes with the sounds of diesel auto-rickshaws and mechanised boats.

In many other places of Nagapattinam district, too, it is a far cry from the devastation 10 years ago. Huts have been replaced with concrete houses, far from the sea. Fishermen have switched from small catamarans to big trawlers. Now, they use smartphones and other technologies for weather updates.

Bringing about such change took immense resolve. J Radhakrishnan, health secretary in the Tamil Nadu government, who spearheaded the rehabilitation programme, says the resilience of those hit by the disaster is admirable. “It took almost a year for survivors to come out and take to their means of livelihood.”

“We have seen a lot of changes in the past 10 years,” says 40-year-old A Prabhakaran, who runs a shop at Akkaraipettai. “With the intervention of the government, various companies and NGOs, people have houses, boats and auto-rickshaws; some have even started offering finance to others,” he adds.

Singaravel Velu, 60, says many women, including widows, are economically empowered. The quality of education has improved and this has led to an increase in employability. The literacy rate in Nagapattinam is 83.59 per cent, compared with 76.34 per cent in 2001.

Many elders say the 2004 calamity led to a change in attitude – widow remarriage, unacceptable in these areas for long, is now encouraged.

K S Kandasamy, part of the relief and rehabilitation efforts, said temporary shelters were built to accommodate those affected; the government built 21,000 housed. After a year, large tracts of land were reclaimed and cultivated, and schools and dispensaries rebuilt. Kandasamy credits the government with much of the success of the relief operations.

Aid of about Rs 5,000 crore was released by the state and central governments, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. “Besides, a mini-collectorate, headed by a collector, was set up across zones,” said Radhakrishnan. Though the tsunami had orphaned many, not a single case of child trafficking was reported, he said.

Velu says private entities such as the Tata group, Amritanandamayi Ashram and Seva Bharati also played a key role in rehabilitation.

However, not all are happy. N Bharavi, a fisherman, says he is yet to receive allotments. Many said the quality and location of the houses built for the displaced were poor. “We used to live 600 m from the shore. Now, our settlement is two km from the sea. We need an auto-rickshaw to reach the sea,” says a villager.

By and large, villagers here believe they have come a long way since the tsunami wrecked havoc in 2004. “We couldn’t even dream of such a place. With no children to take care of our needs, this is God’s gift to us,” says Velu who, along with his wife, is now part of a self-help group.

The state government says the lessons learnt have prepared it to tackle natural disasters better, though a lot more needs to be done. The early-warning system installed near Nagapattinam, for instance, isn’t functional. And, sandbag walls and shelterbelt plantations, built to withstand high waves, aren’t completely ready.

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