Sunday, January 09, 2005

More Tsunami

I volunteered at the AID-India office in chennai for a couple of days at the beginning of last week (Jan 3rd-5th). I had heard about them from several sources --- emails from friends, the big tsunami-help blog SEA-EAT and the papers. I was unsure if they could really use my services. But the page of daily updates on their web-site kept mentioning their need for volunteers, and when i called their office they were quite welcoming of short-term volunteers like myself. I showed up at their office (on the third-floor of a building in a residential area in the heart of chennai ) at 10:30AM on sunday (they start slightly late on sundays) to find scores of volunteers milling around the gates. Not long after signing my name up on the sheet at the front gate, I was put to work loading a truck with sacks of drinking-water-pouches. I was impressed with how quickly and smoothly AID was able to incorporate new volunteers into their system, even quickly giving them higher-level responsibilities like managing other teams of volunteers.

At the chennai office i was involved, at various times, in accepting new donations (from varied private individuals and companies who either ship material to the office, or deliver it at the door), sorting the donations (food, water, clothes, medicines, bedding, cooking utensils, stoves etc), loading them onto trucks (see picture above), and delivering them in the field (at a village in the Tiruvanmiyur area called Chennadipakkam(?)). [more pictures here]

Most of the volunteers were local college students. The number of volunteers dropped a little on monday when many from the previous day had to report for their first day of classes. Those that remained included those who were visiting family for the winter break (like me) --- including some who were part of AID chapters in the US, assorted foreign tourists, people who had travelled from other indian cities specifically to help out with the relief effort, and others who volunteered during hours when they were not working or in class. In order to come here many of us had to overcome the protests of our concerned parents, worried that their children might catch horrible diseases in the disaster-zones shown on their tv-screens. I was told that the previous week there were over 50 volunteers a day (the week of the tsunami, and the last week of the holidays for most people). If the tsunami had been a week later it would probably have been harder for them to find volunteers. There was something heart-warming about this motley bunch working together.

The chennai AID office does not normally do disaster relief. The long-term volunteers who I spoke to were involved, for example, in creating supplementary educational materials for the children of the chennai slums. But in their week of providing relief to Tsunami victims, they were learning how to stream-line the process. As donations arrived at the gate, they needed to be sorted. This was especially painful when the donations were not well-labelled and organized, or in an unacceptable shape. Many houses in the neighbourhood of the AID office offered space to store materials. But keeping track of the material over the various locations, with a daily-changing group of volunteers, can be complicated. By the time i left on wednesday, they were talking of outsourcing those duties to professional warehouse managers, and storing all material at godowns.

On sunday i was a part of a van-load of volunteers delivering material to a coastal village a little south of Chennai (Chennadipakkam (?)). The village lost no lives to the Tsunami --- i think this was true for most villages along the northern-half of the TN coast. But there seemed to be fairly significant material loss. Rubble and thatch from the destroyed huts was strewn all over the beach. A team from the electricity board (TNEB) was erecting telephone poles. Those structures that weren't destroyed suffered damage and flooding. The floors of the surviving structures was covered with assorted debris. One surviving (brick) house I saw belonged to the village puppeteer. The door of his hut was broken in half. He had lost his puppets, money and papers that he had stored in his house. In a striking image of the force of the Tsunami, there was a fishing boat that was incongruously present about 200 metres inland, deposited there by the sea past the row of surviving brick houses. I didn't think it was appropriate to take photographs.

The material distribution process involved first counting the number of family members in each hut in the village. Representatives (mostly women) of all the families in the village lined up and were each given a card indicating the number of people (men,women,boys,girls) in their family. Then each person in line was given a set of clothes and bedding depending on the information on their card. We volunteers set up a distribution line at the mouth of the open truck, each pair of us responsible for one item in the set. There were minor hiccups in our method though. For example not every woman in line got the same number of sarees as we overestimated the number in the truck at the beginning. This was partly because some of the sorted bags that were labelled "sarees" contained womens' clothes other than sarees (the fault of those that had previously sorted and bagged them). The whole process took about 3 hours and by the time we were done the sun had set and we had to use a make-shift light from an electricity pole.

All those in line were eager to recieve the clothes we handed out, and they thanked us at the end. But close to where we were handing out clothes was a room overflowing with clothes discarded by the villagers (presumably a donation made by a previous visiting group). As has been said in many other places before, though the villagers might not be rich they don't appreciate getting rags.

In addition to being excited by the way AID used the web to get the word out (including the lists of things that they most urgently need), I was pleasantly surprised to run into a blogger Rahul (they're everywhere!) at the AID office. He told me about IndiaUncut --- the blog of his friend Amit Varma. Amit has a series of about 45 despatches from the field --- from harder hit areas close to Nagapattinam and Cuddalore, starting here and ending here. Here's a link to a sober analysis by an experienced aid-worker Nityanand Jayaraman about the dynamics of aid-givers and recievers in this situation. Also from Balaji Sampath's report I've got a better idea of how little a cog in the wheel I was at AID. I think AID's greatest strength is the way they so enthusiastically mobilize volunteers into their operation, and I'm grateful to have got an opportunity to work with them. I hope the positive fallout of middle-class indian kids working to clear nameless, casteless corpses, a job that's been traditionally forced onto people at the bottom of the caste ladder, lasts longer than this present event.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ashvin, This is really great! I wish I had the opportunity to be of some direct help. I heard as of now, they (Indian hit areas) are not facing immediate financial shortage. Manpower and aid distribution are the bottlenecks.

Chambana and Asha-UC did their bit, in collaboration with red-cross. We made boxes and placed them in major stores for funds and also gave out fliers in schools. Surprisingly, there has been immense support from smaller businesses. Also, kids in schools have supported the cause by bake/cookie sales.

About your casteless corpses comment, the development is positive w.r.t middle class. From your comment, assumption "middle class = upper caste", is not true.


1/13/2005 04:25:00 PM  
Blogger ashvin said...

Thanks AT for the comment.

Though i don't think my comment reflected that assumption, i do get the impression that Dalits are under-represented in the middle class.

1/16/2005 12:53:00 AM  

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