India faces massive relief task

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 December, 2004, 12:00am

PM cancels tour of southern coast as agencies struggle to recover the dead and feed survivors

The difficulty of organising basic relief for the tens of thousands of victims in India became clear yesterday when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cancelled a tour of the southern coastal region that was devastated by the tsunami.

As a shell-shocked administration, along with the army and private charities, struggled to come to terms with the scale of the tragedy, the basic task of recovering the many bodies of those killed in scores of fishing hamlets in Tamil Nadu state had not been completed more than 48 hours later.

'The prime minister's tour has been postponed as he did not want the visit to disrupt any of the relief work,' said an aide.

Instead, Mr Singh called an emergency meeting in New Delhi of a ministerial committee set up to co-ordinate relief operations. The central government also allocated 5 billion rupees ($889 million) in aid to the victims.

'The tsunami was a new experience for India - this region has seen many cyclones, but the devastation this time of fishermen's communities is mind-boggling,' said Anton Gomes, president of the National Union of Fishermen, supervising activities at a fishermen's relief centre in Chennai.

'The government is not giving a clear picture. According to our estimate, at least 15,000 fishermen and their family members have been killed by the tsunami in Tamil Nadu alone.'

Though relief operations in a major city such as Chennai are far better organised than in the districts or distant islands, a tour of the fishing hamlets in the Tamil Nadu capital showed thousands of fishermen and their families camping on the streets under the open sky, with only a few personal belongings by their side.

'No one died in our hamlet, but our houses are damaged and under water and we have lost everything,' said Ekavali Vichivelan, as she sat with other women and children on a mound of rubble along a major beachfront avenue.

A companion gestured that she needed a warm covering to protect herself against the wintry nights.

But at least in Chennai, thanks to private charities, enough food is being distributed to the victims. Bodies are also immediately taken by police to hospital morgues - bloated corpses were still being washed ashore two days after the disaster.

In coastal districts further south, however, not only is it taking time to clear the bodies of the victims, raising fears of an epidemic, but the lack of adequate security has led to looting of victims' homes and shops.

'We continue to live in fear, with no water or food,' wailed a woman filmed by a regional television channel in Nagapattinam, the worst-hit district in Tamil Nadu.

The first task of the authorities is to organise basic humanitarian aid. But that still leaves the more difficult and lengthy business of rehabilitating devastated communities.

'What you have to understand is that the fisherfolk have lost not just their homes, but also their livelihoods - boats, fishing nets, everything,' Mr Gomes said. 'They will need help for years to recover from this disaster.'