Features

Thanks, but no thanks

Tsunami | India refuses outside aid as farmers and fishermen protest a lack of help from their government

Issue: "Iraq: Unity in adversity," Feb. 12, 2005

NAGAPATTINAM, India -- On the outskirts of this city on India's Tamil Nadu coastline, a police officer stops incoming vehicles and warns of "agitation ahead." Immediately following the Dec. 26 tsunami, this police checkpoint was established to prevent gawkers and curiosity-seekers from entering the tidal-wave zone.

But many foreign relief organizations were also prevented from entering the city where nearly 80 percent of India's 8,000 deaths were concentrated. The official stance of the Indian government toward foreign charitable and governmental aid has been "thank you kindly, but we have it all under control."

Despite ominous warnings of civil agitation, the road into Nagapattinam appears to be clear. Yet half a mile further traffic comes to a grinding standstill. The only alternative way into town is to find a less-traveled back road. Tsunami survivors have staged an extemporaneous sit-down protest on the main highway blocking all incoming vehicles. The protesters claim they have not seen one penny of the $70 million allocated for tsunami relief by India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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Dozens of tsunami survivors later confirm that they have received only useless secondhand clothing and rations for one meal each day. Visible government activities include repairs to damaged rail lines, replacement of sewers, opening of schools, and repaving the main road into town. Survivors have chosen the freshly blacktopped road as a venue to express frustration.

Typically a cluttered and congested city, Nagapattinam is uneasy and chaotic. Merchants have closed and padlocked stores, fearing disgruntled masses will loot goods. Municipal authorities have slipped out of town. Their caravan of official vehicles races past onlookers using a surreptitious back route.

The smell of death and disinfectant still lingers as the city begins to limp back to life. A backwater beach adjacent to the city is now a bulging landfill. Buried beneath the sand and layered with earth and lime are the bodies of 6,000 souls. Crows and pigs forage throughout the mass grave as the city uncovers and discovers more corpses. A bloated body floats past the mass grave on the slow-moving river.

Nagapattinam is the "rice bowl" of Southern India. Thousands of acres of rice paddies on flat terrain lie just a few feet above sea level, making this region especially vulnerable to the 30-foot tsunami. The killer wave penetrated two to three miles inland, flooding paddies and destroying the rice crop. For both farmers and fishermen the wave had an immediate impact. Lives and property were washed away. Using halting English and hand signals for emphasis, a man named Surita tells WORLD, "No boat now. No nets." He is a fisherman with no foreseeable prospect of returning to work. The city's entire fleet of fishing vessels has been tossed from the harbor to the center of town.

Surita's 8-year-old son nods in understanding at the word tsunami, which is now a part of the Tamil language lexicon. Then he says, "I fast run." The entire family miraculously survived in a house just 100 yards from the seashore. The children point to the high-water line clearly visible inside their bedroom. The force of the wave blew out the rear wall of the room. Surita confirms that none of the fishermen have received promised compensation from the Indian government for boats, fishing nets, property loss, or death benefits. Surita's elderly mother-in-law says, "We do receive a little food each day from charity groups." Then she laments, "I just long for a cup of coffee." An aid worker from Kids for the Kingdom India hears her lament and slips 20 rupees into her hand. The aid worker whispers, "Buy yourself a cup of coffee."

The Indian government estimates tsunami damages at $1.8 billion dollars. Despite the astronomical number, all foreign aid is being politely refused. Prime Minister Singh tells his own press, "As of now we have adequate resources to meet the challenge." India is accepting only "global sympathy." India's press has openly speculated the refusal of foreign assistance for tsunami relief is tied to India's desire for a permanent seat on an enlarged United Nations Security Council. India's case on economic, military, and democratic grounds is compelling. Posturing as a self-sufficient industrial nation is key to gaining this geopolitical status.

However, K. Natwar Singh, India's external affairs minister, emphatically states, "The two issues should not be coupled." Explaining why India has refused foreign aid, he said, "As of now we feel we have enough resources and capabilities to be able to deal with the disaster." He points to the fact that India has deployed five naval vessels including a hospital ship to Sri Lanka to assist that nation with relief efforts. Meanwhile, hundreds of Nagapattinam's rice farmers and fishermen sit blocking the road to garner support for their personal crisis that grows by the hour.

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