Mar 23, 2009

Picking up the pieces
The biggest job for relief officials is coordinating all the generosity and putting it where it's needed most
NAGGAPATTINAM-The fishing boats lie in a grotesque pile at a corner of the harbour, stacked like twisted toys. Their captains and crew, if they survived, clamber in the mess to pull out what possessions they can find. Nets are particularly prized. Nylon mesh is expensive and if it can be salvaged, so much the better. As for the fish market, it didn't happen last Sunday. The market was what drew people to their deaths on 26 December. Women were buying and selling fish with their children running around nearby when the waters brought death and devastation. Wrecked fishing boats and houses reduced to rubble. Crows grown fat on unspeakable meals beneath the debris. Men wandering the shattered streets of their villages, wondering about their families, their fates. Government ministers clambering over wreckage to get in front of television cameras, distributing cash as they go. This is the face of the tsumani in South India. I write from the heart of the devastation here. The town of Naggapattinam in Tamil Nadu used to be a chaotic, dusty but rather well off fishing port. Hundreds of wooden trawlers crowded its harbour and the Sunday fish market on the beach drew people from surrounding districts to get the freshest dolphin and tuna. Now Naggapattinam is the centre of a vast relief effort aimed at helping the hundreds of thousands of displaced and bereaved people of the area. About 10,000 people died here, a third of them children. The young couldn't flee the raging seas and were easily swept away. India has pointedly said it doesn't want vast amounts of international help with this crisis. Specifically, the country doesn't want bilateral humanitarian assistance, saying others need it more and there's no real need for outside help. At first, this was put down to perverse national pride but it's proven to be true. India is managing this rather well on its own. The sheer volume of aid that has come from informal sources in India is remarkable. Doctors from Bangalore donating their services, Keralaite students who've collected toys, plastic tents and shoes and brought them all the way across the country. Volunteers from Lions and Rotary clubs cleaning up schools and picking up the pieces, along with the affected people themselves. It's a truly remarkable sight. The biggest job for Indian officials has been coordinating all that generosity and putting it where it's needed most. The government has risen to the task as best as it could.

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