After hearing so many stories of bureaucratic bungling and the slow pace of the tsunami relief effort, I was surprised to find the East Coast Road south of Madras crowded with trucks carrying grain, water, tents, and clothing. India's record in such catastrophes is dismal: The country has been hit by eight natural calamities since 1989 and has rarely been able to get food, water, and shelter efficiently to the victims. But this time, in the district of Cuddalore, authorities sprang into action, quickly providing relief to local fishermen and their families. In at least this small corner of India, the local administration took the steps necessary to care for those in need.
One key to the effort is Gagandeep Singh Bedi. He is Cuddalore's "district collector," the most powerful local official in India's administrative system. The 36-year-old civil servant learned about the tsunami the hard way: He was having breakfast at a waterfront restaurant when the waves struck. He managed to get himself and his family to high ground and sped back to his office. Within two hours he had mobilized the police, hospitals, doctors, the phone company, and the state transport authority. Four hours later, Bedi had called a meeting of community leaders and asked individuals and nongovernment organizations to pool their resources with those of government agencies.
That translated into quick relief for people in places such as the island of Sonakuppam. Just two miles from Cuddalore and, until a bridge was built last summer, accessible only by boat, Sonakuppam was a relatively prosperous fishing village of 2,500. Many of its bright pink, green, and blue brick houses sported TV sets, and the average annual income topped $1,000 -- twice the national level. Villagers owned nearly a hundred $2,000 fiberglass catamarans, motorized tugboats, and 30-foot wooden steamboats. Every day the men went to sea, bringing back fish for the women to take to market in Cuddalore. Many village children even attended school -- a sure sign of prosperity. The tsunami brought an end to that good life. Most houses and virtually all the boats were destroyed by the wave's fury, and 53 villagers are dead, half of them children. Only the new bridge and the Hindu temple, built on raised ground, remain untouched: They're where residents took refuge from the water.
Thanks to Bedi, the inhabitants of Sonakuppam aren't being ignored. He ensured that by imposing no restrictions on groups that want to deliver aid. A truck from the federal government is unloading rice, lentils, blankets, and towels. A small army contingent from the Madras Regiment is clearing debris. The Communist Party is delivering bedsheets. The former mayor of Madras has brought food. UNICEF has trucked in toys for the children, and a bus carrying 28 Buddhist monks and 20 Scientologists from Great Britain and Australia has pulled up to offer trauma relief.REBUILDING LIVES
It would be hard to say that the villagers are happy, but they're not complaining. They're grateful for the charity and are setting about rebuilding their lives. The children are playing, the women do their chores in the rubble, and the men are happy to dole out relief packages when the trucks roll in or to pull down wrecked power poles and put up new ones.
That's the easy part. Now they have to reconstruct their homes. Bedi would like to see stricter enforcement of zoning rules -- which would keep many from rebuilding too close to the beach, where their old houses were. And the villagers need to repair their boats or buy new ones so they can start earning a living again. The government has promised to help, but Bedi laments that India can't build enough vessels to fill the need. "We should import boats -- fast," he says.
The tsunami has been a tragedy for India, but it's an opportunity, too. The country may rethink its archaic village planning and create communities with proper sanitation and other infrastructure. "Let villagers start life afresh, better than how they were living before," says Ashok Joshi, chairman of Srinivasan Services Trust, a private foundation. And the tsunami may spur India to institutionalize disaster management, so its people can respond efficiently to such tragedies -- rather than relying just on the good will and hard work of the likes of Cuddalore's Gagandeep Singh Bedi.