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The tsunami-hit, a year later

By A Ganesh Nadar in Kanyakumari
Last updated on: December 09, 2005 16:26 IST
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It is almost a year since the waves of death pounded the Indian coastline on December 26, 2004. Over 10,500 people were killed, over 5,000 are still missing -- presumed dead -- and thousands others were rendered homeless. To mark one year of one of the biggest tragedies mankind has ever witnessed, we revisit the places hardest hit by nature's fury, to see firsthand how India has coped.

This is the first of a two-part special on Kanyakumari, the district in Tamil Nadu that is the southernmost tip of mainland India.

The simple fisherfolk of Kanyakumari still live on the seashore. And they still live in fear.

"The fear psychosis is still very much there but they [the fishermen] won't admit it," says Dr James Premkumar of Colachel, the town which saw the maximum deaths in Kanyakumari.

Dr James Premkumar of Colachel"This leads to psychosomatic disorders like hallucination. Take the case of adolescent girls. They are not used to loneliness. Thus, they think they are seeing their relatives and friends who they lost to the tsunami. The sound of the ocean, which was earlier inviting, now seems threatening to them," he adds.

Many also find sleep hard to come by, since the day the sea they grew up to love and revere turned on them. The doctor says he cannot give them tranquillisers as the temporary shelters  are on the seashore and the sea is still dangerous.

Those who lost their homes were first housed in camps. Then they were moved to temporary shelters. Kanyakumari is the first district where 200 permanent houses built by the Mata Amritanandamayi mutt have been given to the tsunami-affected.

The district administration has promised that by December 26, at least half the permanent houses will be handed over.

On November 26, another 200 houses built by Awakening, a non-governmental organisation, were given to the fisherfolk of Muttom. The total number of permanent houses that will be given in this district is 2,600.

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An additional 900 houses for people living within 40 feet from the high tide line have also been planned and will be executed, says Additional Collector G Prakash.

For now, the fishermen and their families continue to live in the temporary shelters. A few of the shelters are empty. The families have either rented other houses further inland or are living with relatives.

In Colachel, the Sri Singaravelan Colony -- built by an NGO, SOS Village -- has a new look. Initially, the shelters had Kanyakumari Collector Sunil Paliwal asbestos roofs. There were complaints they got too hot, despite the fact that Collector Sunil Paliwal got the NGOs building the shelters to give a table fan to each family as well.

The fishermen have used nature to counter nature, as they have done through centuries. They have covered the asbestos sheets with coconut leaves woven together. The heat is not that unbearable inside anymore. 

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The Tamil Nadu government, however, does not encourage this kind of roof covering, since the Kumbakonam school tragedy last year where almost a hundred children died in a school fire.

The women say the camps are fine but livelihood is difficult. The sea here is still rougher than normal and many times in the last year it has rushed inland, stoking the fishermen's worst fears.

The district administration says 70 per cent of the people have returned to their livelihoods. But the fishermen say their earnings are not what they were.

Fishermen are back to work, but nervousNGOs and the state government are still organising medical camps. A doctor, two nurses and life-saving drugs are on call for the fishermen here. There have been cases of chicken pox, which were isolated and cured.

Mela Manakuddi is home to a very big temporary shelter. As you walk in, FM radios can be heard from every nook and corner. There are children everywhere. The elders look sad.

There is no water here, say the women. Sometimes, when it comes after five days, they don't know whether to bathe, wash clothes, wash vessels or store it for drinking. The toilets stink to the heavens. There is no water to clean them. So, everyone answers nature's call in, well, natural surroundings. Collector Sunil Paliwal says he is aware of the water problem and is taking steps to rectify it.

An NGO runs the medical camp here.

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One woman is leaving for her sister's house far away, carrying her six-month-old baby. "There is a child with chicken pox in the next house, I am scared my baby will be infected," she says.

Sometime back, Caritas, an NGO, gave everybody work for five days, paying them Rs 100 a day. The people appreciated it, but say efforts like these are few and far in between.

As we leave the shelter, something Sunil Paliwal told us long ago comes back to mind: "Those that did not see the tsunami don't know what it is. Those that saw it will never forget it."

Next: The orphans the waves left behind

Also see
Complete coverage: The waves of destruction

Photographs: AFP/Getty Images

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A Ganesh Nadar in Kanyakumari