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The orphans the waves left behind

By A Ganesh Nadar in Kanyakumari
December 09, 2005 16:11 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 -- 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 second of a two-part special on Kanyakumari, the district in Tamil Nadu that is the southernmost tip of mainland India.

Don't miss: The tsunami-hit, a year later

Numbers tell a tragedy. But, sometimes, there is tragedy in the numbers too.

For nine months since the tsunami struck Kanyakumari, the official figures said the waves of death left 19 children orphaned in the district. Sixty-six children were rendered 'semi-orphans' – they lost one parent each.

A UNICEF puppet show brings a smile to tsunami orphans' facesThen, the officials added T Kavita, of Puthalam, to the orphans' list. The girl, who is living with her brother, did not register herself as an orphan till last month.

At a recent meeting where a non-governmental organisation disbursed money to some of the tsunami 'semi-orphans', the number of orphans mentioned was 183. But District Social Welfare Officer Uma Maheshwari sticks to the original figures of 20 and 66.

However, the 183 figure was verified and found true by District Revenue Officer Jyothi Nirmala. The collector assures us the right figure is 183 and that the authorities have photographs of every child.

"The orphans are living either in the government orphanages or with their relatives. We are helping with their education if they approach us," says Maheswhari. "There is a Rs 300,000 bond for the semi-orphans and Rs 500,000 bond for the orphans. Both these bonds are ready with our directorate in Chennai. They will be given to the children by the chief minister personally."

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District Collector Sunil Paliwal recently announced a bank deposit of Rs 51,000 as an education fund for each orphan and a grant of Rs 300 per month to the 'semi-orphans' from the Prime Minister's Relief Fund.

When you enter the Manakudi temporary shelter for the tsunami-affected, you can't help but notice most of the women are either pregnant or have a small baby in their arms.

"When you are depressed, you go overboard on sex and food. They provide a temporary relief from the sorrow that is engulfing you," says Dr James Premkumar.

Two babies have been surrendered at the Jeyasekharan Hospital in the district. Last week a woman ran away, abandoning her baby, which was a 'blue baby' – child born with a heart condition.

The doctors managed to save the baby, which the social welfare department later handed over to the NGO Saranlayam.

These are the new orphans of tsunami, and the numbers will grow.

The cost of rehabilitation: $1.213 billion

In the beginning, both the tsunami orphanages in Kanyakumari -- one for young men and women and one for children -- were overflowing. There were two reasons for this.

One was that the relatives were in camps and thought the kids would be better of in the government homes. The other was that the social welfare department officials had told the kids they would get the government compensation only if they were in the orphanage.

Later on, C V Sankar, IAS officer on special duty, tsunami relief, had assured that "the orphans will get what the government promised irrespective of where they stay."

Now, the orphanages are empty.

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The one for youngsters has 11 boys and girls, out of which only two are tsunami orphans or 'semi-orphans'. The one for A musical afternoon at a Tamil Nadu orphanagechildren has five kids, of which two are tsunami orphans.

Jesurani, a cheerful girl who lost her mother to the sea, is in the adolescent home. She had lost her dad long ago. She is studying desktop publishing at a local computer institute, and is engaged to marry when she finishes her course in April next year.

Antony Mary is Jesurani's younger sister. She is in the 12th standard and thus in the orphanage for kids. It is her birthday the day after, and a family friend has taken her shopping.

When she comes back, she has clothes, shoes, cake and sweets. "If mother was alive I don't think she would have spent so much money on me," says Mary.

The tears in her eyes tell a different story altogether.

Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Complete coverage: The waves of destruction

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A Ganesh Nadar in Kanyakumari