On our way back towards Cuddalore, we stop again at Pudupettai. We see a group of people from the Ananda Marg, a fundamentalist sect, distributing medicines. We go over to them and start chatting. They are doctors from West Bengal and have brought both allopathic and homeopathic medicines with them.
I ask what are the common ailments people are having at this time and how they are treating them.
"Sleeping," says one of them.
"Sorry," I ask. "Sleeping?"
"Yes," he says sadly. "They come and they tell us, 'We can't sleep, please give us something that will help us sleep.' We give them Avil 25, an anti-allergy tablet that produces sleep as a side-effect."
For days I have heard talk of vaccines, paracetamol and oral rehydration salts until they have become almost meaningless words to me. But now I am jolted into attention. These people are not able to sleep. For now, the pills can help. How long will it be before they can sleep on their own? And what will they dream of?
'This will also slip away'
"When the pressure on the system is so high that it cannot cope, it breaks down," says Dr Mahendra, who works for the Indian Red Cross. "And that is where the NGOs come in as a prop."
Dr Mahendra says this in the context of what we have told him about the chaos at Nagapattinam. Of course, a breakdown of the system does not mean that the components of it don't try to put things together. That is not exactly what is happening in many parts of the state, where government officials are busier looking after VIPs than with relief efforts. But not so here.
Dr Mahendra is the first aid worker, we have come across so far, who has good things to say about the government and it is all because of the man in charge, the sub-collector Rajendra Ratnoo.
"Ratnoo is doing a wonderful job," says Dr Mahendra. "He is focussed, clear about what he needs to do, and is coordinating the NGOs very well, providing everything we ask for."
So is Dr Mahendra optimistic about long-term rehabilitation, if the government, at least in this district, seems serious about it?
He shakes his head.
"I have been to Orissa (where there was a cyclone in 1999), I have been to Bhuj (earthquake in 2001), and from those experiences I can tell you, long-term rehabilitation is a problem. See, now the tsunami has just happened, the press is everywhere, the government everywhere, volunteers everywhere. But as time passes -- after the immediate emergency needs of the survivors are taken care of -- most of them will go away.
"This will also slip away from public memory."
The three levels of public aid
Dr Mahendra, after I finish speaking to him about the government, tells me about the private aid workers.
"If you come here without a plan and a vision for what you want to achieve, there is no point in coming at all. Volunteers who just land up wanting to help, but not coordinating their efforts, may end up doing more harm than good. They could actually make the situation worse." I think of Srinivasu and nod.
"Thankfully," he continues, "there are some NGOs that are doing wonderful work. They have come here with a purpose, and it shows in the way they go about their work."
The organisation he refers to in particular is the Democratic Youth Federation of India. DYFI is a grassroots level organisation, and it has hordes of volunteers who have scattered themselves all across the state. Dr Narasimhan, the doctor who was doing such a brave job at Nagapattinam, is one of them. DYFI suffers from the drawback of not having a high profile and, consequently, having rather low funds. But AID takes care of that.
AID India, an organisation I can't praise highly enough for their unflagging relief work in the state, have taken a pragmatic approach, tying up with anyone who shares their vision and work ethic. They have adopted two villages in this area, Pudupettai and Pudukubbam, in association with DYFI and another group called the Students Federation of India.
One of their coordinators, Muthu Kumar, showed me a document all the team leaders have been given, the text of an e-mail from their leader in Tamil Nadu, Balaji Sampath. The document lists three levels of relief work. I don't have a copy of that document, but let me briefly paraphrase what those three levels are:
Level one: providing immediate emergency necessities like food, drinking water, medicine, shelter etc.
Level two: Building them huts and houses to live in and looking after their health needs.
Level three: Giving the affected people back their livelihood, which could involve buying boats for the fishermen who have lost everything, forming cooperatives so they can compete better in the marketplace etc.
AID's work at the two villages has now reached level two, although much of the affected areas are still struggling through level one and they intend to keep at it until level three is completed. "How long are you guys planning to stay here," I ask.
"We have planned for six months," says Muthu Kumar. "But we will stay for as long as it takes."
Note: In case you plan to donate, note that level three is the critical phase of relief work, without which these people cannot be said to have been truly rehabilitated, and very few organisations have that kind of long-term vision. AID India is the organisation to support, and if you are anywhere in India and wish to volunteer, get in touch with them. Their website is here
Empathy from within
At Panjakubbam I meet a gentleman named Kumaraguru, a volunteer for SFI. He is living with the villagers, and here is what he says about it:
"The government comes here and gives money, food, but those are handouts, and a lot of people resent that. They do not speak out about what they really want, they feel embarrassed to speak about their loss. But if you come and live with them, become a part of their lives, then they begin to trust you. They tell you what they need, what they are going through, and only then can you really help them. You have to be one of them."
I can vouch for the truth of what he is saying. The government comes and goes, aid workers come and go, a large number of volunteers come for an extended weekend, give out aid, and are gone. But some stay back, like Kumaraguru, and not only 'adopt a village,' in the terminology of some NGOs, but are adopted by it. That human touch makes so much difference.
December 26 could have been the happiest day of Rafiq's life if the tsunami hadn't struck -- he was supposed to get married on that day.
His nikaah was fixed for noon, but the waves came in while it was still morning, and the marriage was cancelled. Rafiq was in the village of Parangipettai, close to a number of affected villages.
Instantly, all the men of the community mobilised themselves under the Jamaat, their local organisation, and swung into action.
They took all the vegetable biryani that had been prepared for the wedding feast, and went and fed it to the affected people. From that day until the day we met them, a week after the tsunami, they fed breakfast and lunch to the affected people, making either lemon rice or vegetable biryani.They mobilised their funds superbly, and were well networked through mobile phones. If any village ran short of food, one phone call was all it would take to bring a volunteer rushing over with more food.
Interestingly, even after the government set up its own operation, a few days late, the local people still requested the Jamaat to keep feeding them and the Jamaat agreed. A deep bond had formed between the villagers, who were all Hindus, and these Muslim men who rushed to help their neighbours because they believed that to be the way of their religion. Anybody who does not believe that Islam can be moderate is invited to go to Tamil Nadu and check out the work they are doing.
For all the scepticism I have about organised religion, in times of a crisis like this, groups based around religion can provide sterling service. The church at Velankanni was an example of this, the Jamaat of Parangipettai is another, and the RSS did excellent work during the Bhuj earthquake and the Orissa cyclone. Faith, that can be so divisive in times of peace, can also bring communities together in times of strife.
Amit Varma is travelling around the disaster-affected areas in Tamil Nadu, and is writing on his experiences in his blog, India Uncut. These despatches have been adapted from there.