Nagapattinam District Collector J Radhakrishnan is a very busy man.
As the highest ranking government official posted in the worst affected tsunami-hit district in Tamil Nadu, he has been in charge of relief, rehabilitation and instilling a feeling of security in the people of Nagapattinam, which suffered a death toll of 6,064 people -- the highest in India.
The collector recently visited Sri Lanka to share his experience of dealing with the aftermath with the Sri Lankan government. In his second interview to A Ganesh Nadar, conducted at 10 pm at his office, the widely praised officer spoke about the overall position of the relief work done so far.
What's the overall position on tsunami relief work?
We have a very long coastline -- 187 kilometres -- and there was destruction for a kilometre from the seashore. So the devastation was over an area of 187 square kms. In the first stage it was removal and disposal of bodies. Then it was feeding the people.
In the second stage we constructed temporary shelters. Then we cleared the harbour. That work is still going on. We have also built a temporary bridge with the debris to connect Akkaraipettai with the town. We have opened two homes for children orphaned by the tsunami. One for kids and one for adolescent girls.
Power supply has been restored and the road is being laid. Building the infrastructure is our priority. We are also concentrating on agriculture. A lot of land has been spoilt because of salt water. And the labourers have lost their jobs. We must not only help them get back their livelihood but also upgrade their livelihood.
How much of your time are you devoting to tsunami work?
A lot of our time is still devoted to tsunami work. We are still doing our regular work. And building infrastructure in the tsunami areas adds to the overall development of the district. I spend whatever time is required for both the tsunami and regular work. We make sure that nobody suffers.
Fishermen are complaining that though their boats have been damaged, they now have to wait for (government) verification (for the compensation).
We have to make sure that the relief reaches the right person. They are the first to complain that it is being given to the wrong person. We have to make doubly sure so that there is no scope for corruption.
Government guidelines are such that we have to verify. We have already given 32,000 rupees for the cattumaran (small boat). Now we are going to give money to the fibre boat owners. Once the fibre boats start going into the sea for fishing it will be visible in the market. The cattumarans have started fishing but they are not visible as the quantity they bring in is very less. We will deal with the large mechanised boats last.
Fishermen are upset that the bank account for compensation will be a joint account with fisheries department officials.
We have informed the government about their concerns on this ground.
They want to know what they should do about the guarantees the bank will demand.
We are aware of this too. We have informed the government. We are discussing various proposals and we will come out with a scheme that satisfies the needs of the fishermen as well the rules of the banks. I also know that they are complaining about the high insurance rates.
They are complaining that temporary shelters get so hot that it is aiding the spread of diseases such as jaundice, chicken pox and cholera.
We are aware of the situation. We are monitoring the health of the families housed in the temporary shelters on a daily basis. The health department is aware of the diseases that you have mentioned. A close watch is being kept. Nothing untoward has happened till now and we will not allow anything to happen.
What is the status on the construction of permanent houses for those who lost their homes?
We are still identifying the land for the houses. The CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) prohibits any permanent construction within 500 metres of the high tide line. So the land we are looking at is outside this distance. We are waiting for the government guidelines for this.
How many NGOs have offered to build houses and how many?
We have concrete offers from many NGOs. They have offered to build 17,000 houses. Overall we need 25,000 houses. We are still receiving proposals.
Once you build permanent houses away from the coast. What happens to the fishermen's houses, land on the seashore. Will they belong to the fishermen or will the government take over their land?
We will come to that after the permanent houses are built. It is still the preliminary stage. We are discussing that too. The government will issue an order for that too.
Has the Rs 5 lakh compensation for orphans and Rs 3 lakh for adolescents been put in the bank?
That will be put as a fixed deposit in the bank. That process is on too.
There was initial opposition to the adolescent home being situated away from the fishermen area. What have you done about that?
Nagapattinam has a peculiar problem. Within our area we have another state, Karaikal which belongs to Pondicherry. So the area north of Karaikal always feels neglected. They feel that nothing important is there. That is the reason we opened the adolescent home there. The orphanage for the small children is here in Nagapattinam itself.
These girls are supposed to get the Rs 3 lakhs when they get married or want to study, or start a business. Have any of the girls asked to be married or start a business?
For how much longer is the government going to provide free rations to the fishermen?
The initial announcement was for three months. We will review the situation after that.
All the boats have still not been cleared. Then there is the Uppar river that is flowing into the sea here. That too has to be dredged for at least a kilometre. When will all this be done?
They seashore will be cleared shortly. Then we will tackle the river. That should not take too long. It is the boat repair that will take the longest.
You were invited to Sri Lanka to share your expertise in tsunami relief and rehabilitation. Tell us about your experience there?
They had asked the central government and the Tamil Nadu government told us to go. They called us because the destruction to Nagapattinam was as bad as the destruction in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka protected the southern districts of Tuticorin and Ramnad. Nagapattinam is beyond the northern tip of Sri Lanka so it bore the direct fury of the waves.
The first day they briefed us and then they took us to the worst affected areas. We travelled over a thousand kilometres in a helicopter. We went to all the areas. The Tamil area, the Muslim area and the Sinhala area.
We had 11 teams operating in the disaster areas (in Nagapattinam). Each team was self sufficient. They had people from the power department, the health department, the PWD, the body removing teams, the debris disposal team, the relief distribution team were all there.
Sri Lanka did not have any such teams.
They had a central command which had all these people. We told them that local teams were more effective as they could make decisions according to the ground reality there and no team had any fund constraints.
We also told them how we had used the debris to build a bridge so there was no debris disposing problem. We also advised them to use hollow blocks for construction as it was faster and cheaper. It was an enlightening trip for us too.
Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/India Abroad. Image: Dominic Xavier