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Guinness record in tsunami village

By Dilip D'Souza
October 10, 2005 18:10 IST
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Early September, and I'm in the office of a government official in Nagapattinam, lovely old colonial building. A dozen or more people have gathered to discuss an event that's still nearly a month away, but that will need substantial planning.

These days, for better or worse, any mention of Nagapattinam should put the word "tsunami" in peoples' minds; and sure enough, this event is in some ways a response to the tsunami. Yet it also attempts to replicate and improve a previous achievement that visibly managed to protect a village here from the full power of the monster wave.

More about what this is all about, in a bit. Lots of logistical details to be worked out at this meeting, and here's a flavour of how that went.

All it takes to help in India

The area where the event will happen is a rectangular stretch of about 15 hectares, along the coast. This will be divided into 20 blocks, each marked out in advance with ropes. The whole 15 hectares will also be marked off with ropes. (Someone assigned to get the ropes).

In addition, each block will need one more length of rope, as long as the block is wide, with knots tied at the calculated regular intervals. (Who will tie the knots?) To go with the knots, each block's volunteers will carry pocketfuls of chalk. Coloured chalk? Discussed and discarded in favour of white. The soil is brown, white chalk will do.

Volunteers. Well, first the workers. Each block will have 15 workers, thus the required total of 300 for the whole area. Each block will also have seven volunteers, to do the chalk duty and more. Five or six liason leaders will act as conduits of information between the control room and each block.

Yes, the control room. Some back of the envelope calculation decides that it needs to be about 200 square feet, and will be situated at one end of the 15 hectare rectangle. There will also need to be six larger structures, 500 square foot sheds for the workers and volunteers to rest and catch some sleep. All these will have to be erected the day before. (Someone identified to locate a contractor to do this).

The control room will need to be supplied with electricity, to run a computer, printer, and a few light fixtures at a minimum. Each block will need light so the workers can work into the night. Four halogen spots on poles per block should do. Every three blocks, for a total of seven, there will have to be a loudspeaker on a pole, for announcements. (Someone says he can find a good electrical contractor).

Food and water are major issues. After much back and forth, the best solution for food seems to be a community kitchen in a nearby school, run by a Nagapattinam caterer. (Two names identified). There will have to be some volunteers to pack the food, and in two sizes because the workers will likely need more to eat than the volunteers. Tubs with handles are required, minimum one to a block, to ferry food packets to the workers.

The tsunami tragedy

Long discussion ensues on the menu. We settle on idli/sambhar and various kinds of rice dishes (lemon rice, sambhar rice, curd rice, pongal). Other visitors will visit the community kitchen for their meals. Water will be provided in 500-litre plastic tanks, kept filled by regular tanker visits. (Someone agrees to arrange the tanks and the tankers). Everyone emphasises and reiterates -- no paper or plastic bottles/cups. Water will be served in steel cups. There will be a designated place for washing all utensils.

Temporary toilet facilities will be set up. (One more person assigned). Forty walkie-talkies, for the supervisors, liaison leaders, observers and the control room to be in touch. A doctor and nurses will be on standby, with an ambulance. (Someone volunteers to arrange this).

Transport? The workers will reach the site on their own, since they live generally close by. For volunteers and other officials, a couple of vehicles should be enough. More important is transporting what the workers will be working with. For that, at least 15 tractors will need to do 20 round trips each, over the two immediately previous days.

And then there's the London requirement: videotaping. Can the same guy who did it last time do it now? (Someone says he will check and arrange it). On that note, the meeting broke up.

And on October 1st and 2nd, all the planning paid off. The event went like a dream.

There on the 15-hectare stretch of Tamil Nadu coast in the village of Naluvedapathy, 300 local villagers planted 254,464 casuarina trees in 24 hours. A new Guinness Book record. They utterly smashed the previous record, some 80,000 casuarinas in a stretch of land immediately north of this one.

Those 80,000, of course, constituted the "Guinness Garden" famous in this area, the old Guinness record dating to 2002, the stand of trees that slowed the tsunami and kept Naluvedapathy largely undamaged. That showed the villagers the value of these trees, and motivated them to plant more, and only incidentally, or maybe not, set a new record.

Caste cloud over tsunami relief

And it is a source of more than a little satisfaction to me that that 2002 effort was the idea of a fellow alumnus of BITS Pilani: the then district collector there, Sudeep Jain. More satisfaction that this 2005 effort came about as one part of the work of
BITSunami, the programme run by some Chennai-based BITS alumni who wanted to do something after the tsunami.

They have some carefully-thought-out long term plans for Naluvedapathy and the neighbouring village, Pushpavanam. I've seen some of those plans translated into action, involving the villagers every step of the way. And for me, the greatest source of satisfaction is, oddly enough, that the Guinness charge -- seductive though it is -- is indeed only a part of those plans.

The value of helping yourself. The value of paying attention to the environment. The worth of teamwork. And -- why not -- a certain pride in an institution that taught so many so much.

A quarter of a million trees: testament to all that.

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Dilip D'Souza