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FOCUS March 2005 Volume 39

India After the Tsunami - The Rights of Affected People

Gal Frenkel

- Gal Frenkel is a volunteer of The Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation Coordination - Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry (TRRC).

It has been more than two and a half months since tsunami devastated the coastal communities in the south-eastern state of Tamil Nadu, the worst affected state on the mainland. India was the third-worst affected country: nearly 10,000 people died in India alone, most of them women and children, and more than 140,000 people have been displaced from their homes and are currently residing in relief centers. The Indian government has estimated that 985,000 people have been affected, more than 126,000 houses and huts on the coastline damaged, and much property lost. Moreover, based on previous natural disasters it is expected that 50% to 90% of the affected population will experience symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The local, national, and international relief efforts have been overwhelming, with activities now shifting from relief to rehabilitation. However not all of the communities affected by the tsunami have had access to relief assistance nor have all communities benefited equally from the rehabilitation operations. Many, especially members of marginalized and vulnerable groups, have not received the same opportunities to restore their lives.

The Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation Coordination - Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry (TRRC) - was first conceptualized on 31 December 2004 and established on 3 January 2005. The purpose of TRRC is to organize state level consultations on state-civil society partnership, monitoring of human rights, and the status of tsunami-affected children. Its three main objectives are to coordinate the relief stage of the work, coordinate the immediate and long term rehabilitation efforts, and monitor the efforts of the government in this regard. Community participation is a key consideration as is the responsibility to communicate the views and the demands of the communities to the government. TRRC is currently in the process of conducting rapid assessment studies on a range of issues and has led five consultations. This report provides a summary of the issues raised and discussed in the consultations and studies conducted.

Rehabilitation and Restoration of Livelihoods

Concerns have been raised about the scope of relief and rehabilitation, in particular the recognition of all those affected by the tsunami. The rapid assistance to the fisherfolk and assistance in restoring their boats and nets has neglected many other people who have been affected by the tsunami and who depend on the sea, the crippled fishing industry, and the coastal agriculture for their livelihood. These include vendors and labourers, salt pan and lime workers, shrimp farmers, women involved in seaside limestone production, small coastal business, petty traders, Dalit and tribal inland fisherfolk, and farmers whose land has been made uncultivable by the influx of salt water. Restoring this diversity of livelihoods requires more than mending damaged nets and putting catamarans and trawlers back to sea. Moreover, no compensation has been received for loss of livestock.

Discrimination in Relief

A number of affected communities and individuals have not received the relief announced by the state government:

  • Relief has not been provided for the disabled and no special steps have been taken nor compensation given for the physically or mentally disabled.
  • Many widows from affected fish-worker communities have not been given any relief as they do not possess the identity card issued by the fisheries department. This extends to all other single women and women-headed families, leaving a number of the affected communities outside the relief net.
  • To a large extent Dalit people have been discriminated against by the relief workers in the camps, relief and rehabilitation work organized by the government, and other post-tsunami organizations.
  • Muslims, tribals, and scavengers brought for the removal of bodies were also admitted as communities vulnerable to prejudices operating through the official relief machinery.
  • Tenants who were living in rented houses have been completely excluded from any shelter relief.

The situation of the Dalits

According to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) a Dalit is not considered to be part of the human society, but something existing outside it. The Dalits perform the most menial and degrading jobs and are regarded as "untouchables", and for higher caste people Dalits are seen as polluting. This discrimination against Dalits in everyday life in India has intensified in the tsunami aftermath and is rampant within the relief camps.

The Right to the Coast

In 1991 the Central Government declared Coastal Stretches as the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, and restrictions were imposed on the setting up and expansion of industries and operations within 500-meters of the high tide line. Nevertheless, the CRZ Notification regarded the traditional fishing economy and its land-use patterns as an integral part of the coastal environment. In doing so, the traditional fishing industry and coastal settlements were recognized as bearers of certain customary rights to the lands they have long occupied. It is on this basis that the CRZ Notification provides for explicit exemptions from the 500-meter setback requirement. However, at the present time, fishing settlements are being relocated away from their original seashore location to more than 2 km inland largely due to a false government campaign warning of a future tsunami disaster. This relocation poses a major threat to these coastal communities' livelihoods, where access to the sea is essential. At the same time, tourism and industry infrastructure remains intact.

In this context, the state seems to be taking advantage of the now cleared coasts coupled with the current vulnerability of these coastal communities, whereas there has been no attempt to ascertain the views of the coastal community on the forced relocation. It is believed that tourism and real estate interests together with the presence of large multinational institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank - groups that have historically shown little regard for coastal preservation - are driving this relocation initiative. A State level meeting initiated by TRRC and involving community leaders and representatives confirmed the notion of the coastal communities' right to the coast and agreed to refuse forced relocation.

Community Involvement

Although the government has announced the need to respect the affected communities' right to choose the location, design and materials for the temporary shelters, blatant violations of these orders were identified in the temporary shelters constructed both by the government and NGOs. Moreover, no proper formal assessment of livelihood loss in the coastal economy has been done in consultation with the community. Numerous community representatives have emphasized the urgent need for far greater community involvement in the formulation of the rehabilitation agenda, distribution of funds and materials, and implementation of long-term relief programming. They should be a portal for truly broad-based and inclusive community participation and ownership over the direction of local relief activities, even while soliciting the input and advice of government officials, outside experts, donor agencies, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The Wellbeing of Children and Women

Many children have been orphaned, while others have lost family members and friends. Both schools and communities play considerable roles in the provision of care and support to these children. As an alternative to external adoption "community parenting" by widows, the extended family, or other community members is the preferable and more natural solution for the care of orphans, which would also reduce the risk of child trafficking. At the same time schools should play a new, more complex and comprehensive role in relief and rehabilitation, and provide continuous social and psychological support to their students. In administrative terms an effort should be made to reduce or wave school fees, donate books, replace educational certificates, and provide transportation to school-going children from affected areas. It is important to note that to date no proper and complete assessment in the area of preschool and unborn children has been completed.

Assuring the good health of children and women is uncertain. These vulnerable groups need special attention and counselling in the areas of health, specifically nutrition, disease prevention, and hygienic conditions. In addition, 15,000 pregnant women affected by the tsunami have been identified as an especially vulnerable group as no importance has been given to women's health and pregnant women have not been persuaded to care for themselves properly. Moreover, an increase in the prevalence of anemia has been identified (currently estimated to be 85% of the affected population). Combined with the stress of the aftermath of the tsunami, this could lead to an increase in infant and maternal mortality.

The Environment

The tsunami has reemphasized the need to protect the coastal environment and marine ecology, especially from the tourism industry, mining industry, and large industries that release their pollutant waste into the sea. Community leaders have demanded that all these industrial activities along the coast be banned.

Rapid assessment studies conducted by TRRC have shown that when coastal ecosystems were not disturbed by human intervention many lives were saved. Coastal vegetation such as mangroves provided a natural barrier and protected people. Many violations of the CRZ Notification were evident in the most affected areas. Implementing the CRZ Notification and curbing activities such as sand-mining, modification of the coastal landscape, and industrialization are imperative to prevent the destruction of natural reserves and protect those residing in the coastal areas.


It is saddening that even at a time of catastrophe and despite ongoing goodwill there are still communities that suffer from discrimination due to religion, caste, occupation, trade, or gender from other tsunami affected communities as well as government and NGOs. TRRC, together with other community activists and local NGOs, is actively seeking to ensure that all those currently experiencing discrimination in relief and rehabilitation will receive equal treatment and compensation, the latter based on more than simply loss of property. Moreover, social action must be taken to eradicate discrimination within the Indian society, with an emphasis on Dalits.

Another challenge is ensuring the affected communities' source of livelihood. The relocation of coastal communities inland and the distance from the sea will impair the ability of the fisherfolk to ensure their livelihood. While guaranteeing the safety of the coastal communities should be a government priority and responsibility, the government should not remove settlements under the pretext of protecting the people.

Communities must have a major stake and voice in rebuilding their homes, ensuring their livelihoods, and protecting the environment. The government should act as a facilitator and an agent of accountability, while ensuring local integration in a state-wide rehabilitation program which addresses needs - economic, social, and ecological - that reach across communities.

Assuring the physical and mental health of tsunami affected children, providing a sense of security, and enabling successful rehabilitation are additional, major challenges. While it is recommended that community social workers monitor the "community parenting" and provide support services to maintain the best interests of the children, these social workers will require compensation. In addition, it is imperative that the government provide a stipend for widows and orphans to make this process easier.

In schools the training of teachers in psycho-social counselling could be one method for the successful rehabilitation of children.

Health challenges include the provision of proper and sufficient food, close surveillance to prevent epidemics, the availability of adequate drinking water and hygienic sanitary facilities, and increased health education and counselling on nutrition and prenatal care.

Another significant challenge concerns the interaction between the environment and the population. While environmental assessments have demonstrated that the less developed regions and the communities residing in those regions were almost unharmed by the impact of the tsunami, marine biospheres and coastal ecosystems should be conserved to protect land and people.

For further information, please see our website at or contact: TRRC Secretariat, People's Watch Tamil Nadu, No. 6, Vallabai Road, Chokkikulam, Madurai Tamil Nadu 625 002 India; ph (91-452) 2539520; e-mail: