Saturday, January 29, 2005

Volunteer Work with AID India

Report now available at the AID website

My objective in writing this is to give a first-hand perspective on how humanity has come together to the aid of Tsunami victims and to write about my experiences as a volunteer for the Tsunami Relief & Rehabilitation efforts.

AID Chennai
As I reached the AID Chennai office at Gopalapuram on the 9th of January, it had already been two weeks since the Tsunami had caused havoc. Core volunteers, full-timers and numerous short-term volunteers barely had time to catch up on sleep during this period.

After meandering through the boxes of medicines and other supplies, I made my way to the Office on the second floor. Many neighbouring houses were supportive and let AID use some space for storage - I could see loads of drinking water, bleaching powder, chlorine and rice in all houses surrounding the AID Office. The amount of material coming in, made it very difficult to handle and by Jan 8, AID found a sponsor for a 6500 sqft godown in the city's outskirts at Tondiarpet.

There was a continuous flow of volunteers from local colleges, organizations and colleges from Delhi, Bombay, Pune and such places, NSS volunteers from across the state of Tamil Nadu and from many countries abroad. I took ownership for the warehouse, we first organized the area by arranging materials by category and did a complete physical inventory count. A total of 115 items were categorized into provisions, ameneties, clothing, utensils & kitchen aids, stationery and perishables.

Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation - Operational Structure
AID had established cluster points in 7 centers namely Killai & Panchankuppam(Cuddallore Dist.), Nagapattinam, Reddiarpettai, Thirukadaiyur & Vedaranyam (Nagapattinam Dist.) and in Koovathur (Kancheepuram/Chennai Dist.). Volunteer groups in each such hub would conduct surveys, identify requirements, communicate requirements to Chennai, distribute material and work on temporary shelter and livelihood initiatives in 10-15 villages surrounding the cluster point.

Requirements came in every day, from a few of these field areas. We would arrange a truck, with a 4-5 ton capacity based on the requirements, take a group of volunteers to load/unload material. With every truck that leaves Chennai to these places, a group of volunteers would also leave, to assist the existing group of volunteers in the field, in field work. Timing the many shipments and receipts was a nice little challenge in itself.

Staying connected is very critical to managing logistics right. Motorola had donated a set of mobile phones with prepaid cards to AID India in the first week. That kept me connected day in and day out.

Typically, we would send outstation trucks earlier in the day and focus on Chennai suburb targets like Kasi Medu, Foreshore Estate, Koovathur and Kancheepuram Districts later in the day. By 7PM we would take bus 1 to the Gopalapuram Office. Once we reach there, the Sourcing Team with questions on what needed to be sourced to meet new requirements from the field. I would consolidate inventory based on receipts and shipments on that day and identify what newer field needs would have to be sourced. We would then call our donors/sponsors and give them these requirements. Based on the extent of their budget, we would proceed with further sponsors.

Logistics and Materials Management
The turn-around time was an impressive 2 days for most material in the first week, but starting Jan 16, as we were moving more into the short-term rehabilitation phase, requirements were more specific and the turn-around times started to go beyond 2 days. Some of the field requirements that were a real challenge to procure in bulk quantities due to the availability or nature of those materials were aruvamanai (a sharp-edged cutter, used in villages to cut fish, coconut and pretty much everything), sieves, womens undergarments(sizes), and heavy quantities of provisions (10kg bags of rice/lentils,etc. per family for 1000 such families in a group of villages!). Most stores did not have the manpower during the 3 days of Pongal to have material packaged in such huge volumes, so we had to get multiple sources and so on. Thirumalai Chemicals needs to be immensely praised for their remarkable assistance with sourcing, and Saravana Stores for getting the manpower together to meet huge demands.

In all I spent about 9 days helping in this routine. Subsequently, helped out with a few other projects.

Field Work at Koovathur – Kancheepuram District
Call it superstition or just plain fear; numerous rumours were around the fishing villages. The Bhuj quake was on Jan 26, 2001 and this Tsunami was on Dec 26. People strongly believed that Jan 26, 2005 would have another one!! In an attempt to quell such rumours, Balaji and Co. wrote a booklet on Tsunami and its causes, and I translated it into Tamil for distribution to the affected villages.

I heard the rumours first hand when I first visited Thazhithalikuppam, about 100kms south of Madras, off the East Coast Road, near one of our cluster points called Koovathur. Although a few cement houses on the coast were inhabitable, the inmates refused to move back in. They preferred the temporary huts instead and their reasoning was 'The last time it was during the day, we could run for cover. What if it comes at night, how could we risk it?'

After touring the village, we drew up a plan for constructing temporary shelters for roughly 83 families that had lost their homes. While holding a meeting with the villagers in the presence of their Leader at the temple, some people expressed a desire to get boats and nets instead of shelters so that they could get their livelihoods going. Turns out that was the priority for a few who had lost boats and nets, but, had their homes intact!! It is these types of social dynamics that groups need to be aware of and watch out for, when working in these villages.

We drew up a plan for the homes and move towards assessing damages to the boats. With some local boat-building expertise, we identified 6 boats that could be repaired at a cost of Rs5000-10000 per boat. Typically these motorized shipping boats made of fiberglass cost around Rs.1.5 lacs ($3000), can take 4 fisherman and typically they carry 20kg of nets each. As the Govt. has in its plan (currently at Rs.2200 crores) to provide permanent housing, boats and nets for people, our focus was to try and assist with expediting the move to establishing livelihoods for atleast a few families. We discussed the nuances of fishing nets with the villagers and identified that 15kg of nets of a particular type (net thickness and number of knots -mm & md it is called) and 5kgs of another were needed per person to get the cheapest selling fish. Special nets for the richer varieties of fish cost up to Rs80,000 per net!, but the returns were excellent too, on a good day they could apparently break even.

So, from the AID cluster point in Koovathur, activity got underway concurrently in many villages namely Kanathurkuppam, Pazhaiyanadukuppam, Pudhiyanadukuppam, Perundhuravukuppam, Paramakenikuppam, Thazhathalikuppam, Panaiyurchinnakuppam & Pudukuppam on a variety of areas like health camps & health programs, assessment of boats and livelihood services, establishment of temporary shelters, providing provisions for a two-month period, etc. One must note that these villages had a very small number of lives lost cumulatively and the extent of damages were nowhere as harsh as in Nagai & Cuddalore, consequently, neither the Government nor any NGO had worked here prior to AID's presence in these places. That should explain AID's ownership of all rehabilitation efforts in these villages.

I was a part of the crew that organized health camps in these villages under Dr.Sukanya's leadership. The response was great from the people, medicines mostly prescribed by our Physicians were Ranitidine, Amoxicillin, Ibuprufen, Brufen and MultiVitamin/Iron Supplements. Voluntary physicians from India and abroad are continuing to do an amazing job in this area, the results of these efforts and the focus on sanitation and hygiene since Dec 26 are clearly evident - a disaster of this nature and India has come out unscathed without an epidemic. All credit to all the groups - the Government and Voluntary organizations.

In Summary..
In summary, the whole world has really come together very well in supporting this initiative. Tamil Nadu in my view is gradually but steadily returning back to normalcy, the affected have taken a mature view; the helpers and the Government are doing a great job. Many friends' I know have said 'At the end of all this, most people are going to feel good' about this. Well, if not that, civilizations should realize that natural disasters such as this are uncontrollable factors as far as humans are concerned, and it is great that the world is coming together to face the effects of it. However, there are many man-made riots/wars/violent disagreements that continue to happen in all parts of the world, which pretty much amount to the same level of destruction that the Tsunami caused! What the Tsunami brought about in a few hours, these man-made acts of destruction bring about over the period of a few months, so in the context of the effect, it is time to put the effects in perspective and make the world a proverbial better place to live in.

- Sridhar Nagarajan, AID Volunteer, San Jose.For pictures with descriptions, visit the AID GALLERY