12/28/2009, 00.00
INDIA

Tamil Nadu: After five years, the tsunami is still taking its toll on victims

by Nirmala Carvalho
The tragedy of 2004 is still weighing heavily on widows, orphans and small fishermen. Father Santhanam, a priest and lawyer, describes the work that is being done in favour of the coastal people in Kanyakumari district. He also talks about broken promises and NGOs that are no longer present in the field. The area’s Catholic communities find hope in their faith.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – Five years after the tsunami, the housing reconstruction scheme is not yet completed, many NGOs that came for the emergency have left, and offshore fishermen are at risk of a “new tsunami” if new rules come into force, said Fr P. A. Santhanam, a Jesuit priest and lawyer, as he described the situation of the people of the coastal villages in Kanyakumari district in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, who were severely affected by the 2004 tsunami that hit South Asia.

When the tragedy struck, he and a team of lawyers provided legal aid to survivors. Five years later, some of the people he helped still carry deep wounds. Many are still not fully able to get back on their own two feet, he told AsiaNews; this is especially true for women and children.

For the Jesuit priest, many women and children are still suffering from the effects of the severe trauma and intense agony they experienced five years ago. Many of the women have been left without a husband and many of the children are without one or both parents. Despite assistance from the government and international organisations, they have not been able to go back to a normal life, and oftentimes are still waiting for what they had been promised.

Through his work, Father Santhanam has met residents in some 40 villages along the coast of Kanyakumari district. Most of them are Catholics who live off the sea, but there are some Hindus and Muslims as well. All of them experienced major losses. Not only did they lose friends, family and their homes, but also they lost the means by which they could earn a living in fishing.

At present, the Jesuit clergyman and the team of lawyers working with him are paying close attention to the problems faced by the fishing communities.

The Marine Fisheries bill is on top of their list of problems. If adopted by parliament, it could turn into another “tsunami” for small-scale fishermen.

Politically underrepresented and without much weight in civil society, these fishermen have not been able to make their voice heard. The proposed legislation does provide them with any guarantees and does not protect them against the consequences of the unresolved maritime border between India and Sri Lanka. Fishermen from Kanyakumari have in fact had their boats seized and crews have been arrested by Sri Lanka.

Housing is another problem because “the tsunami housing scheme is not completed yet, even after five years,” Father Santhanam explained.

In addition, if right after the tragedy “the area was crawling with NGOs. Now, none is left. They came and went with the tsunami, but [our] needs remain,” he added.

However, for the priest, the main challenge fishermen face is the fact that they have been left to cope with their problems all on their own. Yet, that has one positive aspect. “The tragedy and the problems it brought have made the fishing communities more united and enhanced their deep faith in God and his providence,” Father Santhanam said.

“Every day, they [the fishermen] take to the sea with courage. In a minute, they lost what they built in 25 years, and yet, they did not despair. Every day, they go out to fish and rebuild, one step at the time, what they lost.”

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