From Vulnerability to Empowered Role Models

Keelamoovarkarai, Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu

Context

In 2004, when the Indian Ocean Tsunami battered the east coast of India, the rampaging waves swallowed 6000 lives across the country. The coastal district of Nagappattinam in Tamil Nadu was the most affected on the Indian mainland, 76% of the total lives lost to the tsunami were from this district. Since then, other cyclones like Nisha (2008), Nilam (2010) and Thane (2011) have continued to wreak havoc in Nagappattinam. Apart from displacing people from their homes, each cyclone and the resultant floods also destroyed crops like paddy, groundnut and maize; and amaged catamarans (fishing boats), small enterprises and precious livestock. Every disaster in the region has meant a loss of at least one month’s income for the community. For the predominantly fisher folk of the region, earning a livelihood had become a highly cost-intensive business due to the severe depletion of fish stocks. While earlier, traditional catamarans could reel in a good catch, now the fishermen had little option but to rely on diesel powered motor boats and expensive nets to go deeper into the sea to find fish.

Life for the villagers of Keelamoovarkarai got tougher with each calamity. Drinking water became scarce as the ground water got contaminated and salt-saturated to the point of rendering it unfit for both consumption and irrigation. The community had little choice but to depend on water tankers or the river Kollidam for their water needs.

The Community Disaster Resilience Journey

For over a decade, 32 SHGs functioned successfully in Keelamoovarkarai, largely focusing on savings and credit functions. After the 2004 Tsunami, the community started to actively brainstorm about building disaster preparedness and resilience in order to minimize the losses suffered in every calamity.

Initially, it was a challenge to gain the confidence and trust of the community and Panchayats. The women of the fishing community faced stiff opposition from men, especially of the traditional village Panchayat, which is even more powerful than the elected Gram Panchayat. Until a few years back, many of the women members had not even stepped out of their houses. However, they soon realized the need for collective action and, as SHG members, they organized and attended meetings. They also began gaining the confidence to visit banks within and outside their villages.

The hazard and vulnerability mapping carried out in the village with the support of SSP included federation and SHG members, youth groups, the president of the Panchayat, and ward members. They collectively identified local issues like infrastructure, inadequate sanitation facilities, poor road conditions, unsafe drinking water, lack of drainage and water channels, insufficient awareness of disaster mitigation and the need for setting up an early warning system.

“After our mapping and focus group discussions we approached the village Panchayat President. They initially they did not care about our activities. Through our continued effort, the village Panchayat has now come forward to solve some of the local issues with via the MNREGA scheme.” – A woman member.

After the mapping, the group presented a petition to the village president and the Block

Development Officer (BDO) to carry out these activities. Simultaneously, the community ensured that these issues were raised in Gram Sabha meetings until all necessary clearances were secured.

“In the beginning whenever we talked about disaster management, no one really bothered but with SSP and the Women Federation’s guidance, we continued to mobilize the community, and conducted house visits to encourage participation from women.” – A group leader

One of the first initiatives to be carried out by the Panchayat was the clearing of the Karuvelam shrubs that surrounded the village. These shrubs had led to several villagers getting entangled and drowning in the floods caused by the tsunami. The district administration also pitched in and completed road repairs, constructed drainage channels and cemented a one-kilometer-long village road under the tsunami fund. This was a vital development as it ensured easy and quick evacuation in the event of a disaster.

Building Partnerships: From the very outset, the women’s group’s focused on building community ownership driven towards change. They ensured that key stakeholders like the local gram Panchayat and the Block-level Development Officer were equally involved in the infrastructure projects. Similarly, for other risks and vulnerabilities mapped, they began liaising with other institutions like the Fisheries Department and Thiruvangadu Primary Health Centre. The District Rural Development Office (DRDA) in Nagapattinam also contributed via capacity and skill building training programs for the community. The MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS), TVS and many other voluntary organizations also offered support to the women through various livelihoods and skill development trainings.

Groups of women were also trained in organic farming, mushroom cultivation, handicraft making, developing kitchen gardens and vermi-compost making. A learning exchange at the beginning of the project to Alli Vilaham (an organic village developed by CIKS, Chennai) instilled confidence in the women to participate in new experiments in the field.

“Initially banks never recognized us. But when we became part of Women federation, financial institutions started supporting us on various livelihoods and skill development programs.” – Amutha, Woman Member

Formation of a task force team: With support from SSP, a 30-member disaster task force team was created to provide early warning and initiate the rescue of vulnerable people in the event of a disaster. Teams were created and divided into subgroups, including Early Warning, Rescue, First Aid, Monitoring, and Assessment. Each team had three members and an ideal gender balance. This task force was equipped to understand community needs, negotiate with the government, prepare the community to reduce risk, and train local people in search, rescue, warning, and rehabilitation.

This force is now providing training to other village communities to equip themselves in a similar fashion. So far, they have formulated task forces in eight neighbouring villages. On completion of training, the team even performed mock drills near the sea shore and all the team members proudly demonstrated their newly acquired skills to the public. The team also opened a bank account and initiated an emergency fund, with a contribution of INR 50 made by each member every month, which could be accessed in time of a medical emergency or other contingencies in the family.

Impact of Community Disaster Resilience Activities

Traditionally people in this region held more fatalistic attitudes, resigned to nature’s fury. The Women’s Federation and the initiatives that they introduced in partnership with SSP introduced a change in mindsets. From silent, uncomplaining endurance, they transformed themselves through collective action into changemakers. They demonstrated that they could not only map risks and prepare the community to face disasters, but also become resilient to recoup post- disasters with minimum damage. The negligible damage left in the wake of cyclone Thane of December 2012 was due to the alert community response to the possible calamity.

Emergency response & rescue efforts during the Thane cyclone: A group of active women leaders alerted many villages by using messaging and mobile telephones based on messages received from the local Panchayat and the cyclone updates on television channels. They acted quickly to inform families inhabiting low-lying areas and organized the evacuation of 50 aged and physically challenged people and 300 others to safe-havens and shelters like government schools and cyclone centers. Basic needs of evacuees like food rations, milk, and water were also provided for until it was declared safe for people to return home. The team also worked with the local government and community to clear the area of electricity poles and trees, restore drinking water, improve roads etc.

Eight women leaders who led the disaster relief and rescue operations also visited the affected villages in Cuddalore and conducted a need assessment with communities, which they submitted to local authorities to replicate the model.

Over the last three years, another significant change has been the improvement in the overall health of the community, mainly due to increased awareness regarding relevant government healthcare schemes. The Women Federations also promoted the cultivation of kitchen gardens to encourage local food security and to curb anemia among women, bringing down healthcare-related expenditures.

Forty women from the groups that underwent training developed their own kitchen gardens. These women, who had earlier never stepped outside their village, now participated in peer learning and exchange programs in neighbouring villages of Nagappattaniam and later in Maharashtra in Maharashtra. As many as eight such exposure visits were organized, which incrementally raised the confidence of the women in their own abilities to cope with, manage and bounce back from disasters.

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