Doing it right, right now
The firm designed homes in consultation with the Nicobaris and most of the designs incorporated locally available material as well as using much of the debris that was left all over the island. Eco-friendly, indigenous, low-cost and with minor curing and a little change of techniques, the designs were ready for implementation. By the architects and by the communities. They were ready to get started within a week.
But then there was much deliberation and consultation and frowning and clearing of throats at the mainland. That would be where I’m typing from now. The mainland. So far away from the islands that we really can’t comprehend how different and far away the Andaman and Nicobar islands are. It seems that the A&NI are a part of India only by an accident of history.
So the powers that be at the mainland have finally realised that much of the relief money hasn’t reached the Nicobaris. That they have been living in ‘temporary shelters’ made of tin sheets and tarpaulin for two years now. The designs that had been approved by the government are proving uneconomical and unpopular amongst the island communities. Steels beams and cement flooring is alien to the community and we aren't making them feel resettled at all.
It's difficult for some people to understand that it isn't earthquakes that kill people, it's buildings. And the tribals know that. They experience earthquakes every other week. Ask them and they'll say, Haan, zameen hila tha kuch-kuch. (Yes, the earth moved little-little.)
As an aside, it’s funny how good intentions are not always enough for effective rehabilitation. I’ve written about culture-appropriate development and resettlement measures before. Here are some of the things that happened in Nicobar soon after the tsunami.
- We sent 500 fishing boats from the mainland to the islands, immediately making connections such as islanders = fishermen. The Nicobaris, however, do not fish for a living. One person from a tuhet (extended family comprising of 80-100 people) goes out, catches some fish and they all eat. Sometimes they don’t fish at all. The 500 fiberglass boats still lie anchored to the shore and children play hide and seek.
- Relief workers were out identifying orphans and grabbed the children whose parents were killed by the tsunami. The tuhet doesn’t consider anyone as an ‘orphan’ given that the entire community raises children as their own. The Nicobaris had to row their way to Andaman, covering distances as huge as 500 km between islands, in order to bring back the children.
- Donations in kind included thousands of saris, which the Nicobari women don’t wear. The men, who wear sarongs, couldn’t even use them because they wear thin cotton, not chiffons and synthetic blends. However, given the tiny bushy mosquitoes that could fit through the Indian standard mosquito nets, the saris were effectively stitched into custom-made Nicobari mosquito nets.
- The Nicobaris were sent over ten thousand sanitary napkins. Not knowing what to do with the tidal wave of winged and lined sanitary pads, the tribals stitched some saris closed and stuffed them with the pads, making pillows out of them!
Plans have been (re)circulated and there is much frowning and clearing of throats still. I only hope the proposal gets cleared and we can get started right away. The right way.