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Business News/ Opinion / Online Views/  Tragedy after the disaster

Tragedy after the disaster

The nation must continue its handholding well beyond the disaster

A disaster of the magnitude of that in Uttarakhand will invariably suck in thousands of crores at a time when the country can ill afford such an expense. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint (Ramesh Pathania/Mint)Premium
A disaster of the magnitude of that in Uttarakhand will invariably suck in thousands of crores at a time when the country can ill afford such an expense. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
(Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

Three weeks after floods ravaged Uttarakhand, stories of this latest disaster are slowly but surely nudging out of the front pages and mindshare of masses. This is nothing new. The same happened after Kosi floods in 2008, the tsunami in 2004, Gujarat earthquake in 2001 and Latur earthquake in 1993—all of which killed thousands and displaced millions. Once the major relief work is over, tourists are rescued and bodies disposed of, reporters leave and most NGO relief workers follow suit. The local villagers are left to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives. And this is usually when the second disaster hits the survivors of the first.

Before the 2004 tsunami, Arugam Bay was an idyllic locale on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka consisting of fishermen’s villages visited by only the most adventurous young European and Australian surfers who came there for its great breakers. The hotels were beach shacks with hammocks and their numbers were manageably small mainly because of the threat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The route to Arugam Bay was peppered with military checkpoints, and most country advisories and guide books cautioned tourists to avoid this part of Sri Lanka.

All this changed in 2002 when LTTE signed a ceasefire and access to the east coast opened up. The tourism industry touted eastern Sri Lanka as the next Phuket and visitors’ traffic exploded. Removal of road blocks also drew an influx of fishermen from other parts and before long Arugam Bay simply wasn’t big enough for the local fishermen and the tourism industry.

The seeds of attrition between industrial-scale tourism and local traditional tradesmen had been sown in an ambitious World Bank approved plan named “Regaining Sri Lanka" that was flaunted as the formula for turning the beaches of that country into the next aqua-tourism haven. This would require the unpleasant side effect of having to relocate millions of villagers who were the long-established owners and occupants of potential sites where the star hotels were proposed. But the locals, who were being asked to make way for luxury hotels for national reconstruction, weren’t buying the plan that would turn their villages into multi-storied buildings and their children into tour guides and street hawkers. They opposed it forcefully and in the April 2004 elections, Sri Lanka voted against privatization and voted in the party which promised to scrap the “Regaining Sri Lanka" plan. Bruised by the defeat, advocates of the plan were in retreat when just eight months later, a disaster did for them what forceful lobbying could not.

On 26 December 2004, a terrible tsunami struck Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The eastern coast of Sri Lanka was especially devastated as it lay in the direct path of 100ft waves that destroyed everything in their wake. Arugam Bay was hit hard and several villages were swept away without a trace.

The tsunami, like most disasters do, brought out the best among the common people of the nation and the world. Help poured in, cutting across religion and caste lines. Millions across the world raised a record $13 billion for rehabilitating the victims. And during the initial months, much of the money reached them. NGOs established and ran emergency camps and food distribution centres. Medical aid and relief supplies reached the victims who had been herded away from their properties into shelter camps for “their own safety". But soon, inhabitants of the camps realized that their means of livelihood—fishing and small farming—were out of reach. Their coastal villages and lands were now engulfed by a reinstated form of the “Regaining Sri Lanka" plan. And the rightful owners of the land were reduced to living in refugee shanty towns as socio-economic prisoners. As award-winning journalist Naomi Klein explains in her book The Shock Doctrine—communities subjected to disasters are always extremely vulnerable because they are in a state of shock, unable to fend for themselves. With collapsed social structures, the survivors need several years to rebuild their community’s resilience during which time they are absolutely defenceless.

While there is a case to be made to prevent disasters such as those in Uttarakhand in the future, there is also a pressing need to bring in structured rigour into the aftermath of not just this, but every disaster. It is well-established that over 90% of the mindshare, resources and focus on any disaster stays only for the first few months immediately following the catastrophe. But the victims need to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives for many years after that. Relatives need to find survivors, breadwinners need to find new jobs, families need to find new breadwinners and orphans need to find new families. This journey is tragically gruelling, especially because survivors have to battle tortuous processes for assistance without even the facile support of the basic documents or resources beyond empathy of rehabilitation workers who by their very nature start diminishing as time passes.

A disaster of the magnitude of that in Uttarakhand will invariably suck in thousands of crores at a time when the country can ill afford such an expense. This is all the more reason that reconstruction efforts must be persistently monitored and highlighted by the media and other stakeholders. The nation must continue its handholding well beyond the disaster. Otherwise every disaster will be synonymous with tragedy in perpetuity for the survivors.

Raghu Raman is a commentator on internal security, member of the and author of Everyman’s war (

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Published: 09 Jul 2013, 07:36 PM IST
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