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Nearly two decades after the 2004 tsunami devastated the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, trauma from the disaster remains.

A boat washed up a mile inland by the 2004 tsunami. The disaster killed more than 10,000 people in India and displaced more than 600,000. : Flickr: thaths CC BY-NC 2.0 A boat washed up a mile inland by the 2004 tsunami. The disaster killed more than 10,000 people in India and displaced more than 600,000. : Flickr: thaths CC BY-NC 2.0

Nearly two decades after the 2004 tsunami devastated the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, trauma from the disaster remains.

On 26 December 2004 an earthquake off the coast of northern Sumatra in Indonesia triggered a series of giant waves across the Indian Ocean.

The tsunami killed some 230,000 people, making it the deadliest in recorded history.

Having severely damaged the east coast of Sri Lanka, it reached the eastern shores of Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state. 

The government of Tamil Nadu claimed 13 districts were affected and four coastal districts suffered severe loss of life. 

In India alone, 10,749 people died, 5,640 people were missing and 647,599 were displaced.

But this was only the beginning of the tsunami’s impact on the state.

Thousands of families who lived on the coast lost their homes. 

They were moved to a variety of places such as schools, wedding halls, temporary sheds or any public place at least 200 metres away from the ocean.

In some cases their displacement was temporary and in other cases permanent.

Of the estimated 600,000 people who were displaced, nearly half were able to return home in about a month after staying in relief camps. 

The other half were moved to temporary shelters from the relief camps to await permanent homes. They were repeatedly hit by monsoon rains that came in 2005. 

The temporary shelters were often made of tar sheets not meant to last for more than six months. Some people ended up living in these shelters for over three years. 

A significant number of people in Tamil Nadu continued to live in temporary shelters that were becoming unliveable. 

KP Sasi’s documentary film aptly titled If It Rains Again portrays the wretched situation of the shelters of the most marginalised communities more than two years after the tsunami.

Amidst the displacement, Coastal Regulation Zones were being enforced. 

This meant that people could not build their houses within 500 metres of the coast. 

For a fishing community that had lived on the sea embracing its dangers this came as a threat more dangerous than the tsunami. 

As someone interviewed by researchers said: “The tsunami came and went in 2004. It not only took away our families and loved ones. It took away our culture.”

Their livelihoods could not be carried out living away from the sea, but houses built in violation of the regulations were not handed over to the community. 

Living half a kilometre away meant they could not leave their boats, motors, nets and other equipment unattended on the shore. 

The fishing communities also saw this as a ploy to evict them and handed over coastal lands to private developers to build tourist resorts and luxury bungalows.

So they organised themselves and started protesting against this move across the state. 

They realised that consenting would be a recipe for a disaster resulting in permanent displacement from their traditional homes and livelihood.

In some cases, the coastal communities went on huge protests against the Coastal Regulation Zones and staged dharnas or street protests.

This attracted support from fishing federations in the neighbouring state of Kerala.

Peter Thomas, the general secretary of the National Fisherworkers Forum, told researchers: “We are fishermen and we have braved the most difficult climates and weather conditions. Storms and cyclones are not new to us. We understand the sea like our family, we will never let our families be displaced and disposed of from the ocean.”

While such struggles were taking place, there were other people who were not able to organise themselves and were left at the mercy of the authorities and relief workers.

These were the communities who depended on the fishing communities. 

Those who repaired nets, those who sold fish and those whose lives were based on backwater fishing were severely affected as all their jobs were linked to the fishing industry. They started to look for alternative livelihoods with little success.

Farming communities, especially in Nagapattinam and Thanjavur districts, were also in for a rude shock. 

The waves gushed into the fertile paddy fields and ruined their land for farming for years.

Small and marginal farmers whose only source of income was agriculture had no source of income. Compensation paid by the government was far too little for a decent living. 

There were also a reasonable number of daily wage farm labourers who had to migrate as a result of losing their jobs. 

This resulted in an exodus of people in search of jobs to the cities like Chennai, Madurai, Thanjavur, Coimbatore and Tirupur.

Tales from the 2004 tsunami are replete with many stories of tragedy, princes turned to paupers and homeless within minutes.

The road to recovery from the tsunami has been long and hard. 

The tragedy of loss and displacement compounded the trauma for disadvantaged communities. 

 Ashok Xavier Gladston is an Associate Professor and head of the Social Work Department at Loyola College in Chennai, India. He is an expert in the field of conflict and peacebuilding, and has done substantive work providing training on trauma awareness and recovery, arts-based approaches to peacebuilding, sustainable development, strategic planning and management, and restorative justice.

Some of the author’s research referred to in this article was funded by Oxfam America. 

This article is part of a Special Report on ‘Shock mobility’, produced in collaboration with the Calcutta Research Group.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Editors Note: In the story “Shock mobility” sent at: 19/06/2023 10:25.

This is a corrected repeat.

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