Himalayan Tsunami part 4: A matter of rehabilitation

This is the fourth of the five part series on the hill state of Uttarakhand that suffered massive flash floods on June 16, 2013. The tragedy left scores of dead. The body count varies from 780 to 10,000. Officially thousands are missing till now and presumed dead. There is no count of the death of cattle and mules, the source of livelihood for many in the region. These posts will deal with the issue of tragedy, disaster management and the age old debate of development and conservation in the Himalayas. The title has been borrowed by the then chief minister of Uttarakhand Vijay Bahuguna’s statement.
Relief is a short duration high intensity activity that needs moving mountains yesterday to meet today’s requirements. During any disaster, timely, well directed relief can prevent large scale death and destitution. It’s not for nothing that the administrative machinery in every government attaches a lot of importance to it and media makes a lot of noise about it.
Rehabilitation on the other hand is a slow, deliberate and highly nuanced activity. It calls for deep understanding of the land and its people, their aspirations and abilities and above all enormous reserves of patience and not to mention extra ordinary levels of micro and macro management capabilities.
In the aftermath of Uttarakhand flash flood tragedy, with the main source of earnings in last one decade, tourism, in tatters the locals were at a loss of options. They wanted to supplement their incomes from other sources as they knew tourism would take another five years to revert to its earlier glory.
The alternatives were known but the people were hesitant to exercise them and the administration too was uncertain. Both were unnerved by the magnitude of destruction. To bridge the gap some corporate entities came in with a plan to adopt a village here or a community there and provide them with monetary or material help.
However, over the period of one year many initiatives by NGOs, corporate, civil society and the administration have offered a variety of dos and don’ts for rehabilitation process in future disasters.
Two major learning that have emerged are, don’t work for the sake of working or for publicity. Second, work from the ground up.
Disaster for many is an opportunity for quick publicity with minimum efforts. Grand announcements, a bit of relief material, a heartfelt appeal, just a mention about the suffering of people in a sound bite are all great news items for 24×7 media. However, very little actions by these celebrity or publicity hungry people is scrutinised for the real impact it has brought to the lives of the affected people.
Take the case of a well publicised attempt by a group to provide toilets to the locals in the hill region. These toilet built along the roadside haven’t taken the fact into account that no rural women will enter them as they open up to the roadside. The toilets have low quality ill-fitted plastic sheets for walls fitted with zips to close them. A normal gust of wind can expose the person sitting inside. Women feel uncomfortable to relieve them in public spaces even if they are covered. It is a cultural issue. A little thoughtfulness on the part of the builder would have sensitized him about the need for women toilets to be built a bit away from the main road.
Another thing with the public toilet is, it is never kept clean as no one owns it. The solution to this was thought of by an NGO Goonj that helps individual houses in building their own toilets close to their home. Due to ownership of the new facility, it is looked after by the users.
The process of rebuilding and rehabilitation has been approached in two different ways. While many have followed the top down approach, Goonj has used the bottom up approach with a difference. The organisation did a need assessment of the village from the point of view of the villagers, prioritized their needs and then thought of low cost solutions.
While the plan was being given the final shape Goonj made it a point to incorporate two elements as the core of their rehabilitation strategy. The organisation involved locals in the process of rebuilding. Every village had to donate some time in terms of intellectual and physical labour in shaping the rehabilitation programme according to the needs of their villages and will also have to put in place a village council to run the operations once the NGO exited from the scene.
The list of activities was divided into four main groups – Supporting education infrastructure, other infrastructure rebuilding, support for agriculture and revival of local cottage industry.
For Goonj giving money and material tantamount to extending relief material it didn’t fall into rehabilitation exercise per se. Instead of money Goonj used material and developed it into family packs (including clothes for men, women and children as well as 4 blankets per family) and used it as a currency to undertake rehabilitation work.
The idea was to involve local villagers in doing their own work and then rewarding them with material. It would serve two purposes. The involvement will give a connection and ownership in rebuilding their lives and the reward will give a sense of achievement as in the case of village Devar.
The road to the village has been badly hit by the landslide and the locals decided to fix one kilometre part of it by volunteering a day labour. The road was built with the help of stones, boulder and mud and a workable dirt track was ready within a day. The 200 odd volunteers were given family packs as an acknowledgement of their service in restoring their own road.
Goonj also accepted disaster as an opportunity to introduce some new features in the village which were non-existent before the disaster struck.
For example in Triyuginarayan village, the school building has been repaired and students have been given school kits (which include school bag, copy, water bottle and cover, pencil box, biscuits packet per student), efforts are on to build a library which wasn’t available before the disaster stuck the area.
Building of toilets and libraries in schools and providing every school with water filters was a strategy that gave the areas something extra. Something they didn’t have earlier and with this the school can provide better health and education facility to the students. This has given the NGO the moral courage to take up the issue of women sexual health and the use of sanitary napkins which like every other area in the country is a taboo subject in the region.
Ever since the relief operations have been underway sanitary napkin pads developed by Goonj have been distributed in many villages where it is working. Women are involved in the discussions and are being made aware of the issue. These new converts are taking the awareness campaign forward.
Rehabilitation in classic sense means restoring normalcy in the life of the people. Normalcy generally means getting back to life as it was before a disaster struck. However, a little creativity can turn rehabilitation into an opportunity to rebuild an economy and society by providing new infrastructure thrusts, reviving local talents and inspiring a desire for change among the locals.
Goonj has been able to do that by first listening to the locals about their needs, addressing them, winning their trust and cooperation and then talking to them about issues that are present but never discussed.


About indiadynamic

mediaperson worked for TWI, TVI, Dainik Bhaskar, UTV and Hindustan Times in all the divisions print, TV, radio and internet
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