In a land of heartbreaking scenes, what’s one more? But in the little dead-end alley of Pandala Salai—really, a village by itself on the outskirts of the town of Nagore in Tamil Nadu—in the middle of days looking at tsunami heartbreak, one episode gets me sick to my gut.
A three-wheeler put-putts into the settlement. Two men sit in it, and in the back are plastic two-kilogram bags of rice they have brought here as “relief.” Even before it rolls to a halt, the villagers swarm over it, hands reaching in for the rice, reaching out to the men. (Hands reaching out like this make up a sight nearly as dismaying as the destruction itself.) For a while, the men do their best to hand the bags out in some reasonable manner, but the way they are engulfed, there is no way to do so. It isn’t even as if they give up. The bags are simply torn from them before they can impose any order.
And the fighting and arguing. High-pitched women’s and kids’ voices, aggressive men, a woman fragrant with alcohol as she runs unsteadily to get her share, the older folks elbowed and kneed aside. Yet even with all this, many of those who surround the vehicle come away with rice, and I am still not clear about how that happens. When the three-wheeler is empty, the two men looking pale and shell-shocked, it drives off. But for long minutes afterwards, the arguments and recriminations continue. Several people turn to me—the outsider who is clearly uninterested in rice—to seek commiseration. Then they return to arguing. Does it carry on till the next load of relief, the next opportunity for outstretched arms, comes along?
“You pushed me!”
“Can’t you see I have this little girl to feed?”
“I deserve more!”
On and on they argue, choice Tamil abuse flying freely back and forth between these people who were and are neighbors, who have to live with each other even though, even after, a tidal wave has swept through Pandala Salai. One turns to me to complain about her neighbors—they made me fall, she says, and nobody gave me any rice.
Everywhere I look, I can see people carrying the bags of rice, some disappearing into their homes or what’s left of them. Dozens of bags of rice. Yet nearly everybody in sight complains about the others’ behavior.
And I’m standing there thinking, why must tragedy be compounded by indignity?
In Pattinacherry village, we met a young man who had clearly thought about all these issues. He walked around with us for a long time, explaining his ideas. The typical way of doing relief, he says, ends up rewarding the strongest, the ones who have already got stuff. He believes that the best way to distribute material is to do it quietly, carefully identifying the ones who most need help. And that’s what he is doing, he says. He has a car full of stuff to hand out, but he will first walk through the village and speak to a lot of people, then decide whom to help.
Fine. Inside me, I applaud him and his approach.
We get talking to a 19-year-old girl who lost her mother to the tsunami. She speaks much the same language, telling us how “those who have” (here she uses the specific Tamil phrase over and over) end up getting most of the aid. Four of her friends and a couple of older men nod as she talks, occasionally piping up to corroborate some point.
Suddenly, the young man with the car runs to it and returns with a wad of 500-rupee notes. He puts Rs 4000—yes—into the girl’s hand and tells her it’s for her to use as she wants. In one idiot moment, this man with the sensible ideas has utterly changed the dynamics of the community here. The four friends and the men begin muttering in anger, then asking us loudly why only she got the money, then arguing with her. She announces just as loudly that she will just not share with them.
There’s no way to retrieve the situation, so we walk away. The young man keeps saying, “Sorry, sir” to me, I’m not sure why. His damage is done. He roams up the street, shaking his head disconsolately.
The way of relief. The attitude of relief. What a friend here calls the “pathology of giving,” even the “greed of giving.” Travel to a disaster area and watch relief happen. I guarantee you will end up with searching, agonizing questions about how it happens. And the saddest part is that this is the result of the best of intentions, the most transparent goodwill.
For one thing, there’s the kind of relief that goes out. Old clothes are notoriously unwanted; piles of them lie discarded everywhere you go. In one village, they are piled so thick that a crowd of kids is actually diving headfirst into them, having a great time. Such clothes are inappropriate, they are worn, they are discards and people don’t want discards (would you?). Whatever the reason is, nobody wants them. New clothes, yes. Old ones, no. Yet, while that word is now getting out to people about the tsunami, what’s the bet it will be forgotten by the time the next disaster comes along?
For another, there’s the way relief is distributed. Givers, like the three-wheeler men, think they can simply drive somewhere, hand out things, head for home. It doesn’t work that way. Overwhelmed by the sudden generosity of their countrymen, the victims of this disaster will inevitably react to fresh arrivals of material much like the folks in Pandala Salai did. Near-riots happen, and understandably so. Or there’s the misplaced altruism of even those who seem to understand these equations, like the man in Pattinacherry. It causes wholly unnecessary tension in already traumatized people.
We want to help; too often, in trying to do so we end up harming. Because of the way we approach it, the business of relief ruins relationships, produces beggars, and much more.
Fred Cuny, a thoughtful expert on calamities who was killed in Chechnya in 1995, whom I have mentioned in this space before, once wrote: “For the survivors of a natural disaster, a second disaster may also be looming.” He meant relief. And that is the most heartbreaking thought of all.
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.