December 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
I ended up in far more flood relief work than my broken Tamil would have ever imagined. Even then, it’s a lot less than a lot of other brilliant people. Everyone claims flood relief work is selfless and all that, but I’d be lying if I said that. I was truly enjoying the insights into human behaviour in times of crisis – from courage to presence of mind to practicality and to downright whatisthisidonteven. These are just some observations, thoughts I had, and perhaps just a toned down version of the conversation I just had with @puram_politics. Anyway:
- The hatred for relief work in North Madras was amazing. I mean let’s start from the fact that North Madras is huge. And the northern tip of the State, which I believe falls into the Tiruvallur district, also gets grouped along with that. It went from tweets like “No female volunteer should work in North Madras” to “those people are the most bullshit people” and just downwards from there. I spent a few days in relief work in ‘North Madras’ and more than two weeks coordinating relief supplies with volunteers. I was stunned by the orderly manner in which communities who had been absolutely excluded from relief work for almost two weeks since the flood hit were so patient with relief distribution (probably because I was prepared for the worst). One of the volunteers there was expressing distress at the condition of people who were living in knee deep sewage, and one of the local volunteers told her: “This is what happens every time it rains. This is just our life.” I wondered what the point of all this piecemeal distribution in the long run, but then I realized that we have to do this, and then try to do something more long term. What else can we do. Fun fact: Chennai has three rivers, including the Kosasthalaiyar River. You’d be surprised at how many born-and-brought-up-in-Chennai people I had to explain this to when they were wondering how on earth the Adyar could flood North Madras.
- You can never be prepare for what happens and the disturbing exposure you may get into people’s lives. I jumped off a truck straight into an introduction to a gentleman whose son had been washed away in the floods. That was the exact introduction given to me and I was still steadying myself physically. I wasn’t prepared for this. I just nodded my head and turned away.
- I thought people had a right to be angry, and it was fully understandable that they got really aggressive when it came to distribution of supplies. I didn’t see any of this myself, but I can imagine it – it’s been three days since your house has been flooded and you’ve lost everything. Some truck turns up with 200 blankets and food packets. There’s nothing else in sight. I’d pay a lot of money to see the peaceful queue forming there anywhere. Also I never thought the day would come where Chennai would be fighting for blankets. I was part of this bizarre hunt until I stopped myself – I was actually hoarding contacts and had become a terrible person. Until I heard about Polaris.
- I had an incredibly bizarre situation where two women from a nearby settlement came angrily towards the truck screaming that no relief had reached them. They were really aggressive and one of them even pulled my kurta. Somehow out of nowhere a guy came over and restored peace and convinced them very sternly but politely that we were good people and would finish distributing door to door here and then come that side. As I turned to thank him, I noticed (and smelled) that he had walked out of the nearest TASMAC. I just wanted to put this down since we were exchanging anecdotes to decide Government policy.
- I learned that if I planned to do relief work at a particular area, I needed to do my homework and find local volunteers and go with them. They would tell me the caste and religious dynamics in the area. There were areas with different churches on every street and the residents of each street wouldn’t talk to the residents of the next street. The result was that only the first road got relief.There are so many areas where people have been denied relief on account of their caste, their religion, their disability, their gender, even for being tenants (the house owner would keep the relief for themselves). I learned to be mindful of this. And know when to stand back.
- With standing back, I mean just not trying to be the hero. I was sitting around when someone walked into the storeroom area beaming: “I am ***” in a very world saviour tone. One of the volunteers innocently asked, “what do you want?” He was visibly hurt – he had come with materials and expected a warmer welcome. Sadly the person he communicated with was distributing relief somewhere else. He eventually found that he wasn’t quite ready to walk through knee deep sewage on his mission. Neither was I, especially with my anxiety disorder. I thought it better to sit back and help making kits than go out and potentially make this about myself. I think it was a good call.
- The ‘only first road/main road got relief’ was a common thread wherever I went. There were areas where the most hit were inside the settlement on the river banks. Trucks can’t go there. By the time the people find out, supplies run out. Sometimes the same people end up getting the relief. It’s cool though, because the people who showed up relief are like, job well done. It was pointless to land up at Kargil Nagar with 300 food packets and feel good about oneself. Even if it took an extra day, I realized that I had to find supplies in bulk and get precise information on how much we really needed.
- I got accosted by really angry women (apparently I have a running gag going) as I was taking photographs as a part of studying an area for a relief plan. Their grouse – people had kept coming and taking photos and nothing was happening. It’s important to follow up on what you scout for. If it doesn’t work out, tell them. So they can try other options. More importantly I learned to not make promises I couldn’t keep. I had fantastic people like @pavithra420 and @annaverve and Sudha and Vaishnavi and Hussain and @sharmatweeting and so many others who I probably don’t even know about to rely on, but still.
- Many places I went to had people getting on with their lives. A volunteer from Manali made the very matter of fact observation: “We only came late.” It’s true. People are going to get on with their lives. You can’t expect them to be waiting for a relief kit and not give them one because they’ve had the grit to go on with their lives. Especially when this happens very often.
- On this one particular lane, while we were doing door to door distribution, there was what looked like a rather affluent house compared to the other very modest ones around it. A man walked out, held his hand out and collected the kit. I was quite stunned and expressed my irritation to a fellow volunteer. He said, quite simply: if we don’t give it to them, they won’t let us give it to anyone. I wouldn’t have had that insight.
- People don’t like hearing this but it is true – there’s a social dynamic in every locality and we can’t really expect it to change because we are being benevolent volunteers. I wasn’t there to preach modern values, I was there to provide relief supplies. It’s not useful to suggest that I get women use the menstrual cup instead of begging for sanitary napkins, or point out that bleaching powder is environmentally unfriendly. Clean water to rinse out a menstrual cup was unavailable. People need to stop the spread of disease. You are welcome to come and conduct awareness workshops after all this is over – whatever ‘over’ means. And the TASMAC – well, it’s been written about and there’s nothing more to say on that, except if I was going for relief work, I wouldn’t want to be identified as one of those people who got TASMACs banned during relief operations. Whenever I found myself thinking ‘Well if there was *** my attempt at volunteering would be so much easier..’ I had to immediately check myself. This really wasn’t about me. I’m not the one in need of relief here.
- It’s hard to be a sponsor in such a situation. You need photographs to justify all the expenditure made to your company or individual donors. I guess we need some way to ensure dignity of the people receiving relief by not making this poverty porn. It’s a thin line which I failed to navigate. I tried apologizing profusely before taking photographs. Most people were really excited at the photographs and posed very excitedly with broad smiles, which was great except I’m not sure that was what the sponsor was looking for. Some kids brought out a smartphone and asked if they could take my photos too. I suppose that was fair enough. Many sponsors and donors were wonderful including one who would keep asking: are people finding the kits useful? Is there anything we can change? I think it’s beautiful to work with people like this. On the other hand you had a religious group that surreptitiously dumped a huge load of used clothes in the back of my truck while I was looking at other supplies. Including a handbag. With stuff in it, like the crap you normally find at the bottom of your handbag.
- At the same time some corporate activities were just nonsensical. An FMCG company distributed packages of quick cook oatmeal in Rajaji Nagar. I’m not a fan of oatmeal in general, but 30 gram packets are hardly anything, and distributing this in a place which isn’t really familiar with the food is a little weird. Another large corporate did a really big event of hoisting a banner in the middle of Kargil Nagar and after several photo ops with the locals, proceeded to distribute an apple and a packet of biscuits. This was 10 days after the flood, at least. Several people were seen throwing it and walking away angrily. – 5 for team North Madras. Now, you have an institution for women where donors are reluctant to provide relief because cameras and mobile phones have to be deposited at the gate. Okay, then.
- People are really pissed off that victims of the flood are refusing items, refusing food packets, and used clothes. I could write an essay about used clothes but I think @sharmatweeting is the domain expert here. I originally put out a ‘mint condition used clothes welcome’ but I really regret it. Used underwear? Seriously? Anyway, I think that I’d be puking after a week of Sambar Saadam for breakfast lunch and dinner. Just because a person is a flood victim doesn’t mean that they don’t have any dignity. I was a little taken aback when the angry kurta pulling women referred to above were further angered by there being moong dal as part of the relief packages being distributed. In Tamil, it’s called paasi parappu. It’s not very popular, to say the least. I can’t blame the sponsors – toor dal prices are through the roof, but I understand the frowns on the women’s faces. They have to face their families with paasi parappu.
- If you are a twitter celebrity, or running a popular help account, please think very hard before making blanket (pun intended) statements like ‘things are back to normal’ or implying that it is time to move on to other things and other regions. One person in command at a relief collection centre yelled at one of the volunteers working to gather blankets for an area around Pulicat saying ‘so many people have taken stuff to North Madras what the hell’ – betraying a lack of knowledge of a lot of things including geography – an entire group of volunteers were blacklisted there. When an actor supposedly gave a statement that there was enough relief in a particular district, people actually diverted resources away, and I mean actually calling trucks and saying turn around. Really. Sponsors started citing this to me when I called them about a particular intervention required. Villages in in the district hadn’t received relief, and even in those that did, there were marginalized groups who were excluded. And it isn’t over. If anything, the worst of ‘united Chennai’ is coming to the forefront. A friend had to accompany his mother’s domestic help to the private school where her son studies to argue on her behalf to allow the boy to attend school – many families send at least one of their children to private schools, and they don’t have the money to pay for fees for this month and so the kids aren’t being let into school.
- I really had to check my caste privilege. I can’t even write about the ways in which I had to do so without sounding like a condescending asshole because I don’t have the words and I live in fear of Twitter lynch mobs. I became painfully aware of it when I found myself getting a dainty teacup while other volunteers got steel tumblers when we had tea – and I was always offered coffee and not tea.
- I need to mention this – the Vasantham Federation for persons with disabilities in Tiruvallur was amazing – they gave me a spreadsheet a few days after the floods with the number of families with persons with disabilities (they actually have conducted a disability census in the area) and the number of families in need to relief. It was so easy to reach out with this information and they got relief almost immediately, and much tears were shed by volunteers on how perfect the spreadsheet was. Grassroot organizations working with the marginalized are coming forth with their data and their concerns. This idea of being united and equal in the floods is really sweet till no one seems to care about replacing the wheelchairs and braille books that got damaged during the floods. Equality, as the Constitution of India will tell you, is extremely complicated.
- It’s so infuriating when a high network individual asks ‘tell us where we can help rehabilitation’ and when you say something around Minjur to Pulicat they say ‘oh but wasn’t that in a bad shape before the floods too?’ and if you say the little huts along the Adyar they say ‘oh but those are slums anyway’, so I don’t know what they are trying to do. Please consider areas that were indeed in a bad shape before the floods. Think about this – Chennai Rain Relief 2015, a Facebook group, has been working since mid November, also known as the floods that didn’t hit ‘people like us’. All these areas which were always in a bad shape got hit badly then, and almost recovered when December 1st happened.
- We need to focus on livelihoods. People have bought cars on loans to ride the Uber and Ola wave, and their cars have completely gone under water. There are communities which have broken themselves out of bonded labour by moving into prawn farming in saline ponds, and now that this water is no longer suitable, might find themselves back into the bonded labour trap. Slum dwellers will be displaced because that’s what everyone thinks a good idea is, and many of them who work as domestic help in neighbouring areas will have to start from scratch in the ‘flood colony’ they are relegated to (Tsunami survivors live in tsunami colony. True story)
- We need to make the most of this opportunity in terms of good research into disaster management. We need data and experiences and all that and we have to start this now, especially at the grass root level. We need to acknowledge the fact that Government officials played a huge role in rescue efforts and continue to do the same. They aren’t exactly averse to the development of solid strategy, the question is, whose voices are heard during the clamour, what data is truly reflective of the experiences and vulnerabilities of all persons. At the risk of being accused of pushing my own constituency, for example, if disaster management takes the needs of persons with disabilities into account, this otherwise traumatic experience can be more efficient than it is currently. With no groups left behind.