The Step-children of Tsunami: Overlooked and forgotten

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Meet Mala. She lives in in Kottaikkadu village in Kancheepuram District in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state.

She was 11 years old when, in December 2004, the Asian Tsunami crashed into village without warning. This made her very poor family desperate and destitute.

The disaster didn’t kill anyone in her village, but caused considerable property damage. In her case, the waves that rolled in spared their small hut, but her fisherman father was nearly drowned: he survived with some injuries.

But the family’s fishing boat and gear were gone. That was a mighty blow.

After the waves had retreated, they returned to their house and started rebuilding their lives. They thought the world’s generosity in responding to the Asian Tsunami will somehow bring some help.

They were wrong.

When the Tsunami triggered massive aid donations, all affected countries pledged to distribute it in a fair, equitable and transparent manner. But as the aid trickled down layers of government and charities, various biases and distortions crept in.

What happened in Mala’s village was an example. We came across the situation when tracking Mala’s family for a whole year (2005) after the Tsunami, documenting their long road to recovery as part of our Children of Tsunami media project.

We tracked two affected families each in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, filming their progress — or the lack of it — every month and producing video reports that were uploaded to a dedicated website.

Follow Mala’s story through monthly video reports on our website

The most striking example of aid disparity came from India. Even months after the disaster, Mala’s family — or anyone else in her village — received absolutely no relief or recovery assistance.

Officially, it was because ‘no one was killed’ in her village. But everybody in Kottaikkadu village knew the real reason: in the Indian social hierarchy, they occupy the lowest level, known as ‘Dalits’.

Apparently, that was why both government agencies and charities stayed clear of the village.

Our India production team, led by senior journalist and film-maker Satya Sivaraman (with video camera in the photo, below), investigated further. They compared Kottaikadu with its adjoining village of Alambara. Both had suffered similar damage during the Tsunami: people lost their boats and nets, but there were no deaths.

Image from Children of Tsunami website

Yet the people of Alambara – who belong to a supposedly higher caste of fishermen — received food items, boats and fishing nets from various outside sources.

In fact, they felt quite sorry for their neighbours in Kottaikkadu. “On the day of the tsunami we ran over 15 kilometers,” said Kuppuraj, a resident of Alambara. “Kottaikadu villagers, who live just 600 meters away…ran with us — but nobody has helped them to recover.”

There was another incident that showed up the caste-based discrimination, which my colleague Manori Wijesekera, production manager of Children of Tsunami, has just reminded me.

In March 2005, our India film crew found Mala’s father seriously ill with a lung infection (triggered by his near-drowning during the Tsunami) and his family so helpless that they were unable to even seek medical attention.

So the crew put their filming gear aside, and became good Samaritans: they rushed the sick man to a nearby government-run hospital. But once there, doctors refused to admit or treat him — all due to the patient’s supposedly low caste!

It was only when Satya and crew threatened to film the entire sorry episode, and have it broadcast on television later that day, that medical attention was finally provided. Discarding their production plans, our crew stayed with Mala’s family at the hospital through the night and next day to ensure the doctors gave her father the correct medical attention. The family believes that the production team saved her father’s life that day.

Read more about what happened at Children of Tsunami website

Watch the March 2005 video report that covered the hospitalisation incident

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While their father was recovering, Mala’s mother toiled as a labourer to keep the home fires burning. Mala has one younger sister and two younger brothers.

Children of Tsunami: Rebuilding the Future was TVE Asia Pacific’s response to largely superficial media coverage of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004. It tracked on TV, video and web the personal recovery stories of eight affected families in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand for a year after the disaster. Its many media products — distributed on broadcast, narrowcast and online platforms -– inspired public discussion on aid management and optimum rehabilitation choices.

As we discovered along the way, some of the affected could be better described as Step-children of Tsunami.

In one of my early blog posts, I paid a tribute to the most extreme example of such a child, Thillainayagam Theeban.

The Tsunami has become yesterday’s news, but there are thousands of affected children, women and men who are still living on the edge of survival.

Related links:

Children of Tsunami: Documenting Asia’s longest year

Children of Tsunami revisited two years later

All images courtesy Children of Tsunami media project, TVE Asia Pacific

3 Responses to “The Step-children of Tsunami: Overlooked and forgotten”

  1. Cecilia Says:

    Hi Nalaka!

    I have added your blog on to my list of favourits sites… hope you don’t mind!

    I love your stories.. my blog is a little bit more about the personal me…. :)

    cheers,
    Cecilia

  2. Ayesha Says:

    Hi Nalaka: I am Indian and was appalled to read this story, and to follow Mala’s tragic story on your website. We in ‘shining’ India would like to pretend that the caste system does not exist but it sure does! And it’s figuring not only among people to people social contact but also at official level. In times of disaster, when everybody is affected, it is a great shame that our relief systems and workers in BOTH government AND charity sectors should discriminate against the so-called lower castes. This is unacceptable, but even worse is the news that a governmental hospital refused to admi or treat a seriously sick man simply because of his caste. This is probably illegal, and I for one wish your team had actually exposed it then and there. Doctors, of all people, should know we are all the same beneath our skin….

  3. David Damario Says:

    The Mala story touched me. We in Canada raised millions of dollars contributed directly to our banks. The idea of social hiearachy is an unknow concept to us. The aid disparity is shocking…but again it takes a man like Nalaka to shine the light of truth on a bad situation. Things must change.


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