Current Situation, Challenges and Future Plans
By Navneet Singh, Team Leader of UNITED SIKHS GHANAIA Tsunami Relief team in South India
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh,
Hope all of you are in Chardikala. I am sure you all are eager to hear more about the situation here in S. India, perhaps almost as much as we have been wanting to provide you all . Unfortunately, there is no provision here for regular or frequent internet access considering we are always on the move and in less than regular amenities. Having said that, here are some thoughts, opinions, suggestions, updates and a personal assessment of the situation here in South India.
Level of Effort - Government
As you are probably aware, that before I got to the site yesterday, there have already been meetings with the Governor S. S. Barnala and the Collector, Gagandeep Singh, of the Cuddalore District for the efforts of the Sikh Community, in regards to the Tsunami Relief operations. A good effort was made to ensure that our clear intentions of helping the victims equally are expressed. The teams informed the Collector and the Governor that the Sikh community would like to help out in every possible way to provide relief, but are especially concerned for those who have not received anything and/or to those villages where government relief has not been provided yet.
From what I understand that both (S.S. Barnala and Gagandeep Singh Bedi) have been very helpful and provided relief kits (ration - 5 kgs of Rice,Sugar and other food items) . Even though they have responded to the requests to the best of their abilities to help but there's still so much more that needs to be done urgently by helping those who have not been reached or thought of yet.
Personal Thoughts - From what I gather from feedback given from the team, it seems that the Government really hasn't taken a step up lead role in the efforts. There is so much information that the government themselves don't know first hand, it seems that they are only "putting out fires" as they keep coming. I was hoping that there would be much more deep dive into the situation, such as using helicopters in assessing the situation and perhaps using that to provide instant relief items to those far off stranded and ignored. However, the cooperation and the help they are providing to the best of their ability may not be ignored, they are trying harder, just a different approach.
Sikhs Take Responsibility to Rebuild an Entire Village
With the help of the collector, Gagandeep Singh, under the banner of "Guru Nanak Sarbat Sikh Sangat" (GNSSS), UNITED SIKHS, alongwith 12 other Sikh organizations have been provided with the permission to build and re-construct permanent houses for the Tsunami affected village of "MUZHUKKUTHURAI" (near MGR thitu) in the Cuddalore District, Tamilnadu.
The other organizations are :
Guru Gobind Singh Study Circle, Maharshatra
Khalsa Aid, UK
Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Mumbai
Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Bangalore
Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Khar
Guru Nanak Sat Sangh Sabha, Chennai
Guru Granth Sahib Study Center, Chennai
Servants of the People Society, New Delhi
Gurmat Missionary College, Mumbai
Gurmat Prachaar Charitable Trust, Mumbai
Nishkaam Welfare Council
The cost to build these homes has been estimated between 50K and 60K. This is a great combined community effort for the entire Sikh community to join hands and commit to the rebuilding efforts of houses, which in turn will lead to the rebuilding of lives for an entire village.
UNITED SIKHS, and twelve other organizations under the banner of "The Guru Nanak Sarbat Sikh Sangat" has committed to building 153 new houses in this project for the village. An official certificate to provide legal responsibility of the village of MUZHUKKUTHURAI, has been granted by the Collector's office.
Team Efforts So Far
The South India relief team comprising of Randip Singh (Canada), Lakhvinder Kaur (Singapore), Bhai Esher Singh (India) and Navneet Singh ( USA) have hit the ground running and have spent a lot of the first 2 days in the Cuddalore affected district from Tsunami in Tamil Nadu. The team has already been to the following villages to see, and assess situation first hand and provide "necessary" essentials at the least to those affected.
The villages seen are :
Mudasal and Mudasal North.
Interestingly, the first village affected by the "killer waves" has been fully adopted by the Sikh community. The MGR thitu is the nearby village which has more devastation to life and property. The villages of Thonithura and Mudasal North has found special places in our heart in the short time we spent there. As the UNITED SIKHS team, we ended up taking the only ferry that was working, deep into the villages of those folks whose homes and lives had been shattered. These fishermen who were laborers on daily wages had lost their entire means of earning plus all that they owned. The UNITED SIKHS team spent time with the children and parents and provided them cash and food. We also visited the school there, where we found the class in session and the children learning Tamil alphabets speaking loudly in sync. A very touching moment indeed, we spent time with the children, talking to them in broken Tamil and asked them to recite the ABCs in English, they wonderfully responded with a smile on their faces. We found out that out of the 52 children school, 5 children had not returned back after the Tsunami hit, sadly but the rest of the children said that they missed their friends a lot. We provided the headmaster and the teacher with financial contribution for each child in the school (to be given to their parents) and some cash to the teachers as well. We talked to the headmaster and requested the names of the children and their parents information, before leaving the school site. The "Vanakkam" (bye-bye in Tamil) is probably the loudest and most happiest greeting I have heard, I was so not ready for that response with what has happened through this disaster, but it shows the power of Chardikala. We took the ferry back and took the only school teacher with us to give her school children the balloons, soft toys, book markers, candy and sweets for the children of the school. The smiles were quiet but contagious, it just made you smile us smile back without saying a word.
Personal Thought - I think it's important to provide you all with a little scenario on the villages affected due to Tsunami. The government is responding back to the affected villages with relief based on how many lives were lost and how much property was damaged. So, to put it into perspective, there are 3 tiers of villages.
- Tier 1 Village - High Loss of Lives / High Loss of Property
Tier II Village - Low Loss of Lives / High Loss of Property
Tier III Village - Low Loss of Life / Low Loss of Property
So what that really means is that everyone is focusing on tier 1 and tier 2 villages and providing ample forms of relief, however not much attention is being paid to tier 3 villages. It's because the tier 3 villagers didn't really own anything (besides a hut) in the main place and secondly they fled away in time to not lose that many lives. But the process works differently and they provide relief based on number of lives and homes lost. Therefore not much relief has gone in these villages, to me it means that people are being technically punished for having run away and saving their lives. Really sad and since they didn't really own much in the first place, they are considered not that important in relief effort.
Villages of Mudasal and ThoniThura fall in this category and we believe it's absolutely more important for us to go to all these places where no one else has gone. As UNITED SIKHS representative, I feel that we should actually support kids in these villages and be responsbile to pay for all their costs and tuition for the entire life , perhaps more so in the memory of those 5 kids that lost their life.
Port Blair / Andaman Nicobar Islands
Realizing the importance of a true assessment of the situation in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, it has been on our working plans to find a way to get there and really see what has been damaged, or lost. We have finally got permission for 5 Sikhs to go as a team to those islands.
As a team, Bhai Esher Singh ji and I were to go to Port Blair and Andaman Nicobar Islands from there. However, keeping the budgets in mind (the ticket price is 10,000 INR for one way), as a team the decision that made more sense was for only one person to go and not all of us. After being to the villages, we had a better assessment of what was actually needed here in Cuddalore district in the villages where no one had gone. To fly to Port Blair and not being able to do anything would not be the most ideal thing to do. Instead of spending 10,000 rupees in flight costs, we have decided that only Bhai Esher Singh go and assess the situation and inform the team of what exactly is needed there so we optimize the value of every single penny. Also, this way we focus entirely on that one particular village fully and heal them from inside out.
While Bhai Esher Singh will be in Port Blair assessing the situation of the Sikhs there, we as a team will be buying fruits and vegetables, and buy clothes and medicine and fresh water for school children and give them sheets and "dariyan" to sit on and not the mud and floor.
1.) Language has been a barrier as there are so many points that need to be addressed to people affected, there are so many questions and thoughts that the victims share and we are unable to interpret it sometimes. However, the team is flexible and agile and is adjusting with the situation, working with what we have and not we need.
2.) There are certain laws and procedures that need to be followed that prevents us from doing stuff instantly or at a much faster pace that we would want to. We are working hard with the Collector and the Governor and all other officials as needed to find our role in this entire effort and make a difference for the ordinary.
Next Steps / Plan of Action
1.) Bhai Esher Singh will board the flight to Port Blair and then later go to Andaman and Nicobar Islands with 5 Sikhs to assess the situation of the damage and how our own sangat and the Sikh community is doing as well. Bhai sahib will be our eyes, ears and hands in everything they will do to assess the situation. As needed, we will deploy immediately to get the needed materials for all those affected. We will have a digital camera and a camcorder to record the situation there.
2.) Rest of us, the team, has chalked out a plan to go back to the village of Thonithuri and Modasal (Tier 3 ) that no one is taking care of. We will be going back with a lot of packets and boxes of fruits, and vegetables, and t-shirts and perhaps some ply or sheets for them to sit down on. We will also be buying medicines and cleaner water for the school children there and talk to them and counsel them as needed.
I hope this helps all of you get a better idea of what has been done, where we are heading and what we plan to do moving forward at this point. There's a lot of work ahead of us but the Singh Fauj has just started, there's sometimes frustrations when we hit roadblocks as we want to be right there in the middle of everything so we can see, feel and understand what they are all going through but then there is a concern of safety as we are here to make a difference for the longer term and I question myself to say, who am I kidding ? I will never be able to feel or understand what they are going through, coz it's not happened to me.
All in all, everyone is in good spirits to wanting to make a difference so slowly but steadily we'll keep plugging forward.
Please continue to do Ardaas for those who are in this tough times and for all those who are here ready to make a difference, no matter what it takes. We need your support and the strength.
Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal!