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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 December 2005, 00:39 GMT
Andaman tsunami victims still homeless

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar islands

Tsunami victims inside a temporary shelters
Some 10,000 families are yet to get a proper shelter
For some 10,000 families who were victims of last December's tsunami in India's eastern Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, a roof over their heads remains a distant dream.

A year after their houses - and many lives - were destroyed by the tsunami, they are still living in temporary shelters.

"We wanted to build our own houses - the traditional wood-and-bamboo structures on stilts in which we have lived for centuries," says Rashid Yusuf of the Nicobarese Tribal Association.

"We just asked for tool kits and access to timber from fallen trees. But the government forced itself on us."

Rehabilitation is where there's always so much money to be made by those who can
Madhushree Mukherjee,
Andamans expert

The government drew up an exhaustive plan for rehabilitating the tsunami homeless in the Andamans in two phases.

First it built 10,000 tin-and-metal "intermediate shelters" all over the islands just before the monsoon. Now it is trying to finalise a strategy for building permanent housing - but that seems a while away.

"The delay was caused by a lack of consensus on the design for the houses," says DS Negi, chief secretary of the Andaman and Nicobar administration.

"Several designs and prototypes have been placed before the local tribes people and non-tribal settlers, and we are trying to come up with a design that will be accepted by all."

'Blast furnaces'

Mr Negi says local non-governmental organisations objected to the initial plans to use pre-fabricated metallic structures for permanent housing.

So fresh designs had to be worked out to make the houses with as much locally-available material - wood and engineered bamboo - as possible.

Temporary shelter
Tin-made temporary shelters offer no respite from the blazing sun

"The tin-and-metal prefabs where the tsunami victims are now sheltered are like blast furnaces in the hot and sultry climate of the Andamans.

"If their permanent houses are made of the same material, they will not be able to live in them," says Samir Acharya, who heads the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (Sane), the island's biggest NGO working on environment and indigenous peoples issues.

"The tribes people would have to keep their pigs in them and sleep in the jungles at night if their houses were made of metal," says Mr Acharya.

The administration has now taken heed of the NGOs and local people.

"The permanent houses will now have an outer structure made of iron while the wall material and the rest will be wood and bamboo," says Mr Negi.

Ignoring local knowledge

So why did the local administration, and experts from Delhi, insist on using metallic pre-fabs ?

"The administration in the archipelago is top-down. And rehabilitation is where there's always so much money to be made by those who can," says Madhusree Mukherjee, an expert on the Andamans.

We needed boats, we needed canoes, we did not get them in sufficient numbers
Rashid Yusuf,
Nicobar resident

All across the islands, stories abound of misplaced relief priorities, of the Indian government and the global NGOs ignoring local sensibilities - or requirements - and of the people refusing to accept relief material because it makes no sense to them.

Global NGOs brought in thousands of packets of sanitary napkins and distributed them to the Nicobarese tribal women this year.

"Our women don't use sanitary napkins, so they first used them as toilet paper because there was a water crisis in the islands. Then they made pillows out of them," says a senior tribal woman leader, Ayesha Majid.

The local administration also bought and supplied one thousand metres of nylon rope for each of the 10,000 families affected by the disaster, even though they did not need it.

Money 'misused'

Residents of the Nicobar islands, the worst affected in the tsunami, say large numbers of jeeps and motorcycles sent out to them were useless because there were no fuelling stations.

Even the thousands of bicycles sent were not of much use because there are very few roads.

"We needed boats, we needed canoes, we did not get them in sufficient numbers and those that we got were not the ones that we are used to using," says Rashid Yusuf.

The Nicobarese use out-rigger canoes, not the ones made for fishermen in the mainland Indian states.

Sane's Samir Acharya says that much of the more than one billion rupees ($21.8m) earmarked for relief and rehabilitation in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which has a population of half a million, has gone to fund useless supplies.

"Much of the relief money found its way back to big contractors and suppliers in the mainland who made huge profits, " says Mr Acharya.

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