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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 December 2007, 00:47 GMT
Tsunami homeless three years on
By Swaminathan Natarajan
BBC News, Andaman islands

More than 40,000 people in India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands made homeless by the 26 December 2004 Asian tsunami are still living in temporary shelters.

The tin shelters are not suited to the climate, people say

They were promised they would only be homeless for a maximum of 18 months.

The local administration says the first batch of 200 houses will be handed over on Wednesday, three years to the day since the tsunami struck.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are situated some 1,200km (750 miles) east of the Indian mainland. Official figures put the number of dead and missing here from the tsunami at 3,527. Locals say many more perished.

Close to 10,000 families lost their homes. Irrespective of the family size, each family was given a one-room shelter measuring about 150 to 200 sq feet. These shelters are made up of tin sheets.

They get monthly rations, but no cash handouts. They complain of official apathy.

The tin shelters are too hot during summer and leak during winter, they say. Water and sanitary conditions are very bad.

"Since they have not given us a house, I am not able to settle down and start a new life," one woman, Shanti, complains. "They are giving some rations. That is not enough. I sell vegetables to meet my expenses."

Premalatha, once a small trader in the Nicobar islands, had a narrow escape from the tsunami waves but her daughter was killed.

She now lives in the Namunagar camp in the southern Andamans. She is worried about her son's education: "They promised lots of help for him to continue his education but nothing came."

'Difficult to live'

Some of the people from the Nicobar islands who were moved to the Andamans find it difficult to adjust.

Housing construction
The government says construction work is beset with problems

"In the Nicobar Islands I used to do woodwork. There is no work here for me. They are giving me monthly rations. But quantity varies. It is difficult to live in these conditions," says Marimuthu.

The Indian government set aside some $660m for rehabilitation projects, much of which was supposed to go on building nearly 10,000 homes.

About 90% of the houses were to be built by government agencies, with the rest built by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Progress is extremely slow.

The Chief Secretary of the Andaman and Nicobar administration, Chhering Targay, blames the weather for the delays. "We have a very short working time of about five months in a year. During other months it rains.

"It is difficult to transport raw materials during the rainy season. In addition there are cost and labour issues."

And there were other problems, Mr Targay says: "The initial figures quoted by the contractors were too high... We will finish the job of building permanent shelters by December 2008."

'No comparison'

A number of defence facilities were damaged by the tsunami but almost all of them, including an air base, are back in operation.

Chhering Targay
Mr Targay says all the houses will be ready by December, 2008

Mr Targay says the defence facilities were easier to rebuild. "One cannot compare civil and defence facilities. They have their own working style. Compared to defence establishment we have a diversified work to do."

Critics also say there is little transparency in how the money is spent, claiming that in Car Nicobar island, some modest houses are costing an exorbitant $32,000.

"The locals would be able to build a much bigger home with less money," one activist said. Officials deny any overspending.

Even the NGOs are not able to meet the targets. One NGO, which is building 100 houses near Port Blair, blamed a lack of water for not meeting their target.

"The place is rocky. The government promised us water for construction but they have not given it." When asked how he expects people to live in that area, he said it is for the Public Works Department to lay pipes and give water to the families.

'Unsuited'

Farmers also suffered heavy losses, with some losing their land forever.

Flooded farmland
Much farmland is still flooded

"They paid compensation in three instalments, after that I got nothing," says AP Mohammad.

Another farmer complains that he has been given equipment unsuited to his needs.

Dharam Pal, the islands' relief commissioner, rules out the possibility of giving land to the farmers who lost land.

"Over 8,000 hectares of land was affected by the tsunami, out of which 4,200 hectares have been permanently submerged... There is no land to give. We are encouraging farmers to learn new skills."

One worker with the Action Aid charity sums up the situation, blaming "a lack of participation of the community on one side and the lack of synergy between government and the NGOs on the other".

That has resulted in a situation where, three years on, people are still wondering when they will get what they have been promised.



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