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Friday, 7 January, 2005

Amit Sharma's Account of Volunteering in Tamil Nadu

The following account comes from Amit Sharma.... -andy

The tsunami disaster has come as a shock to all of us. The toll keeps mounting with each passing day, the last estimate being around 155,000 dead. Of course, there is a lot of work to be done now, much relief work to be carried out.

To me, the biggest challenge lies in the management of relief and rehabilitation work on the ground. Aid is pouring in at a high level- the question facing us now is whether we are able to utilize it in the best way.

The following is a description of my visit with a group of 40 volunteers to Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu. It is a first-hand and indifferent account of what I saw, observed and deduced.


As the sun set for the final time on Friday, 31 December, I left with a group of 40 volunteers for the Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu for tsunami relief work. This district is the worst-hit on the Indian mainland, with a current estimate of over 6,000 lives lost. We had made the following preparations for the trip:

  • hired a bus for transport
  • purchased 500 blankets (which turned out to be not an imminent need; the place is quite hot)
  • purchased a supply of medicines from a distributor (see below for a list of medicines one should carry)
  • purchased non-perishable food items such as biscuits (the popular Parle-g or Tiger variety)
  • purchased a supply of kitchen utensils
  • collected around Rs. 30,000 (USD$684) in cash, on top of what was spent for the above material

We purchased from a bulk market, and could get a good rate. All traders are willing to give discounts in purchases for tsunami relief material.


The road from Bangalore to Nagapattinam via Trichi and Tanjor is a pretty one. Although narrow in places, bumpy in others, and both narrow and bumpy in a few stretches, the road offers scenic beauty and winding paths arched with lush trees. We managed to stop over at the Regional Engineering College in Trichi for our morning businesses. The one thing that struck us when we neared our destination is the numerous mountains of clothes lying as waste dumps all around the place. Clearly, people had sent excess supplies of clothes and they were lying rejected, posing a potential environmental hazard in the future.

Local NGOs are doing good work

We were received by representatives from the nonprofit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which loosely translates as "National Service Organization." They were very cordial, and our first impression was very positive. The NGO has a large team of more than 1,000 volunteers working in the district of Nagapattinam. They treated us to sapad, a traditional South Indian meal served on plantain leaves, and inoculated our team with antibiotic injections. They then took us for a field trip of a nearby coastal area, and provided shelter, food and informational assistance for the next two days. We also interacted with the NGOs AID India and Isha Foundation.

Medical Relief in Villages

Next we met a group of doctors who had come from the M S Ramaiya medical college in Bangalore. We spent the next day with this group going to various villages and providing medical aid to affected people. The doctors had a van that they used as a mobile clinic. We joined them as they went around different coastal villages attending to the medical needs of people. The method was simple- go to a village and make local inquiries to find out if it has recently been visited by a medical team. If so, we would move on. If the villagers needed medical aid, the doctors would call them into a queue, and then perform different checks on them. I personally helped out with injections and the dressing of wounds. Something worth noticing was that very few people were severely injured. It seems those who had been caught in the wrath of the rushing water stood little chance, so most survivors escaped with little injury. Many villagers actually turned up with minor wounds that had clearly nothing to do with the tsunami- someone looked like he had fallen off a bicycle. We attended everyone anyway, of course, covering four villages in all.

Our larger team also helped the General Hospital in Nagapattinam by cleaning and disinfecting their premises, as well as distributing various supplies like mats, medicines and utensils with help from AID India.

The biggest challenge remains the management of relief and rehabilitation work on the ground. Clearly, a major chunk of this has to be information sharing, coordination and integrated action by different parties, including NGOs, volunteer groups, aid agencies and the government. The local government bodies seemed to be unaware of this need; there was no single point of contact where all these parties could get together and carry out integrated work.

As I write this, I have found out that the Southern Region Federation of Fishermen Societies (SRFFS) and the NGO Sneha facilitated the setting up of an NGO coordination center. Please visit www.tsunami2004-india.org for details.

Lessons Learned

    1. If you plan to go to Nagapattinam or Cuddalore district for relief work, do call up ground-level organizations like RSS and AID India in advance. They have significant local presence, and are more than willing to help. We were provided food, shelter, information and distribution channels by both.

    2. If you are coming from outside the state of Tamil Nadu in a private vehicle, don't worry about road tax. Put up a poster saying "Tsunami Relief" in bold on the windscreen, and you should not have a problem.

    3. Do confirm the list of requirements, which changes from day to day at various villages and coastal towns. It pained me to see the mountains of clothes which were intended to help victims of the tsunami, but may end up posing an environmental hazard. A day or two before you leave, call up local representatives and ascertain exactly what is needed. Take only that.

    4. Take care of yourself. The affected areas are full of stench, rotting bodies of humans and animals, stagnant water and unhygienic conditions. The chances of infection are always present in such an environment. Be mentally prepared. Take gloves and surgical masks with you, or else take them from the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh outpost (if you are in Nagapattinam). 5. Be sensitive towards the locals. There were stories of volunteers "throwing" clothes at natives, and showing a callous attitude. Please: most of these people have lost family members as well as their means of livelihood. Any insensitivity is bound to generate sharp reactions. 6. Talk to the General Hospital at Nagapattinam either before or after going there. They are in need of volunteer help currently.

    7. Tie up with a medical team and go together. There are many remote villages which need medical help. Meet with local NGOs and coordinate where you want to go.

    8. The weather is quite hot (above 30 degrees Celsius), so do not carry warm clothes with you. Do carry sufficient fresh water, although the local NGOs will provide you with this there as well.

    9. Do talk to the NGO coordination center before leaving.

Contact Details

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh local contact, Mr. Sivarajan: 0942566315

Aid India: (Chennai people)- bharati/manohar/hari- 044-28350403

NGO Coordination Center: 04365 252800

Deputy Director of Health services (Nagapattinam) - 04365-293323

Collector's office in Nagapattinam: 04365-251882

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