News Day, 17 April 2005

Thousands of tribal people died when the tsunami struck the Nicobar Islands last December. There remains no trace of their villages that once stood guarding the shoreline in the Bay of Bengal.

The surviving families cannot gather the courage to have a glimpse of the place where they had their homes. They have moved to relief camps in the higher lands, far, far away from the sea, where they never preferred to live. The heat is unbearable up there, as are the flies in the daylight and mosquitoes during the night.

Since they lost their coconut trees, canoes and pigs in the tsunami and, most important, their sets of tools, their lives have become miserable. The relief aid they are getting is not only proving to be useless, but it actually may threaten their way of life.

The first thing the Nicobarese need is tools, so they can begin to construct huts, dig canoes and make plantations. A set of tools is the most essential belonging of a Nicobari or, for that matter, for any indigenous community. But more than three months after the tsunami, they have received only 150 sets of tools for 2,000 surviving families, and these are of such poor quality that the tribals cannot use them.

Among the relief materials distributed in the Nicobars were "dhothi" for men and "sarees" for women (typical Indian dress made of one piece of cloth that drapes over the torso and legs). The Nicobarese haven't worn anything like this ever before and do not wish to. The men normally go bare-chested, and the women wear a blouse and a colorful, printed wraparound to cover below their waist. To the surprise of all the relief agencies, the Nicobarese have used these cloths to stitch mosquito nets.

The Indian government is constructing temporary shelters for the homeless tribals, who still are living in tents. It was announced that "seismic experts" in New Delhi have approved the shelters. Each has two rooms, a kitchen and an attached toilet. The roof and walls are made of galvanized iron sheets imported from India. But while government engineers measured the site for construction of the expert-approved houses in the open highlands, the Nicobarese were seen constructing their traditional huts inside the jungle, where it is shady, using the last of tools that survived the tsunami.

When I asked a Nicobari why he was busy constructing his hut, he replied, "Who would live in such houses? Let them construct it and do their duty, and we will do ours. Where shall we keep our pigs?"

The Nicobarese never live in closed houses with partitions. They prefer an open area to attend to nature's call rather than in a closed flush-out toilet. They have their huts on stilts, which not only are earthquake-resistant but also give them space to house their livestock.

All the while, in Port Blair, the capital city of the Andaman and Nicobar island chain, hundreds of tribal members from Car Nicobar, evacuated after the tsunami, have a merry time. They are spending most of their relief money on booze. Bars and wine shops in Port Blair are flooded with Nicobarese. Indian Manufactured Foreign Liquor, IMFL as it is called, is scarce in their land, which India's government has declared a tribal reserve. They are fascinated by city life, and after such a long stay in the city, their eagerness to return to their land seems to be declining. Some are even looking for land in Port Blair so they can stay on.

To the list of all of the terrible damage done to the Nicobarese people in the tsunami, we can add this: On one hand, the tribals have been lost in a new world of the city dwellers, while on the other hand those who were lucky enough to stay back in their own land are at a loss to understand what is going on there.

The involvement of government and nongovernmental agencies cannot be avoided during natural calamities such as the tsunami. But did anyone consider what the tribals really need?