February 6-11, 2006: Creating the Intentions for 2006, Review of Strategy in Tsunami-affected Villages (india)

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The culture in relief situations is: the outsiders (the government, the private aid groups) have things to give, and the people petition to get them. The challenge for The Hunger Project in the Tsunami-affected areas has been - can we work there authentically? Can we empower people to take charge of their own development? Our team frankly had doubts. Some very practical challenges emerged. For example:

  • Donors and the government focused on the fishing communities - the dominant caste in most of these villages - and largely ignored the lower caste farmers. The salt water from the Tsunami wave ruined farming in the region, and removing salt from farmland is a much harder process than providing fishing families with boats and nets.
  • Government relief efforts were not channeled through the panchayats - the constitutionally mandated democratic structures - but through traditional caste panchayats, which have no legal accountability and no representation of women. While this may have allowed some short-term efficiencies, it terribly undermined the panchayats and further marginalized women.

The priority for Poompuhar Panchayat - where there is an enormous population of widows - is the creation of a skills training and counseling center, which we inaugurated on February 9th.

The conflict between the castes was very apparent, but took a back seat to an appalling problem our team had discovered in the second panchayat we visited - Maruthapallam. This panchayat has an extraordinary population of people who are blind, deaf, dumb, crippled or mentally retarded. In addition to linking this panchayat with a group with real expertise in dealing with disabilities, we are determined to discover the cause of these disabilities - is it a poisoned water supply? Mercury contamination of the fish? There are no factories nearby and no obvious cause.

Here was a welcome site at the third panchayat we visited - Prathabaramapuram, or PR Puram for short! This is the village's first successful groundnut crop - about 1/2 what it was before the Tsunami, but at least it is something! The success was due to two factors - crippling floods in November actually helped matters by reducing the salt to some degree. And the well you see in the middle has been dug to a special depth that accesses non-salty water for irrigation. Go a little deeper, and you hit salt again.

This farming community features very successful mobilization of women into Self Help Groups. We met with six groups, who had given themselves names such as "Rainbow" and "Tender Breeze."

One of the key tools that The Hunger Project brings to the mobilization and empowerment of local communities is our "microplanning" or "People's Planning" process pioneered in Tamil Nadu by Dr. Palannithurai (below right) the chair of The Hunger Project in Tamil Nadu and the Rajiv Gandhi professor of Panchayati Raj at the Gandhigram Rural Institute. Not unlike the Vision, Commitment and Action workshop, this process engages the entire population of every hamlet in creating a vision for their own future and taking responsibility for achieving it. In addition, it entails months of detailed planning on precisely how to meet basic needs and results in a Plan Document (below left) that is signed (or thumb-printed) by every member of the village who attends the open meetings of the village assembly. The plan is then formally endorsed by the district administration, and therefore provides the village with enormous clout in negotiating partnership with government agencies for new classrooms, health facilities, vocational training, etc.

One of the most promising strategies for ongoing empowerment of elected women representatives is the formation of federations of elected women. We met with the head of the Tamil Nadu federations - Ponni Kailasam (shown above at left in a photo she proudly carries with her of when she presented the women's demands to India's Prime Minister).

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