Disaster Relief, NGO-led Humanitarianism and the Reconfiguration of Spatial Relations in Tamil Nadu


Disaster Relief, NGO-led Humanitarianism and the Reconfiguration of Spatial Relations in Tamil Nadu

Raja Swamy

Given the plethora of civil society organizations in the contemporary era, including those entities broadly defined as NGOs engaged increasingly in processes of development and relief work on a global scale, some studies have drawn attention to the role these play in facilitating processes that depoliticize populations (Alvarez, 1998; Ferguson, 1990; Fisher, 1997).1 This disciplining aspect, generally attributed to the insights of Foucault, is assumed to be an extension and generalization on a global scale of neoliberal governance (Foucault, 2009). In recent years, a small but growing body of literature has focused on the nexus of state and private interests in post-disaster reconstruction. Many of these works examine the ways in which disaster situations, either those arising from natural causes, or devastation resulting from warfare, are viewed as opportunities for corporate and state interests to advance strategies of accumulation (Gunewardena, 2008; Klein, 2007; Middleton, 1998). The gradual merging of the field of development with broader processes conventionally associated with the imperatives of global capital accumulation proceeds as notions of security and vulnerability become part of a common discourse justifying new strategies of expansion and control (Duffield, 2007; Fassin, 2007). Thus, responses to disasters today increasingly invoke new strategies of development that rest upon a discursive and practical field merging conceptions of vulnerability, risk, resilience and security. There is therefore an increasing tendency to view the need for humanitarian relief as a simultaneous demand for a distinctly neoliberal form of economic development, one centered on rapidly depoliticizing populations while advancing the strategic imperatives of states on behalf of global private capital. This chapter is a call to develop greater empirical depth in our consideration of NGO humanitarianism. It is proposed here that NGOization as a processual component of radical post-disaster respatialization can result in more complex outcomes than simple depoliticization or ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Harvey, 2001). As this chapter seeks to demonstrate, a combination of local resilience articulated in ways that render useless paternalistic conceptions by NGOs of disaster victims as vulnerable subjects, and the stubborn counter-strategies of popularly aligned ‘local’ NGOs, can result in outcomes radically different from those envisioned in grand schemes of regional post-disaster respatialization.

This chapter is concerned with the dynamics of NGO involvement in the aftermath of the devastating 2004 tsunami in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu, India. Focusing on the specific ways in which the disaster circumscribed a distinct terrain of action for the work of NGOs, I examine the manner in which NGOization itself may sometimes be characterized by an open-ended struggle between different political strategies, shaped by, and in engagement with, complex arrangements tying the interests and goals of the state, multilateral institutions and affected populations. Three features stood out in post-tsunami Nagapattinam that make this a productive context for the study of NGOization, its outcomes and limitations. To planners and policy makers the tsunami was seen as an opportunity for the acceleration of region-wide transformations that were not possible prior to the disaster, primarily on account of a long history of resistance by the coastal fisher population. Secondly, the involvement of NGOs in reconstruction was unprecedented in scale, with the entire housing construction component undertaken by numerous organizations many of which never had a pre-tsunami presence in the region. This second aspect was directly tied to a strategic distinction drawn by policy makers and their multilateral institutional partners between humanitarian aid and economic development which ensured that the crucial question of relocation was removed from its proper political context and rehabilitated within the domain of safety and humanitarian generosity. This strategic move was intended to facilitate the radical respatialization of the coast with industrial, infrastructural and tourist development agendas envisioned for the long-term transformation of the region into an economic zone integrated into a global capitalist economy.2 Based on ethnographic research on the impact of post-tsunami housing reconstruction on fisher communities in Nagapattinam, I examine in this chapter how the dominant mode of NGO engagement in post-disaster reconstruction advocated political complicity in processes of dispossession, and how the work of another NGO with a long history of political engagement on behalf of artisanal fisher interests played an important role in helping to subvert the goal of mass relocation of the district’s fisher communities.

I conducted ethnographic fieldwork as part of my doctoral dissertation research in Nagapattinam in 2007–08, focusing on the impacts of relocation on selected households from the coastal fisher villages of Ariyanattutheru, Kallar, and Keechankuppam. In order to explore the general contours of post-tsunami housing construction I conducted two surveys. A preliminary assessment of the impact of relocation on household incomes, expenditure and credit was conducted among 174 households in the relocation sites of five fisher villages in Nagapattinam Taluk–Kallar, Akkarapettai, Keechankuppam, Ariyanattutheru, and Nambiyarnagar. A second survey involved a region-wide study of relocation and beach-space use in the coastal villages of Nagapattinam and adjacent Karaikal, spread from Kallar to Pazhayar. I utilized a GPS unit to map relocation distances and the spatial dimensions of new locations and villages, as well as beach space use by fisher villages and non-fishing (infrastructural, industrial, tourism, and forestry) activities along the Nagapattinam-Karaikal coast from Kallar in Nagapattinam Taluk to Pazhayar in Sirkazhi, bordering Cuddalore district. Data was also collected on the structural and locational features of new housing as reported by randomly sampled households in each of these villages. I conducted formal and informal interviews, field visits and participant observation with the staff of the NGOs Social Needs Empowerment Humane Awareness (SNEHA) and World Vision.

NGOs in post-tsunami reconstruction

NGOs played a central role in housing construction as a result of an elaborate ‘public-private partnership’, which emerged through government and multilateral agency initiatives and the pressure represented by the flood of NGOs in the weeks following the tsunami. The manner in which the state government envisaged a central role for NGOs ensured both that the costs of housing reconstruction for the most affected population – primarily marginal coastal fishers – would be externalized to NGOs, and that this process would take place in coordination with state and multilateral agency agendas to respatialize the coast.3 Thus reconstruction institutionalized a division between economic development and humanitarian aid, and paved the way for a program that consisted on the one hand of infrastructural projects such as port and harbour expansion and construction, while relegating housing construction to an NGO-led effort designed to facilitate the relocation of fisher communities from the coast to inland sites selected and procured for the purpose by the government.

Government Order 25, issued by the Tamil Nadu state government’s Revenue Department on January 13th, 2005, called for a ‘public-private partnership’ between the government, private interests and NGOs to ‘participate for the permanent relocation and rehabilitation of people affected by this calamity’.4 What this meant becomes clear in the specifics laid out in the Order whereby NGOs may take on housing construction as per specific guidelines laid out by the state government, with the latter identifying and procuring land for the purpose.5 As a result, reconstruction by NGOs effectively meant building and delivering ‘quality’ housing on location and land that the government decided. NGOs overwhelmingly accepted this condition and commenced building, focusing on their work in terms of meeting deadlines and ‘delivering’ houses rather than on the substantive question of how location and proximity to the coast are crucial criteria for artisanal fishers.

A second Government Order, G.O. 172 issued on March 30th, 2005 laid out criteria for relocation that served as the basis for advancing mass relocation of the state’s coastal communities.6 Using absolute distances as criteria, without regard to specifics of land – elevation, protective vegetation, structures, etc., and invoking the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 1991, the Order proscribed the construction of new houses within 200 meters of the high-tide line, and denied government assistance to those in this category who wished to repair damaged houses. It is well-known that households living closest to the coast tend to be poorer residents of kutcha houses, built with locally available materials. Thus the poorest residents of fisher villages living close to the coast were pressured into accepting new housing. Moreover, by stating that for the zero-200 meter category, only ‘repair of structures authorized prior to 1991 is permissible and no new construction is possible’, the Order blatantly disregarded the de facto as opposed to de jure nature of property conventions governing the housing practices of marginalized populations such as the artisanal fishing communities of Nagapattinam.7 Very few structures would have qualified for the simple reason that, in general, housing remains an often locally negotiated state of affairs often straddling state and customary claims. Invariably a great many households in coastal fishing communities live in houses constructed on what is legally speaking state-owned poramboke land. Even if a household were able to produce evidence of authorization before 1991, the Order denied government support for necessary repairs, leaving such residents to fend for themselves. The only way out for households in this zero-200 meter category was therefore to accept a new house in a location identified by the government. While requiring proof of prior authorization and denying assistance for repairs constituted the coercive part of the government’s strategy, the offer of a new house for even those residents whose houses within the zero-200 meter category were undamaged represented its intentions as benign and generous.

The most contentious part of G.O. 172, however, was the requirement that households accepting new housing give up all rights to their old habitations and legally hand over those properties to the government. The lands thus given up would be entered into a ‘Prohibitory Order Book’ to ensure that they remain in the hands of the government and not transferred. While stating this, there was no other guarantee provided that the land would remain available to the community for its livelihood needs. This requirement to hand legal ownership of land over to the government confirmed suspicions already rife that new housing was being used to lure the fishing communities of the state out of their coastal settlements. Nagapattinam’s District Collector went so far as to threaten criminalization of, and legal action against, anticipated efforts to retain old houses by recipients of new housing, and urged NGOs to ‘explain’ the Government Order’s stipulations in this specific regard to communities who seemed to be ‘unable to understand G.O.s properly’.8 Many NGOs made this part of their engagement with communities as they sought to convince residents of the advantages of accepting new housing and the related requirement to relinquish claims on the coast. The Mata Amritanandamayee organization, an internationally funded Hindu NGO based out of Kerala, went so far as to help its beneficiaries ‘voluntarily’ demolish their houses on the coast as a demonstration of good faith, while World Vision issued an agreement form that explicitly required residents seeking new houses to formally relinquish all claims on existing houses and lands as per the core demand of G.O. 172. By presenting the ‘tsunami house’ as a gift, NGOs not only foregrounded their interventions in terms of compassion and generosity, but crucially enabled the alienation of land by tacitly or actively supporting the government’s requirement that eligibility for housing be predicated on the relinquishing of all claims on coastal land and properties. As such the NGO gift of housing to fisher communities also served as a means to transfer coastal land to the state government.

World Vision and ‘service delivery’

With 990 residents, Kallar is located atop a dune about a kilometer south of Akkarapettai. While there were about 123 deaths due to the tsunami, houses on top of the dune and those behind it were relatively undamaged. The majority of the destruction and damage was in the northern part of the village along a U-shaped road that provides access to the beach, and in the zero-200 meter range. In terms of its location, Kallar is the most rural of all of Nagapattinam Taluk’s fisher villages located close to the agricultural village of Poignallur. World Vision, the powerful US evangelical NGO, undertook the construction of more than a thousand housing units for Nagapattinam Taluk’s fisher communities of which 240 houses were built for residents of Kallar.9 The site for construction was located in Papa Koil,10 an inland agricultural village approximately six kilometers from Kallar by road. The site was flanked by shrimp farms to its east, north and south, and the Velankanni highway to its west. This was the farthest relocation site for any fisher village in Nagapattinam district and the impact of distance was most acutely experienced by men and women accustomed to living in proximity to beaches and landing centers and within short distances of markets and civic facilities.

The site selection process involved little community input and despite misgivings about the distance and location of the new site, the Kallar’s panchayat11 agreed to accept new houses in Papa Koil. ‘New Kallar’, completed in 2007, was soon occupied by Kallar’s fishers, many of whom had lost homes and family members in the tsunami. By early 2008 however, the site began to be abandoned, with many units locked up, or occupied by non-fisher households who now ‘rented’ from fisher owners. The difficulties of trying to sustain artisanal fishing from such a distance proved to be too much for New Kallar’s fishers. In addition locational and structural problems such as the lack of fresh water, salinity and pollution from adjacent shrimp farms that tended to corrode the poorly plastered walls of their new houses, the lack of roof tiling which necessitated the consumption of more electricity for electric fans, and the absence of functional septic tanks, indoor plumbing, drainage, and running water were some of the most pressing problems for residents. Income/expenditure surveys which I conducted in this community showed that the cost of living here was prohibitively higher than what most residents were accustomed to on the coast. Unsurprisingly most residents returned to Kallar reneging on their agreements with the government and rebuilding on the coast while renting out or putting to other uses their World Vision ‘gifted’ housing units. Kallar’s experience exemplifies the failure of post-tsunami large-scale reconstruction efforts in addressing the central problems facing the fisher community vis-a-vis livelihood and location, and stands as a glaring example of the failure of World Vision’s ‘service delivery’ approach.

As an international NGO with a global focus,12

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