Paddukuppam is a tsunami-ravaged village in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu. Its residents are members of the fishing community.
Here, believe it or not, the affected people had themselves built the temporary but sturdy shelters, which can house 68 families. They were built in just 13 days. On January 7, affected people slept in their 'own' home once again. Thanks to the women of Paddukuppam.
This is a story of a very ordinary people's extraordinary resolve. It is not money that has worked here, but the rich experience gained from the earthquake in Gujarat (2001), the relief work carried out during the riots in Gujarat (2002) and people's power.
There was no casualty in Paddukuppam because one of its residents, Devraj, was warned by someone from a neighbouring village. The residents fled leaving everything behind, which the tsunamis destroyed.
As soon as news of the tsunamis reached Gujarat, four experienced members of Disaster Mitigation Institution left for Chennai from Ahmedabad.
Hasmukh Sadhu, Tejal Dave, Jikesh Thakkar and Dipesh Sinha had a good idea of what happens when disasters strikes and what is required to be done in terms of relief work, especially in the first few hours.
"We hired a car in Chennai and, for the first 24 hours, moved along the coast, which was totally destroyed," Hasmukh Sadhu told rediff.com.
They met people and got an idea of their needs, the local support system and the existing self-government machinery.
To his surprise, Sadhu found that the village panchayat system was operational and quite active in the coastal areas.
A quick survey revealed that the two things bothering people were: lack of utensils and proper sleeping quarters for women.
Utensils: Aid was pouring in from the Tamil Nadu government and all over India but affected families didn't have utensils to stock them; a seemingly small but important need when people have lost everything.
Sleeping quarters: Families, particularly women and girls, were uncomfortable sleeping in churches or temples in a huge hall along with unknown men of neighboring villages.
Sadhu had a budget of Rs 800,000 to spend in the first phase of relief work. It was the money returned to the institution recently by those families in Gujarat who DMI had helped when they had lost everything in the 2001 earthquake.
[In the last three years, DMI had helped them rebuild their homes and lives by extending all possible support, including financial. The grateful beneficiaries have re-paid some part of the financial assistance.]
Instead of waiting for the government to begin relief work, Sadhu and his colleagues decided to extend immediate relief in the form of financial assistance and allowed the affected people to use it as per their requirement.
"Time was a very valuable factor when we set out to work. We didn't wanted people to suffer because of bureaucratic nitty-gritty," said Mihir Bhatt, director of DMI who is camping in Chennai.
When his four-member team reached Paddukuppam, they came across a man called Nagraj who was helping poor people and coordinating relief work with the district administration.
Sadhu approached Nagraj for a list of the poorest of poor families in the village.
At the same time, the team came across Shakti, a teenager who had fled from his school in a nearby town on hearing about the destruction caused in his village. He knew a little English and served as a translator for the DMI team.
With the list of most needy people in their hands, Tejal Dave and Deepesh Sinha asked the villagers to select some women who would form a Paddukuppam Relief Committee.
Some women were too traumatised for any such activity but Sadhu told them, "We give money to women only."
After some persuasion, five women and one man were persuaded to volunteer for the PRC. This step ultimately helped the villagers realize the hidden power of collective leadership.
Kaumudini, Pushpanam, Vasanthi, Vijayalaxmi, Kariarajvi had lost everything but have since rediscovered themselves.
When they became members of the PRC just three days after the tsunamis struck, they had little idea about how they would go about re-building their lives, leave alone that of others.
But setting aside their despondency, they, along with Devraj, got down to the task of re-building their village.
To begin with, Tejal and Jikesh took the five women to Pondicherry, which is just 15km away, to purchase utensils.
Jikesh, a stubborn bargainer, had a knack for getting work done at minimum cost. He kept an eagle eye as the five women bargained hard and struck a deal for utensils at the rate of Rs 200 per family. With utensils for 68 families in hand, that evening the women seemed to be cheerful on their way back home.
The next day, the five women called for a meeting of villagers. The DMI team was only witnesses because they did not understand Tamil.
The gram panchayat debated extensively on what kind of shelters people want, the materials to be used and the cost. The debate went on for two full days. On January 3, PRC members came back to the 'foursome from Gujarat' with specifics: the villagers had decided to use eucalyptus wood to build shelters.
Again, the five women were asked to shop for wood with Jikesh helping with the bargaining. "The villagers were familiar with the market price and knew how to use money judiciously," Sadhu told rediff.com.
Initially, traders in Pondicherry quoted a high price for the wood but the women did not give in. They closed the deal for house-building material at Rs 2,500 per home.
Then arose a problem in the mode of payment. Most traders in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry accept only cash. But DMI refused to pay in cash.
They used ICICI Bank's instant money transfer facility to complete the transaction. Money was transferred to the supplier's account by DMI when the actual delivery was made at Paddukuppam with messages being relayed through cell phones.
The gram panchayat allotted wasteland to build the shelters and gave a letter for 'use of land'.
On January 4, all the adult members of the 68 families and a handful of labourers started building the shelters. The only refrain: We are scared of the sea. We want our homes away from the coast. We want to stay close enough to help each other if a tsunami strikes again.
Thirty-eight 12*10 sq feet shelters were built to accommodate the 68 families. The roof is made of eucalyptus wood tied together with the help of coconut tree leaves, the floor is made of mud and plastic sheets provided by government cover the sides.
The effort received the complete support of the district collector and the local police.
"It took just 10 days for the women of Paddukuppam to regain their strength and confidence. It is amazing," Sadhu says.
The DMI is applying the same methodology of rehabilitation in four other villages of Tamil Nadu.
It next aims to build toilets, then temporary schools, then fishing nets, then boats, then medical centres, then permanent homes, then