December 24, 2006 : Kammama: A little mother
by Gaurav Garg
**incorporates updated data received from Joan Howe Thursday Nov 8
ANDAMAN AND NICOBAR ISLANDS, India: The afternoon sun is blazing on remote Little Andaman island, but the only light penetrating widowed fisherman Madhav Rao’s makeshift shelter in Paduk Tikree, a temporary settlement for 450 fisher families displaced by the 2004 tsunami, are narrow rays struggling through holes in the aluminium sheet walls. He is one of 46,000 people on the Andaman and Nicobar islands who, almost two years after the tsunami, still have no permanent homes.
As Madhav Rao sits up in bed, wiping heavy afternoon sleep from bloodshot eyes, glass bangles on the wall catch the sunrays and shimmer in the spartan room. They are the prized possessions of his daughter Kamamma: a reminder of the youth stolen from her by the giant waves that thrust her into premature motherhood two years ago.
Before the waves came, Kamamma was a 13-year-old going to school with other girls from the settler families who migrated in the 1970s from India’s east coast province of Andhra Pradesh.
Closest to the Malay archipelago but administered by India 1,400 kilometres to its west, the Andaman and Nicobar islands are populated by a mix of Stone Age tribes, recent Indian settlers, and South East Asians who migrated hundreds of years ago.
The 572 islands, of which only 38 are inhabited, are strewn between Thailand and India. They form an 800-kilometre-long arc in the centre of the Indian Ocean that rose from its seabed on Boxing Day 2004 and swallowed coastlines in eight countries, wiping out the seaside settlements of Andaman and Nicobar and changing survivors’ lives forever.
At least 3,500 people were killed on these islands. Kamamma, her father and her two little brothers survived. Their mother didn’t. Like the other fisher wives, she was standing at the water’s edge at sunrise on December 26 waiting for the fishing fleets to come in. The women take over the catch once the men come ashore, sorting, scaling and preparing the fish for market.
“She was standing on the shore when we came in,” recalls Madhav, who was in the boats that had just come in when the wall of water smashed into the wharves.
“Then the huge waves came. I dived in and swam out to try and save her. But the current was too strong. We never got her body back.”
The tsunami left 650 children in Andaman and Nicobar orphaned or in single-parent homes.
Kamamma now plays mother to her brothers Sevachalam, 10, and Hemraju, 7, cooks for the family and cleans their transient tin home. School is a distant memory.
The earthquake that preceded the tsunami levelled 119 schools in the Andaman and Nicobar islands and killed 64 teachers.
In 2006 UNICEF’s education focus shifted from providing emergency school supplies to improving quality and access.
Since the tsunami UNICEF has trained 2,000 teachers in providing psycho-social support. The focus of psychosocial care has broadened to empower children through learning life skills, focusing on communication, interpersonal skills, negotiation and personal safety. More than 30,000 students have been reached.
Under the Quality Education Program, UNICEF has worked with the government to develop an effective activity-based and child-centred curriculum for first and second grades, supported by learning materials in five local languages. This is expected to help reduce the number of school dropouts and boost the number of children passing grade 10 board exams.
“Education here has now become child-centric. There is a better classroom environment and facilities, along with the development of curriculum,” says Subhash Misra, UNICEF’s Program Coordinator for Andaman and Nicobar.
“Before the tsunami, almost everyone was satisfied that the islands had a very high literacy rate, but there was hardly any focus on the quality of education. We have been able to put quality of education on the agenda.”
But in Madhav Rao’s temporary settlement of Paduk Tikree, almost 50 percent of young girls had to abandon their education and assume mothering roles. UNICEF has managed to get 32 fisher family girls back to school in the past two years yet further efforts to bring girls back into the classroom are up against the needs of the family.
“What would she do there? There is nothing there for her. She is needed at home,” growls Madhav, when Kamamma is asked whether she wants to go back to school.
“The weight of circumstance and necessity, more than parochial beliefs, are the major obstacles in convincing families to send their daughters to school,” says UNICEF Education Officer Muthu.
Two years on, the women are back at the jetty each morning, draped in sarees and adorned in jewels, waiting for the boats to come in. But Kamamma is too busy to take up her late mother’s place at the jetty to take over the catch.
Her usual day revolves around cooking and walking a kilometre to queue an hour for water from the government water tanker. When her brothers return from school, Kamamma supervises their homework.
Kamamma’s case is replicated throughout the settler fisherfolk of Andaman and Nicobar.
So is her father’s alcoholism.
“Alcohol abuse is rampant,” says Nageshwar Rao, a local teacher who lost his fisherman father in the tsunami and “domestic violence is growing.”
After the waves came the swell of international help, mainly in the form of new fishing boats to save the islands’ lifeline industry.
The flood of new boats attracted a flood of first-time fisherfolk, swelling the ranks of the fishing community. Each family’s catch these days is less than it used to be. Daily earnings have fallen.
At the local jetty, scores of empty liquor bottles are scattered among the fishing nets. Each evening fishermen descend on the jetty after daytime slumbers. Some mend nets, some play cards, while others loll on the sands, intoxicated and chewing beetlenut.
“The pressure is starting to tell,” says Rao.
“All this drinking and domestic violence is strange for us. We used to be a peaceful and prosperous community.”
On worst-hit Car Nicobar, an island of 17,500 people 180 kilometres south of Little Andaman, 36 children lost their mothers to the marauding waves. Seven-year-old Jabeena Bano from the minority Muslim community saw the sea sweep her mother and grandmother from their home in the coastal village of Chuchucha.
Chuchucha’s people have been relocated to forests deep inland. Families live in modest shelters made from tin sheets. Permanent homes are being constructed and are slated to be ready by late 2007.
Local authorities plan to build 9,714 permanent homes in 71 locations. Almost 9,600 homes have already been built in 58 locations across the islands. In the Nicobar islands, 46,000 people are still in temporary shelters.
All schools on Car Nicobar island were destroyed or damaged. Before the tsunami, Nicobar district had an enrolment rate of 100 percent, with a teacher-to-student ratio of around 1 to 22.
Too young to take on the role of mother like Kamamma, Jabeena Bano has gone back to school.
Her father Mohammad Farooq, a taxi-driver earning the equivalent of 133 dollars a month, is determined to pursue her education.
“She wants to be a doctor,” he says, adding with a toothy beetlenut smile: “To take care of the old man.”
Jabeena Bano gets clean drinking water at her temporary school, thanks to a UNICEF-supplied rainwater harvesting unit. The units take advantage of the hitherto untapped clean-water resource of rain. Two monsoons a year ensure an annual rainfall of three metres.
The tsunami wiped out most water supply systems in Nicobar district and contaminated the groundwater with saline seawater. Trucking water inland to where families had fled was next to impossible because of washed-away roads and fallen palms. As an alternative UNICEF has installed nearly 2,500 rainwater harvesting units across the Nicobar islands. It’s also trained 52 engineers in water-quality testing. UNICEF installed 10 portable laboratories for water quality surveillance.
At the monsoon’s peak, rain can fill a 300-litre rainwater harvesting tank in just half-an-hour, supplying four days of water for a whole family. A 1,000-litre tank provides a family with 20 days of water.
“Through roof-top rainwater harvesting, we have been able to provide water to at least 15 villages where no other water sources were available,” says Misra.
“The concept of ‘personal’ water has emerged with rainwater harvesting. Before, people had to walk some distance to get water. Today water is available at their homes.”