Friday, December 23, 2005

Monday, Dec 5th: The Chennai Surprise

Getting an auto rickshaw to the railway station after 9 PM is always a challenge in Bangalore. Fortunately, as we were searching for one, a BMTC (Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation) bus headed that way stopped for us even though we were in between bus stops. Somehow I wasnt really surprised that he stopped again between bus stops for another 3 (or was it 5) minutes to draw cash from an ATM !! But it was a pleasant surprise to see one of the passengers call up the BMTC complaint line and immediately lodge a complaint that more than 50 people in the bus were kept waiting for the driver to draw cash in an ATM. The incident highlighted the problems of modern banking in India - not enough ATMs ... but I guess thats true even in the US, there never is an ATM nearby when one wants it real bad !

We arrived in Chennai at 5 AM, and discovered that prepaid auto isnt really prepaid here, the prepaid window writes down the cost of the ride to the destination, but the cash is given to the driver - leaving open the chances for the autowalla to make some quick money. Waking up Dhanunjay and a few others who were sleeping in the office we were ready for a long wait before the AID Chennai folks came in at 10.
Initially, the plan had been for Sudha, Madhulika, Kamayani (formerly with AID Milwaukee), Chandrika (formerly with AID Austin), and myself to join the Chennai team on a survey on health indicators amongst some communities in Vembakkam near Chennai. But the recent spate of rain and cyclones in Chennai had once again thrust the Chennai team towards relief work, and that was going to be the main agenda of the day.
As the 'stock taking and planning for the day' meeting started, Sudha and I were on opposite sides of the circle ensuring that everyone was entertained by our dozing! The situation in the affected areas was pretty grim. Reports of efforts undertaken over the previous day and an assessment of requirements and plans for the day were discussed. The limited amount of food and material collected (and bought) was distributed to the various areas on the basis of this discussion. Different members of the group were being assigned to teams headed to different places, and an inexplicable feeling within kept me in the background, and not volunteering to join any. Sudha joined a group headed for Saidapet. After the teams started to disperse, my late attempt to join the team going to get more bread was botched by my weight – I was too heavy for the only two wheeler around !

I hung around the AID Chennai office, shadowing Balaji around. After a few hours, it was decided that after lunch I would join the team going to Kallukuttai, a slum near Velachery, located in a low lying area that has been flooded every time there has been heavy rains. Given my Tamil skills, I was only too glad when I was asked to be the photographer. I was accompanying Vanaja, Mangai and another volunteer, and the 45 minute ride to Kallukuttai was another round of dozing off! Once we reached Kallukuttai, sleep was far from my mind. The area was still under water.
As we entered the water logged road leading to the slum, a catamaran was leaving with supplies of bread and rice. We were asked to wait for another one that was coming back. It was a non - surfaced catamaran that we climbed into - the shaped logs of wood were held in place by cross beams, but didnt have a surface that would keep the water out. So by the time all of us had climbed in, the water had risen to our seat level ! The only relief was to know that the water was the run off from a nearby lake and didn't have any contributions from the city sewage system ... well, that doesn't by any means imply that the water was clean ! I was clicking away on the digital camera that Balaji had given me – the scene I was witnessing was something we see in TV reports and news flashes. The only difference here was that this scene had persisted ... and repeated itself every time Chennai is hit by above 10 mm (?) of rain during a single day.
The three or so sacks of rice brought in the catamaran carrying supplies was bought by a few community members from the marooned areas for setting up a community kitchen there. The mandate of the group I had accompanied was mainly to distribute the bread. But there were way too many recipients than the group of people distributing food could control. A few attempts were made to get the food supplies across the waiting crowd to a marooned high ground before starting distribution. As the restlessness and the entropy within the crowd increased, the team decided to distribute part of the bread here and carry the rest across. Before the catamaran with supplies was brought close to the crowd for distribution, a few sacks were filled with bread and carted away to be kept aside as a reserve. The distribution started quite peacefully – a human conveyor chain was formed to get loaves of bread that were handed out, rather than getting the catamaran close to the crowd. But the situation slowly deteriorated out of control – there were too many people seeking food and too few with an appreciation of the need for order and distribution. As about half of the loaves of bread were distributed, the agitation grew and the local volunteers distributing the material steered the catamaran further away. We were advised to get back to the road and not hang around, and after a little deliberation, we climbed into the other catamaran and headed back ...
One of the area coordinators started discussing how things went and what needed to be done. An earlier discussion on the need for sarees and bedsheets was re-iterated and it was a bit of a surprise that I was now being asked to talk to Balaji and try and convince him on the need for these ... I was actually thinking how futile such an effort would be, given that the entire community was living in at least knee deep water ! The need of the community might have been better clothing and warmer beds, but it would be a hard sell for anyone to project this as the need of the hour ...
We returned to the office by evening, tired field groups were trickling back into the office. I had a quick bath and had changed out of the soggy clothes before Sudha turned up. As planned we headed out for a quick bite before heading over to Chandra's house for the night.

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