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Lotus Sculpture Donations to the Fishermen of Tamil Nadu

For Everyone who donated to this effort a sincere THANK YOU from Lotus Sculpture and the village of Killai!

Donations & Plan

From January 1st through January 31st Lotus Sculpture collected donations for the fishermen of Tamil Nadu, India who were directly affected by the tsunami of December 26th. 

Lotus Sculpture donated $1,728 while friends and strangers alike donated $1,304.74 bringing the total donations to $3,032.74 or 132,166 Indian Rupees.  I was leaving for India in February and thought it best to figure out a way to directly distribute the donations to the fishermen of Tamil Nadu, India.  My plan was to first ascertain the needs of the fishermen affected by directly visiting and talking with villages affected by the tsunami and then based on their needs, buy and distribute goods directly to the fishermen so that there would be no, or very minimal chance of the goods being resold or diverted for ill gain.  The following is a brief recount of my actions and some thoughts I had on the trip.  The purpose is so that all my actions are completely transparent in order for people to know exactly how I utilized their donations.   

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Arriving in India

I arrived in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu in the south of India.  The taxi ride from Chennai airport to the small town of Mahabalipuram follows the Indian Ocean.  There were many settlements on the side of the road that were not always there.  In talking with my taxi driver he told me the fishing villages erected temporary settlements of tents and tarps away from the ocean.  Their homes were not damaged in the tsunami but they feared the ocean so they spent their days at there old homes next to the ocean and their nights in the donated camps.  On the other side of the road a mile away from the ocean there were corrugated shacks set up by the government.  The Indian government thought it best to move the fishing villages far away from the ocean.  None of the shacks were used by the villagers because they are too far away from the ocean and their homes for them to be useful.   

Mahabalipuram

I spent the first two nights in the very touristy town of Mahabalipuram.  I immediately noticed new fiberglass boats on the beach instead of the old style of wooden boats that typically were scattered across the beach. 

In talking to some Indian friends and travelers I heard many stories of Indian fishermen taking obvious advantage of the tsunami and foreigners good will.  One tourist I spoke to gave money to a fisherman for a boat.  She then left Mahabalipuram to visit other parts of India and returned 2 weeks later.  The fisherman she had given the money to was watching TV from his new television, not fishing in his new boat. 

There were also many stories of Indian officials taking donated bags of rice meant for the tsunami victims and selling them for pennies just so they could profit.  Many corruption stories as usual.  Unfortunately, corruption is the standard not the exception in India.

In all of Mahabalipuram there were 6 casualties caused by the tsunami, one Indian lady and five tourists.  Even though the waves in Mahabalipuram were just as big as in the other areas, the death toll was significantly lower.  This was because the fishing villages were not built directly on the ocean front therefore there was not as much destruction.

In the bungalow where I usually stay, the waves reached up to the roof of the two story building.  The tourists inside the room lost everything but were alright.  It was unbelievable for me to look at my recently repaired hotel room and imagine the size of a wave that could completely engulf the two story beach bungalow. 

All of these stories and what I saw for myself told me that Mahabalipuram was not the area to disperse any of the money meant to help those affected by the tsunami.  I decided to go further south where I had heard from various people that government aid had not yet trickled down. 

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Going Further South; Chidambaram

I left for Chidambaram about 4 hours south of Mahabalipuram.  Here I have a very good friend named Arun.  The first night in Chidambaram Arun and I visited the district sub-collector.  He was in charge of coordinating the distribution of donated goods.  Raj, Arun's father, said the district sub-collector was a reputable man, unlike most government officials.  Arun and I went to his house and he recommended giving bicycles to the children who had lost their bikes and carts which business people use to sell their goods to some men who had lost them in the tsunami.  Arun said that bikes were items that can easily be resold.  It would also be very hard to coordinate who actually lost their bike in the tsunami or who was just looking for a new bike.  Both of us did not like the idea of the sub-collector.

Two days later we visited the home of a friend of Arun's father whose name is Sethumadavan.  He is a retired bus line owner and now devotes his time to philanthropy.  He is a member of the Lion's Club and right away you could see that he was honest and selfless.  His latest endeavor had been tsunami victims.  We met with him in his home and he gave us options on things to do with our money.  He had been visiting some affected fishing villages almost daily and he informed us of one particular village that was directly on the ocean with a backwater behind the village.  The tsunami literally swept away all they had going right over their village and continuing on through the backwater.  The Indian government had so far given no aid to this village.  Sethumadavan had been in contact with the village leader.  While Sethumadavan was at the village earlier in the day we called his cell phone and told him how much money we had to donate, 130,000 Rupees.  He then asked the village elder what they most needed.  They said large nets, baskets and ice chests.  All these items are used for fishing and selling the fish.  Both Arun and I agreed that this was much better than bicycles.  Many people have the ability to donate small nets that cost only $15 but with the $3000 I had it would be much more wisely spent on something larger that could benefit many people.  We decided on buying the larger nets. 

Fishing Nets

The fishing nets the village asked for were 200kg of Gareware 40mm netting, 250kg of Gareware 45mm netting and 100kg of Gareware 20mm netting. 

We then focused on buying the nets by going to two fishing supply stores to get quotes on the nets.  A $3000 investment is a rather large sum for India and therefore we had to really check our prices.  We went to one store to get a quote.  They gave us a price and also said that it would take 10 days.  I did not have 10 days.  We visited another store.  We were able to purchase all the nets the village required on special order with the nets being delivered within the next two days.  We found out that the nets the village requested are only used by this specific fishing village.  There is no possibility of the nets being resold because no other village even uses these nets.  The owner of the shop was once the village elder of a fishing village in this area. 

The wife of the fishing supply shop owner was there and in Tamil language she told Arun that they had not received any aid from the government.  Arun thought this quite ridiculous.  It was assumed that with all the fishing nets lost during the tsunami the store would be selling many new nets to replace the nets that were lost.  However, we were advised that in order to be competitive with other fishing supply stores they had to give nets on credit.  With the large number of fishermen losing everything, including their fishing nets, how would they be able to collect on the loans if the fishermen they gave the nets to on credit were either dead or had no means to pay back the loan?  She said they lost 2,500,000 Rupees or $60,000 in nets.  Both Arun and I were very surprised by this.  Our first impressions were wrong.

Visiting the Village of Killai

Two days later we went to visit the village of Killai, this is the village we would be donating the fishing nets to.  In the morning we meet with the local mayor.  We planned on seeing all the villages in the area affected by the tsunami.  First we visited the boat wallas, or boat owners.  After the tsunami all the boats were either thrown up on land or dragged out into the backwater and sunk.  All were repairable.  We organized a motor boat ride out though the backwaters to the island where the first village was located.  While waiting for the boat, I saw a group of women beating their chest in obvious distress.  I began to walk over as a lady motioned for me to come over, they said that a man died last night from injuries caused by the tsunami...it was very sad.

We then took the 15 minute boat ride through the mangroves and backwaters to the first village of Killai.  Killai was the hardest hit by the three waves.  There were 177 families living in this village.  In the tsunami 80 people died.  The village existed on an island directly in front of the ocean with backwater directly behind it.  When the tsunami hit at 9:30am it literally washed directly over the small island.  One villager told me that the wave was 3/4 the height of the coconut trees.  There was a boat that was found up in the top of coconut tree. 

While walking to the village, we passed an area of nothing but pure sand.  They told me that this area was once full of huts, now everything was completely washed away.   There were not even remnants that people used to live there.  All of it was washed away.

The village was nestled beneath a canopy of shady palm trees.  The setting for the village was just beautiful; a long sandy beach, the ocean directly in front of the village, palm trees and a backwater mangrove forest behind the village.  The tsunami left literally nothing standing.  The only thing left of the village was the foundation of some houses, broken boats, tangled nets and debris that was once their homes.  People were milling about picking up the pieces of their former life. 

This village was directly on the ocean front with difficult access to the mainland only by boat.  Because of the villages separation from the mainland all their belongings were kept in their huts in the village.  Within a hut you could usually find a television, fine saris as well as a clay bowl with all their jewelry.  Because they were away from land they did not invest in land on the mainland or use banks for savings.  Literally, their whole life was within the walls of their huts and in their boats.  All swept away in three waves.

One man recounted to me how he climbed up a coconut tree to escape the wave, his mother was not as fortunate.  Overall it was a very emotional thing to see with my own eyes...the area where 80 people had died.

Much to my surprise everyone I was around in the village was handling things quite well.  I would have still been in serious mourning but people here were picking up the pieces and going about rebuilding their lives.  I guess it had been 2 months and they had begun the healing process.  How else can you go on after a nightmare like that?

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The Temple and Resettlement

We then returned to the mainland to visit the philanthropist, Sethumadavan, who was helping coordinate aid for us, at a local temple where he was distributing water, dhal and rice to the local villagers.  The temple is the center of aid distribution for such things as food and water.  While we were there, I thought that in all likelihood many of these people collecting aid were not directly affected by the wave.  But on further reflection it seems that everyone in this area was connected to the sea.  The men would catch the fish and then everyone else in the area would make business transporting and selling the fish.  All the fishermen I spoke to said that they had not yet been back to the ocean.  For two months since the tsunami, they had not been fishing and the engine for the local economy had not been running, affecting everyone in the area.

We then went to a village that was relocated farther away from the ocean.  The government relocated a village that was once on the ocean front to an area behind the backwaters.  One NGO adopted the village and was busy making concrete houses with corrugated steel roofs.  The NGO was also delivering 50 boats with nets.  I also found out that the government was giving each family 3000 Rupees per month, around $69 per month. 

Through speaking with people at each of the villages we concluded that the greatest need right now that would help the most number of people would be the donation of fishing nets to the village of Killai, where almost no aid had reached.  So we had bought exactly what was needed for the village to start getting back to fishing and a semi normal life.

Finalizing the Nets

The next day we went to the store to finish buying the nets.  Four of the fishermen that were receiving the nets went along with us for quality control as both Arun and I knew nothing about fishing or fishing nets.  While buying the nets they insisted on "Gareware" brand nets.  Apparently Gareware is the Mercedes Benz of fishing nets.  While weighing the nets, price is determined by weight.  I asked the fishermen that were with us how they actually will use the nets.  These nets are used only by this village because they are the only village who uses the larger fishing boats.  The nets are sunk to the bottom of the ocean using weights and then dragged along the bottom at a depth of 200 meters.  Gareware nets apparently last up to a year while other brands last up to 3 months.  When I asked them what they catch, "everything" was their reply with the characteristic wiggle of the head.  Everything is prawns, small and large fish. 

At the store we went over the bill and the nets received.  We received 201kg of the 40mm net, 232kg of the 45mm net and 92 kg of the 20mm net.  Although it was not exact, it was very close to the amount we requested.  The total was 525kgs.  Each kg costs 235 Rupees making the total amount spent 525 x 235 which equals 123,375 Rupees.  I paid for the nets with literally a fist full of Rupees.  A truck then took the nets back to the hotel where they were to be measured into equal parts and then cut so that each person got an equal share.  The nets that Arun and I purchased now needed to be cut up and divided into 45 nets.  Each net would be the property of 4 people.  The 45 nets would then benefit 180 fishermen and their families. I never thought that $3000 could ever make such a major difference for so many people!  Each net, if I recall correctly, measured 10 meters long. 

Buying and cutting the nets took from 10am until 3:30pm.  We then reloaded the truck and struck off for the hour long journey to the village for distribution. 

The Best Part...Giving the Nets Away!!!

We arrived at the meeting point where we would distribute the nets near the village just as the sun was setting.  There was a throng full of men dressed in white pressed shirts and dhotis, the customary white skirts the men wear. After about 15 minutes of small talk they started what I will call the "ceremony" for lack of a better word.  I was presented with a large saffron laced necklace; a lime and a shawl all of which made me feel very important and very hot.  We then started to distribute the nets. 

A list of names was compiled by the leaders of the village which designated who received a net.  This list will be given to the sub-collector of Chidambaram who is coordinating the larger relief effort in the district to insure that two people do not get the same thing twice and take advantage. 

AAs each name was called out, a fisherman would weave his way through the collection of people to receive their net.  Most people accepted the net with an awkward "thank you".  Some said nothing at all, unsure of what to say in situations like these, especially with a foreigner.  But in everyone's face I could really see that they were genuinely thankful for what they were receiving.   This one man in his mid thirties will stick in my memory forever.  He approached me to receive the net, accepted the net from me and looked into my eyes and with such sincerity said in his accented English, "thank you".  I had been so wrapped up in seeing to the logistics of giving the nets to the village that I really lost sight of why I was doing it.  His "thank you" slapped me in the face.  These people literally have nothing...zero.  Their entire life has been taken away from them, all of their possessions and for most of them at least one member of their family most likely a child or a grandparent.  By giving them a piece of their former life back, they are closer to where they were before December 26th.  After everyone had received their nets, they thanked me and everyone who gave something a long emotional round of applause.  I then told them that everyone in America and throughout the world was thinking about them after the tsunami and that we were very happy to be able to help them, which of course had to be translated.  (At this point I swore to myself I would learn at least a working knowledge of Tamil).  They invited me to stay the night at their village when I return in August to eat some fish caught out of these same nets.  I happily accepted.  We then said our good byes and left.   I will see them again in August. 

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Conclusion

To be honest I am both extremely happy and extremely surprised that it all worked out as well as it did.  When I first arrived in India and took a good look around I was really worried that I may have bitten off more than I could chew.  I do not speak the language, although I know a lot about other areas, I knew nothing of the area that was affected or who was affected and have absolutely no experience in fishing nets.  For his extreme care, planning and organizing I am very grateful to Arun for guiding me through the uncharted waters that I entered.  Without his help the money would have never been applied as successfully as it was.  Through his help I am happy to say that I don�t think there would have been a better way to spend the money collected to help those affected by the tsunami in Tamil Nadu.  Thank you Arun! 

Arun has promised to check in with the fishermen again in two months to see how they are doing.  Because the nets cost 123,027 Rupees and the amount I started with was 132,166 Rupees there is still some 9,139 Rupees left for the fishermen.  Thus we will be able to donate some items later to them either in August when I return or if there is an immediate need, through the Lion�s Club in two months.  This experience has proved to me that through some effort it is possible to help people who truly need assistance. 

I believe that this is the beginning of Lotus Sculpture donating sustainable aid in the region for those who are less fortunate.  I have spoken with Indian friends in the area and we have started to make plans for future projects to help poor children in schools by donating supplies to them.   If you are interested in learning more please write to me at kyle@lotussculpture.com or call us at 1-866-LOTUS-12. 

For Everyone who donated to this effort a sincere THANK YOU from me and the village of Killai!

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by Kyle Tortora