Doing a slow count, I approach 20-year-old Vetrivel, sitting in a pleasant-looking orange boat. By the time I reach him, the count is at 37; after we speak and I finish roaming the area, it's up to 87, and then I stop.
Oh yes, and the count of upended or capsized ones, lying in the creek? Three, visible from the bridge. Several more on the sand, in various states of falling apart.
Boats, yes. I'm in Nagore outside Nagapattinam, returning after eight months to an area I visited three days after the tsunami tore through. And it's like on a previous post-tsunami visit to elsewhere in Tamilnadu, just a couple of months ago. The most visible legacy of the great wave? Boats. Broken ones indicating its force. New ones indicating the aftermath.
Shape of common sense
The memory of a memorial
Betrayal of tsunami survivors
No? But whyever not? It looks new, it looks pretty dandy to this non-fisherman.
Vetrivel shakes his head sadly. "No good," he says. "It's built very badly, and the water comes in." Have you repaired it, I ask. "No, what's the use?" he replies. "I go out in that boat." He points to a visibly older and weatherbeaten boat, floating in the water behind us. "That's one of the boats the tsunami didn't damage. It's much better than these..." and here he waves his hand around, indicating the boats on the beach.
I've heard this before, about poorly built boats. There are so many new boats in coastal Tamilnadu after the tsunami that it's clear something had to give in the manufacturing. In July, I visited a major boat factory in Tharangambadi, just north of there. There, I was told that they had ramped up from producing three boats a month before the tsunami to -- get this -- eighty a month after. And they had enough work to go at that pace for several more months.
The fruits of that surge in production are everywhere in Tamilnadu: I've seen boats from that particular factory in various villages. But the fruits are also everywhere in another sense: the boats leak. Or at any rate, fishermen have complaints.
And this is a factory that has been in operation for a long time. What might you expect from people who noted the boom in demand for boats and became boatmakers overnight? There are freshly-painted signs for boatmakers all over Nagapattinam. And in fact, Vetrivel points to the very boat he is sitting on. Bangs on his side and laughs sardonically. "This is made by one Palaniappan in this town," he says. "Knows nothing about making boats." The said Palaniappan has apparently supplied about 50 boats here through a NGO run by a well-known religious head. (In my count to 87, I actually got 60 with the head's name on them).
Of those, say Vetrivel and his friends, one -- one! -- is free of problems.
Discount that for exaggeration for the journalist from Bombay, for exaggeration, period. Even then, you get the sense that there's a great deal of frustration here. And who built that boat you do use, I ask Vetrivel. "Prakash. He's been building boats for years."
I am not sure why Prakash is not involved in supplying new boats; or maybe he is, but elsewhere. The religious head has the presence here, and for better or worse -- looks like worse -- it is Palaniappan who has got the "in" with the religious head.
Relief after great disasters: this is becoming sort of a theme, an obsession, with me. Because it is invariably well-meaning, but so often wrong-headed. Nagore's shore is not the first place I've run into complaints about poorly made boats, and if I spend any more time in this state, along this coast, I know it won't be the last. What do we do to fishermen victimized by the tsunami if we give them boats that leak, or split under their feet on the first trip out to sea (a complaint I heard in Pushpavanam, south of here)?
And while you think about that, there's another problem with boats in post-tsunami Tamilnadu, and now you'll understand why I was counting. NGOs have handed them out generously, with genuine good intent. But they have handed out so many that they have left the fishermen with headaches they never had before.
One of Vetrivel's friends, an older man who declined to tell me his name, explains the headache as it applies in Nagore. Not that I needed it: this is something else I've heard up and down this coast. "Before the tsunami," says the friend, "we had about 50 boats here. Everything worked well. But now? Now we fight."
Fight? But why do you fight? "Too many boats," says the man, laughing sardonically like Vetrivel did a few moments earlier. "Each boat needs a crew of three or four. Now everyone has a boat, and nobody wants to be crew on someone else's boat. So we fight. What else can we do, sir?"
What do we do to fishermen if we are so generous with our relief largesse that we leave them fighting?
As I said, this is becoming something of an obsession with me. Why must something as well-intentioned as relief end up causing more headaches? Is relief itself a second disaster, a human-made one that follows on the heels of a nature-caused first?
Perhaps you think I'm reading too much into problems with boats in Tamilnadu. Yet if you visit these parts, take note of how much most tsunami victims depend on boats for a living, and then take note of just how many new boats are out there, you'll get a sense of what I'm getting at. There is a whole slew of NGOs handing out boats. Very few seem to have understood the need to figure out how many are actually needed; very few seem to have understood that even at times like this, it is far more important to build carefully than build quickly.
Why are those things important? Because not every affected fisherman in Tamilnadu, see, is as lucky as Vetrivel. Not every affected fisherman has access to a still-usable boat from before the tsunami, built by Prakash who knows something about building them.