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Tsunami spawns disaster tourism

Friday 7 January 2005

NEW DELHI: They come in hordes with truckloads of relief material and a newfound urge to serve, but their presence is doing more harm than good in many areas hit hard by the tsunami.

As unseemly as it sounds, these well-meaning people have spawned a new industry - disaster tourism.

The massive inflow of charitable organisations and aid volunteers to the tsunami-hit areas of Tamil Nadu, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Kerala, Pondicherry and Andhra Pradesh is what is now being seen as the second giant wave.

And overzealous volunteers, obsessed with the need to "do good" are making things worse.

"They are coming in large numbers, with loads of loads of relief material but no idea as to what they need to do," said AID-India volunteer Ravi Shankar, who has taken a break from his teaching assignment at an Indian Institute of Technology.

"We call it disaster tourism."

Shankar hastened to clarify that help was more than welcome. "We need as many people as we can get, but they have to come with a proper understanding of what they have to do and face."

Many of the relief aid workers who jumped on to the bandwagon after the December 26 quake-triggered tsunamis ravaged the coasts of south and southeast India found themselves hopelessly out of sorts in "Ground Zero".

Said Sanchita, an advertising professional: "People should know that all relief workers must take immunisation and antibiotics as a precaution against epidemics."

More advice for wannabe volunteers, coming from those who learnt the hard way — be equipped with disaster overall suits, sleeping bags, safety helmets, gloves, water-proof boots, masks, mosquito repellents and first aid boxes.

"Most volunteers do not want to dirty their heels in the muck," remarked Shankar, referring to the elaborate precautions listed for the aid workers.

As one volunteer observes, the eagerness to give and help has not really helped. More often than not, it is like the act of washing one’s sins.

Old clothes, now forming another type of trash heap in the battered districts, has become the biggest yet most useless display of compassion for the tsunami victims.

"Organisations are just collecting tonnes of old clothes and dumping it," says NK Singh, spokesman for the International Red Cross Society.

The glut of clothes is forming another kind of debris in the battered districts.

Singh said, "When a crisis happens, we get a chance to get rid of our old clothes and also salve our conscience. But we underestimate the victims, most of whom are too proud to wear hand-me-downs."

Some of these do-gooders have gone on a spree to "adopt-a-village".

"Often that means they take care of one afternoon meal for a village, spend perhaps a day and disappear, leaving giant banners to advertise their deed," said a relief worker from Mumbai who is working in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu.

Banners and posters cover relief trucks and walls in and around villages, often advertising that an organisation has "adopted the village".

Some nomadic agencies are wont to swamp the affected villages with relief material, then move off without looking back.

When relief trucks come calling, a huge crowd gathers around them and a fight usually ensues over packets of food grain, medicine and utensils. The winners are those with muscles or belonging to a higher caste.

Said Shankar, "Unless there is proper coordination and sincerity, I am afraid relief workers will end up doing good to none but themselves."

See online : Times of India

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