India’s East Coast before Boxing Day: A photo tribute to the Tsunami Victims

By Roger Grace, images Greenpeace/Grace

Diving the Cumberland

Diving the Cumberland

It took a while for the full horror of the Boxing Day tsunami to get into the news. In the hardest-hit areas there just weren’t enough people left alive, nor the facilities, to enable communication with the outside world. Consequently the official death toll was rather small in the first couple of days, but rose steeply over the following week as rescuers and outside help struggled to reach areas where very few people survived. Accurate human loss statistics will never be known, with whole villages and towns wiped away.

Just over a month before the disaster I happened to be on a photographic assignment for Greenpeace to eastern India, specifically in the south-east around Chennai (Madras), and then on the Orissa coast of north-eastern India. The coast near Chennai was one of the hardest-hit parts of the Indian mainland.

I have come to the stark realisation that many of the adults and kids I met and photographed are probably no longer alive. I visited fishing villages and coastal towns south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu state, and remote fishing communities on the Orissa coast, learning about and photographing the fascinating boats they use for going out off the surf beaches, and the way of life of these cheerful and happy people.

I had the good fortune to go out through the surf on one of their boats, and cruised offshore for several hours, observing long-liners and gill-netters working from their small, fragile craft.

The whole east coast of India is very flat and low-lying, with long sandy beaches characterising the entire coast. Many rivers, some with sizeable deltas and mangrove forests, meander their way to the sea. Rice fields, worked entirely by hand, occupy most of the land, and small communities dot the coast and tidal estuaries.

A coast like this provides no protection from a tsunami. Offshore the seabed is a gently shelving sand bottom, almost custom-built to cause maximum impact from an approaching tsunami. With no warning system in place, these people didn’t have a chance, and there was no high ground to run to.

Probably adding significantly to the death toll was the fact that, despite living and fishing along the coast, most of the local people are not ‘water people’ in the sense that many Kiwis and Pacific Islanders are. In New Zealand, beaches like those of eastern India would be crowded with people swimming, surfing, and generally enjoying water sports. Yet in India, despite some of the beaches having hundreds of people on them, I saw no more than 20 people actually playing in the sea. They are just not used to being in the water and virtually none of them can swim, which would have added to the horror of suddenly finding themselves engulfed in violent rushing waters.

The photos I present here are how I would like to remember these lovely people. Despite living what to us would seem underpriviledged lives, their simple technologies and rudimentary living conditions have been no barrier to a happy and jovial outlook. There was no evidence of crime, vandalism, drunkeness or violence. The kids were always smiling and having fun, and everyone was forever wanting their photos taken. We could learn a lot from their simple philosophies.

© Copyright 2004

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