Rapporto dalle terre dello tsunami

 Inserisco per la prima volta nel blog un lavoro molto “tecnico” sull’area di Nagapattinam,  particolarmente colpita dallo tsunami, dove il consorzio europeo “Solidar”  http://www.solidar.org  sta concentrando il suo impegno di solidarietà per la ricostruzione. Mi scuso per il testo, in inglese e un po’ per “addetti ai lavori”, ma ho pensato che potrà appassionare chi vuole conoscere nei dettagli successi e problemi  delle attività pratiche di cooperazione.

REPORT ON THE MISSION TO THE NAGAPATINAM AREA: 10 September-3 October  Mariella Gramaglia

The report is constructed on three points:

  1. The “Angelo Airoldi” school in the village of Prathabaramapuram;

  2. The “Industrial Training Institute” also in Prathabaramapuram;

  3. The 132 Self-Help groups of women located throughout the project area.

For each of the three points an opening paragraph will describe the state of the project, followed by a second paragraph providing critical analysis of the situation and making some suggestions for future development.

1.1 Angelo Airoldi School (description)

The village of P.R.Puram (as the name is usually abreviated) stands at a short distance from the much more important centre of Velankanni, hence its location makes the school inter alia a significant point of social reference and active citizenship. During my stay, the PDA (People’s Development Association) on 21 September organized a day for health awareness, prevention of blindness and cornea and blood donation (“Give blood today, don’t let your eyes burn tomorrow.”). Doctors and volunteer nurses gathered at the school, together with many elderly people needing medical examination and an equipped ambulance that does the rounds of the various villages. This gives some idea of how the school acts as more than just a school — it is a living organism, a reference point. And here is the reason why, along with purely scholastic demands, a second storey is being added to the building for use as a library and a hall for meetings and assemblies.

With regard to the school in the strict sense, let us first recall a few key dates in its very recent history. It was set up in March 2005, its first courses being experimental ones for electricians and drivers. Not until March 2006 did the teaching as a whole formally commence, since when there has been ongoing monitoring of the subsequent activities of the pupils. Many of those coming from the most needy families, in the wake of the tsunami, dropped out of school in order to help with emergency situations — with the risk of isolating themselves from society. In order to assist them to learn a trade or to recoup enough learning to return to education, the school has overridden all formal considerations to provide these opportunities, also through short weekly-based courses.

At the start of 2007, a formal request for recognition of the diplomas awarded was sent to the administration of Tamil Nadua, and the education authorities are very confident that recognition will be granted. The educational services provided are absolutely free of charge for the pupils. The ages of the latter range from 14 to 21 years and, at the time of my mission, their numbers totalled 130, of which 95 male and 35 female.

The following are the main courses provided:

  1. Repair of motorcycles, scooters, motorickshaws and mobile phones;

  2. Training for electricians,

  3. Training for plumbers;

  4. Tutoring of young persons who have dropped out of school or been rejected;

  5. Training for the driving licence;

  6. Cutting and sewing;

  7. Use of computer and study of hardware and software;

  8. Courses in spoken English on Saturday and Sunday, not only for students at the “Airoldi” but also for citizens and workers in the area.

Let us now see how this translates into jobs for the pupils attending the courses from March 2006 to the present. The overall picture looks very positive.

Course studied



Students hired

Students self-employed

Students returning to education

As can be seen from the data — and we shall return to this in the analysis — there is a striking disparity between the sexes, whether in absolute terms, or in terms of “vertical” segregation with respect to the more technical, potentially more remunerative jobs in regard to earnings and status.

However, for this reason among others, the project envisages courses at village centre level dedicated to use of the computer and tailoring and fashion design, for which the “Development Project” has earmarked a specific sum of 23,000 euros. The village centre courses are attended by a large majority of females. I was able to visit the tailoring centre in the village of Vallapallam, one of the hardest hit by the tsunami, and I found the level of motivation and competence to be fairly high. These courses, attended prevalently by young women, act as genuine apprenticeships and should not be confused with the women’s Self Help groups which we shall describe later in the article.

The following table reports the numbers of male and female pupils completing the courses in the village centres.

Course title



Students hired

Students self-employed

Students returning to education

At the time of my mission, 75 girls were studying tailoring and 8 girls and 6 boys were doing computer studies in the village centres.

The females in the tailoring courses are mostly adolescents: hence, in line with the all-round education provided by the school, during my mission (27 September) a course was organized for 60 girls on health and bodily changes during puberty. The teacher devoted particular attention to hygiene and body care, to combating the prejudice about “girls being untouchable” during the menstrual period, and encouraged that the doctor be consulted without fear and that hospital teams be held to their commitment to oversee the villages on the days specified, as well as dealing with problems regarding pregnancy and childbirth. On the other hand, nothing was said about sex education and birth control: this topic is dealt with only in courses on AIDS prevention, with all the caution demanded by a culture very different from ours. At the end of the lesson a discussion was held: to my questions about what age they wished to be married at, how many children they wanted, and to what extent female children were acceptable, the large majority of girls replied as follows: age at marriage between 25 and 28 years, two children at most, acceptable without more pregnancies even if both were girls.

This little enquiry, which has no “scientific” value, shows a pattern of expectations that is very far from the reality experienced by women in the country districts of India. The situation is much more likely to involve early marriage, three or more children, and not infrequent abortion in order to avoid the birth of female children. Still, it is interesting that the young women’s expectations should express hope for greater freedom and equality in the future.

1.2 Angelo Airoldi School (critical analysis and proposals)

The pupils have introduced a kindly and cooperative discipline, their behaviour being entirely free from all the forms of bullying and transgression that tend to be widespread among pupils at the more distressed schools in Europe. Their attitude is generally one of cordiality and gratitude towards their foreign partners. In individual and group conversations they evince great esteem for their teachers. But, although accustomed to a spartan lifestyle, they feel the burden of a school that is as yet not sufficiently structured to be a real community.

At the moment of writing, there are only two working toilet facilities (four more are being completed, but will be for males only), one for boys, one for girls; these are quite inadequate for the number of pupils and guests I have described, and are also too close and thus do not respect the extreme discretion observed in relations between the sexes in India. Since the problem also involves the “Industrial Training Institute”, of which more below, it should be recalled, for future memory, that in India sanitary fittings are not automatically included in building contracts, for reasons of climate and tradition; this detail may escape the foreign donor, with disastrous results for the start-up of the project.

More in general, the pupils are requesting a series of small and medium investments that will allow the school to grow as a community: these range from drinking water (which still has to be brought from home), to table games, a music room with instruments, an outdoor playing field (not so small an expenditure, since the violence of the monsoon makes for complexity in stabilizing the ground and choosing appropriate materials for the field), and a covered bicycle rack.

Several pupils come from distant villages, but the journey to the school on foot is impossible and not everybody can afford a bicycle, so they ask for facilities like those granted to recognized schools in order to travel free by public transport.

As is evident from the data, the realization of equal opportunities between the sexes is still far away. I shall return to this subject in dealing with the “Industrial Training Institute” where the situation is much more critical, but I must emphasize here that considerable efforts still need to be made at the “Angelo Airoldi”. Intervention is required especially on the families and their fear of co-education; this is so strong that some educators even discourage it after age eleven as too penalizing for girls (by way of example, I quote S. Anandalakshmy, pedagogist and teacher at Chennai University). The families need to be reassured as to how their girls will be received at school and how far their “decency” will be protected. At the same time, girls must be encouraged in their motivation to study and towards achieving self-reliance.

At symbolic level (but are not symbols also very important in creating a community, especially in a society like that of India which is far more sensitive and sophisticated than ours in this area?) it must be mentioned that the fact of the school’s being called after Angelo Airoldi arouses no feeling among pupils and teachers, who continue to call it by the initials with which it was known in its first months. I think it would be most useful to send our partners in th PDA a photograph and a brief, simple biography of the Italian trade unionist that they could share with the pupils.

2.1 Industrial Training Institute (description)

Description of the ITI must perforce be briefer since the Institute opened not long ago and it is therefore not possible to deal with the opportunities and careers of students who have graduated from it; however, skilled workers are much appreciated in the area, which is now being painstakingly reconstructed. The course of studies at the ITI is more structured, lasting a whole year, and the diploma is recognized by the government of Tamil Nadu. To enrol in the school it is necessary to have achieved at least “ten standard” in the state education (ten years of school), but many students have reached the “twelve standard”. After one year at the ITI they may begin an apprenticeship or continue their studies with three years of Polytechnic.

The premises are spacious, with a wide inner courtyard, and the building, though still incomplete, is elegant and its architecture, I should say, almost prestigious. At the time of my mission, there were 64 pupils, of ages between 15 and 22 years, all male. They pay a fee of 1,500 rupees per year. While this is hardly more than a token amount in the economy of the institute, it represents a heavy burden for the pupils, for they already feel guilty that they might otherwise be bringing an earned income home to their families — and, indeed, almost all of them do work on Sundays in order to pay the school fee out of their own pocket.

The economy of the school is very precariously based and potentially risky. Since there was no adequate funding, the directors requested authorization for only three diplomas:

  • electrical technicians

  • motor mechanics

  • welders

and not, as they would have liked, also for:

  • computer technicians

  • cutting and sewing

  • fitters.

However, there is presently far more room than the tiny number of pupils warrants, and the fees, already deliberately low, represent a minute contribution, given the few students. Nor is it hard to see, even at first glance, the imbalance between the start-up funding and the overheads that will subsequently have to be addressed. In this connection, the Solidar consortium, taking cognizance of the problem, asked me to work out a better potential sustainability for the institute during my mission. I shall deal with this in the proposals section.

The competition for selection of students provided for a 10% quota for dalit (untouchables), which was filled, and a quota of up to 50% for girls, which remained completely unfilled for lack of applications. This undoubtedly reflects the widespread prejudice by which competences acquired through training are considered a typically male preserve; still, the total absence of toilets (males use the nearby meadows) are a deterrent even to the bravest girls.

The plan envisages a playing field, to be built, a meeting hall, now being completed, and works to improve the road, also under way. It should also be noted that, for the moment, studies remain largely theoretical because the workshops have yet to be completed.

2.1 Industrial Training Institute (critical analysis and proposals)

Cultural contents: the cultural contents remain solely and exclusively technical and learning is performed in a very tough and wholly professional way. I should like to stress that the educational staff think it would be most useful for the students to learn skills for orientation to management, above all because the majority of the students will in the future be self-employed. In particular, the teachers suggest courses providing notions of law, accounting, and techniques for organizing and planning work. For my part, I would also emphasize the importance of a few hours of general culture or humanities education, which do indeed figure in the syllabus of other technical institutes in the area. In an article in “The Chronicle Review”, 18 May 2007, Martha Nussbaum anticipates some themes of her important book on India (Fears for democracy in India) lately issued in the USA, and warns of the risk that Indian education may sever its cultural roots: recalling Tagore’s message, she speaks forthrightly on the importance of critical thought and imagination. Her fear is for a country that in an immediate future may consist of “docile engineers, incapable of criticizing the propaganda of politicians and of imagining the suffering of a fellow human being”. I feel that a consortium with international solidarity as its goal cannot take this warning lightly.

Equal opportunities: as is evident from the descriptive part, nothing concrete has been achieved in this area, save for a formal establishment of quotas that have had no practical importance. From the interviews with the educators there emerges the description of a rural society in which, with the advent of puberty, girls are subject to a careful watch that allows them very little freedom. Today, as ever, the first menstruation is celebrated in a rite involving the entire village, and the watchword passed round among the invitees is “the girl is dead, the woman is born”. From that moment, as a teacher told me, the girl becomes a “hot potato” in the hand of her father, who cannot wait to hand her over to a husband. Of course there are exceptions, and India is in the throes of great changes, also in this matter. But the situation must be studied very precisely if we would design positive action that goes to the substance of the question: namely, the guarantee of privacy and respect for decency in the school environment, procurement of specific study grants for girls, the extension of courses so as to include ones that may be less unwelcome to female pupils, and awareness on the part of parents.

Sustainability: can the institute become self-sufficient in time? In the attempt to answer this question, I interviewed Dr Sampath Kuman, director of the “Prime ITI (industrial training institute)”, a prestigious school, with nine years of good working already to its credit, six courses for different professional subjects and 220 students. Here the pupils pay from 7,000 to 8,000 rupees per year each, according to the workshops they attend. Apart from individual acts of generosity by the president, himself an entrepreneur and also president of the local Rotary Club, who contributes out of his own pocket for sports activities and prizes to the most deserving students, and maintains contact with local business to assure the pupils have a job on graduating, the school is otherwise self-sufficient. The self-sufficiency, however, is underpinned by a fee about five times that of the ITI at P.R. Puram — a sum that would be unsustainable for pupils from families who were hard hit by the tsunami — to say nothing of the advantage in economies of scale accruing from a much larger attendance. The teachers and the management group of the PDA have more practicable proposals: e.g. the opening to the public of some of the school’s workshops, as genuine repair shops so as to perform an activity that would profit the institute and also serve as apprenticeship for the pupils. For my part, I would add the possibility of binding the pupils by a starting loan, in the spirit of microcredit, which is much appreciated and practised in India in various forms: they would be required to pay a fee from their first earnings, to an amount sufficient for the school to sustain itself. Of course, the two suggestions do not conflict with one another and it would be possible to investigate the economic feasibility of both, while not losing sight of the fact that, in my view, a better balance between investment expenditure and real efficiency in management is needed in terms of the number of pupils accepted at the institute.

3.1 The women’s Self-Help groups

At the time of my mission, the sixteen villages belonging in the project contained 132 Self-Help groups, with 2,456 persons taking part. I came into contact with about 75 groups distributed in seven different villages.

Before going on to a brief description of the various encounters, I would like to state certain premisses:

  • The Self-Help women’s groups were all set up after the tsunami; they have therefore had only a very brief life so far, one exposed to fragility as against the long experiences acquired in other places: I am thinking of the microcredit and savings banks of Sewa, which began in 1974, or the well-known instance of Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen banks.

  • Paradoxically, however, the memory of the tsunami is also a strong point: many women start their intervention in group discussions by saying: “after the tsunami…I discovered solidarity with the other women”, “after the tsunami…I learnt to rely on myself instead of always asking permission from my husband”, “after the tsunami…I had the courage to go into a bank or a public office for the first time…”, “after the tsunami…we’ve been listening to each other…we’ve become less shy…we’ve learnt how to organize into groups and solve problems”. To sum up, the new liveliness of the area, as witnessed by the presence of many NGOs and the worldwide attention, has enabled many women to find strength and courage as never before.

  • At present, the groups do not have access, in any case, to credit as such. They exist essentially for purposes of saving, of reinvesting their savings, and for mutual solidarity, and they make use of the support network of the PDA: this in terms of training (during my mission the PDA organized a well-attended training course for correct breeding of cattle in the attempt to diversify women’s work, especially those without land, in the agricultural areas) and receiving a non-repayable grant when the group acquires strength and continuity in its work.

  • As far as I know, there is no direct support for these initiatives from Solidar.

Description of the groups encountered:

Vallapallam. A group of 15 women in the agricultural sector, taking their first steps. Small savings and small loans for those in difficulty. For example: 1,000 rupees for the doctor, 500 for farm tools. These are farm labourers working on other people’s land. They plan to undertake an activity for making roofs and mats from palm leaves and branches.

Vailankanni. Five sub-groups (84 women: 16+20+15+16+17). They have been working together for two and a half years. The PDA gave them a non-repayable grant after a certain time and in proportion to the money they had saved. They work as a purchasing group, distributing the provisions among themselves, and have also set up a small consumers’ cooperative where they sell rice, dal and household items. They also go as far as Chennai to buy saris, which they then sell from door to door. On average, they save 50 rupees per person per month. The groups in this set are very lively and very aware: the environment is a fishing one where the women are more emancipated because they themselves manage the fish auctions on the beach when the men bring the catch in.

Panagasalai. Five sub-groups (67 women: 13+12+15+15+12). This group has a certain amount of collective savings: 21,000 rupees. They are active in several fields: from cooked foods to paper cups for the pilgrims of the church of the Virgin of Salvation (a great attraction for Christian pilgrims from all over South India) and a small retail outlet for mobile phones. This is the group most based on the sheer physical burden of work: the work for Self-Help is the most pleasant, almost a game, but it comes after the work in the fields and the domestic chores. The women say they work from six in the morning till ten in the evening, with two hours’ interval at the hottest time of the day.

P.R. Puram. Four sub-groups (59 women: 14+15+15+15). This is the most difficult group, made up mainly of dalit women, farm labourers and landless. They began late, the savings are low on average and are often limited to loans to members in emergency situations. They are thinking of selling spices, opening a vegetable shop and growing vegetables themselves on public land made available to poor people. But, for the time being, they remain at the stage of intentions and they seem to be in great need of support and training. An elderly woman who has had experience of building work suggests teaching the others to make bricks, and this arouses great enthusiasm.

Akkaraipettai. During my mission a particularly authoritative and highly esteemed federation of 29 groups was set up here. The federation is administered and its economic programmes fixed by a directorate of 15 members. From entrepreneurs outside the PDA it has already received a non-repayable grant of 200,000 rupees, and during the meeting a functionary of the local bank intervened to request a report and to offer a loan of 30,000 rupees. A shop for consumer goods has been set up, selling 7,500 kg of rice per month. It is intended also to sell soap and dal (pulses).

Keenchapuram. Here too, in this fishing community, the groups are very strong. During my mission, a federation of 20 groups was constituted, numbering 380 members and with savings totalling 420,000 rupees. They have also received a loan of 30,000 rupees from the bank and have purchased equipment powered by solar energy for drying and selling fish.

Manalmedu. Six sub-groups with a total of 120 persons. They have a collective saving of 150,000 rupees, to which the PDA has added a grant of 36,000 rupees. Their principal job is as labourers in the rice fields. Some of them own a bit of land, others none. For the present, they work coconut and make mats, but they would like to pool money to buy cows. They live in a village where the Solidar Consortium is particular active: it has just built a school from five standard to eight standard and will soon open another for eight to ten standard. These women are the proudest of their emancipation: “We have reached the point where we could even be elected to the Panchayat (village council)”.

3.1 The Self-Help women’s groups (critical analysis and proposals)

More than thirty years have elapsed since Muhamad Yunus set up the Grameen Bank (1977) and, in the case of India, the first Sewa bank opened (1974). These have turned the whole idea of development aid on its head. Many non-governmental organizations have reshaped themselves and their missions, current thinking on the nature of poverty, the relation of the poor with the market, with autonomy and institutional renewal has been revised; as from the late 1980s, an unmistakable feminine protagonism has emerged in the microcredit movement: according to a survey of 1991, women make up 94% of the membership of microcredit associations, and only in 1.3% of cases do they default on repayment, as against 15% where the borrowers are men.

The novelty in this new century is that the finance and banking system as a whole is beginning to show interest in microcredit. Suffice it to think that a circular of the Reserve Bank of India of 30 June 2005 formally invites all banks to dedicate a branch of their activity to this purpose, to train cadres for dealing with livestock keepers and peasants, and to consider the thing as a genuine business, since default on repayment in the country totals an average of less than 5 per cent. The Economist of 5 November 2005 devoted a dossier to the subject, predicting that, by the end of the decade, 600 million poor people in the world will be members of a microcredit network.

Here we are, then, in the main current of the debate on cooperation for development, with encouraging prospects, to be sure, but also with a host of problems unsolved. Does microcredit involve merely the poor, or also the very poor? Does it bring awareness to groups or individuals? Is it a real business, or does it somehow need a non-profit financial support? Is it practicable only in the country areas, where social bonds are tighter, or also in the slums of large cities? Must it retain its autonomy, or should it be linked with steps for the diffusion of mutualism and an insurance system, and with the promotion of education and health?

This debate has been ongoing for thirty years, but is only just starting in the area of Nagapattinam, where Self Help networks had never been seen in operation before the tsunami. Today, the groups are substantially concerned with savings and loans among members within the limits of the collective savings the groups have managed to build up. As yet, there is no mediation by the bank to enable loans having a margin of financial risk, but, judging by the interest the local banks are beginning to show, progress in this respect is only a matter of time. The groups are still very unhomogeneous, some being dynamic and creative, others, especially in the peasant environment, more timid and uncertain in taking initiatives. The PDA supports them all, trying to oversee their development, and provides training and non-repayable grants to groups that begin to exhibit a certain solidarity and propensity towards starting up microfirms.

These groups could very usefully be supported by the Solidar Consortium, with three decisive actions enabling them to go up a rung:

  1. Training: whether social (women’s rights in family and at work, strengthening of self-esteem) or of economic character (notions of management and organization of microfirms);

  2. Matching grant: small non-repayable encouragement to increase the capital when the saving has already been consolidated;

  3. Health insurance with members’ contribution, at least for certain less serious forms of illness, to make the investment sustainable.


5 risposte a “Rapporto dalle terre dello tsunami

  1. Dear Mariella,
    I was trying to contact you through e-mail. But due to some problem with your e-mail id I could not contact you. Dear Marialla,
    It indeed is a very long time that we had any communication with each other. I am sure that you had many ups and downs during this period and hopefuly you are through them now.
    How things are with you now and what are your new initiatives.
    Trust that you are doing well and we eagerly wait to hear from you sometimes. When is your next visit and we will be happy to be your host again with pleasure.
    With kind regards and sweet memories of your visit to PDA,
    Yours sincerely,
    Joe Velu and all at PDA

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