48-year-old Muthaiyan, a fisherman from Nagapattinam stands desolately at a relief camp in Vizhandhamavadi village. The tension in his shoulders is evident as he looks upon the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Gaja on his home. Over 130 families are present at this mandapam, that was built to house the residents after the tsunami struck the district in 2004. But now 14 years after Nagapattinam faced its biggest disaster, the very same fishermen who displayed resilience in the face of nature's fury, are doubtful if they will survive the government's alleged apathy.
"Weâ€™ve lost everything and no authority has visited us so far. We only request for them to come visit us and give us assurances," says Muthaiyan. "We donâ€™t know even if the seriousness of our plight will reach the minister concerned and if weâ€™ll get any relief. This is our sad state," he adds.
This fisherman's woe resonates across the 11 districts of Tamil Nadu that are struggling to return to a semblance of normalcy after the cyclone destroyed homes and property when it made landfall near Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam in the wee hours of November 16. According to officials, 63 people were killed and 2.5 lakh people from the delta districts are currently in relief camps and evacuation centres. Over 102 cattle and 633 goats have died and 56,000 houses destroyed. In addition to this, 1.7 lakh trees have been uprooted, putting the livelihood of thousands of farmers on tenterhooks. But on ground, the affected parties believe that their distress is not even heard by the government and largely attribute this to the absence of local body representatives that they can approach with their problems.
'We have no representatives'
"We don't know even know whom to complain to. There is no (Panchayat) President for any of the villages. Without local body elections, there are no representatives and things are just running aimlessly," says Suriya, a resident of Thanjavur district. "For each issue, there is a different official who shows up. Prior to the cyclone, we were only provided with some contact numbers of some officials to contact. Whenever there are warnings, we are told to contact concerned authorities," he laments.
Tamil Nadu has seen its local body elections postponed by over two years. Currently, the state is missing 200 ward Councillors and 12,524 panchayat leaders. The local body elections that were scheduled for October 2016 had been stalled by the Madras High Court after the Opposition DMK questioned the way the poll process was being carried out. Back then, the DMK had challenged the polls citing law and order problems, irregularities, inadequate ST reservation, and a hurried announcement.
The HC dismissed their argument that reservation should be done based on Census 2011 but by then State government had begun a delimitation process based on Census 2011. And so, for the last two years, Tamil Nadu has been functioning without local body leaders and now the government led by Edappadi Palaniswami has stated that it will require more time to complete the delimitation exercise. But on ground, it is clear, that the state cannot wait anymore.
"We are struggling without relief. Why will we have these problems if the local Panchayat president election had happened?" asks Muthaiyan. "Weâ€™ll have a chairman, counsellor and members to approach. They wouldâ€™ve spoken for us to the government. The main reason for us being neglected is that we have no representative," he argues.
And even the district administration concurs.
A Tahsildar from Nagapattinam on the condition of anonymity told TNM that the lack of local body leaders is delaying relief efforts, as district administrators are not familiar with the terrains of interior villages that have faced severe damage.
"If there were local body leaders, our job would have been much easier and help would have reached the people faster. Local leaders know their area much better than we do, right?" he points out. "So they can also give us information if they need anything. Now we have to take care of things from scratch and there is no one to identify and tell us where we are lacking attention. It is a risky affair," he laments.
Why do we need the local body?
A local body representative is seen as the most accessible leader in a democratic set up. Their role includes policy making, executive oversight and constituency improvement. They address the issues of the public when it comes to health, education, water, sanitation, roads and street lighting. For ward development, they are given a discretionary fund with which to undertake development work in their constituencies. Panchayat leaders especially, point out experts, become extremely crucial in situations such as disaster because they are first point of contact for affected parties.
"Panchayat and other local body leaders play a huge role in highlighting the problems faced by people. They can act as constant noise makers," points out former bureaucrat MG Devasahayam. "The interior districts of Tamil Nadu have always faced neglect and in the face of such a disaster which has been both extensive and intensive, the lack of grassroot leaders has made people feel helpless. IAS officers and other district authorities are not officers who can be approached over and over again. They maintain a cool distance. A panchayat leader, however, has the political power and authority to shake things up and the responsibility to meet people's needs," he adds.
Several villagers told TNM that it was only the village administrative officer who was seen in most districts. But the former bureaucrat points that these officers have little power in the bureacracy and cannot expedite relief efforts.
"It is the local body which liaisons with the government and the district authorities ensure that people get water, food and medicines on time, when there is a natural disaster," says former Chennai mayor Subramaniam. "If there were local representatives they will feel like the government is noticing them and are taking note of their problems. When people are so helpless, assurances play a key role in keeping tempers down. But now, the anger is irrepressible," he adds.
Unprecedented protests and violence that have followed in the cyclone-hit districts, further lay bare the holes in governance that the lack of local body representatives have created.
Two days after the cyclone struck, multiple protests broke out in just the 50-kilometre stretch between Nagapattinam to Vedaranyam. Several villagers blocked the roads, shouting slogans alleging that the government was not taking proper post-disaster measures.
In Pudukottai district, five government vehicles were set ablaze by villagers in Kothamangalam, who were allegedly angered by government reports that underestimated the damage caused by the cyclone. They demanded that relief work be expedited in their village and the surrounding areas.
According to the Pudukottai SP, around 500 people were involved in a protest, even as government officials watched on helplessly.
Meanwhile in Thanjavur district, the residents of Mundachikkadu, Nadankadu and Kazhanikollai villages in Peravurani Taluk along with some members from the farming community protested outside the house of the Peravurani MLA M Govindarajan. They demanded clean drinking water immediately in the neighbouring areas. This, even as people from around 15 nearby villages, including Ullur, Mavadukuruchi and Punalvasal protested against the district administration and the ministers for not showing up after the cyclone to assess the damage caused by it.
And when ministers did show up, they were literally chased away by angry crowds demanding answers to their problems.
Tamil Nadu Handlooms Minister OS Manianâ€™s convoy came under attack on Monday when he went on to assess the damage to Nagapattinam following the cyclone. In a video that has now become viral, Manian can be seen surrounded by angry protesters shouting at him, telling him to leave the spot. The minister is then seen hurriedly leaving the area on a bike.
"This level of anger is unprecedented," admits former bureaucrat Devasahayam. "But it is only expected, when there is no semblance of democratic governance. Local body leaders maybe corrupt sometimes but at least the people felt that they can exercise their rights and demand what they deserve."