KANCHIPURAM DISTRICT, INDIA -- The bright, clear morning of Dec. 26, 2004, would forever change S. Desingu's life.
The first monster wave rose from the Sea of Bengal without warning at 8 a.m. -- silently, massively.
For the Indian fishermen at sea, the startling energy pulse bumped harmlessly under their boats, passing in an instant. The wave started to rise ominously in the shallows.
Onshore, the 36-year-old Desingu glanced up to see a 30-foot liquid wall surging in as tall as the tops of the soaring coconut palms. The fishing craft along the shore rolled end over end, tossed as easily as playthings in a bathtub.
Mesmerized, Desingu, whose name means fisherman, actually moved in closer.
"Then I was trapped," he recalled in his native Tamil, through a translator. "The water was over my head."
His wife, who came looking for him, also was caught in the flood. So was her aunt.
Desingu and other villagers didn't even know a word to call this calamity. Only later would he hear of "tsunami."
In India the roiling water took an estimated 18,000 lives -- more than nine times the number lost in Hurricane Katrina. About three-quarters of the casualties were women and children. Although many people are more aware of the disaster's astronomical deathtoll in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the statistics here in India are staggering: some 157,000 homes destroyed; 640,000 displaced.
Along all the southern Asian coastlines, more than 220,000 souls were swept to their deaths, according to a U.N. tally. Some 1.8 million were left homeless or became refugees.
As for Desingu, the tsunami first brought stunning loss and then ongoing struggle. But a glimmer of opportunity also materialized. For this poor but enterprising fisherman was already running a nonprofit that hired schoolteachers and organized health clinics and after-school programs. In the wake of the tsunami, money and aid began pouring in for Desingu's nonprofit and his village. Suddenly, this 10th-generation fisherman had the chance to become the catalyst for permanent change in southeast India's deprived and hard-pressed fishing villages.
"Now, all of a sudden, I can do more than I had planned to do," said Desingu, the founder and director of Society for Education and Action (SEA).
And he would join forces to battle inadequate schools, poor health care, gender discrimination and government bureaucracy with people he knew little about -- people called Jews.
In the days after the tsunami hit, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a relatively small, New York City-based nonprofit, began to work with Desingu and other regional leaders who run nongovernmental organizations or NGOs as they are commonly called. The upward shift in possibilities for AJWS paralleled that of the hard-working fisherman. Before the tsunami, the Jewish aid group had an annual budget of $11.2 million for projects spanning the developing world -- a pinprick compared to other groups that do similar work -- and small even when compared to other Jewish groups that focus on helping Jews and Israel. But relief appeals for the tsunami brought in $11 million, doubling the nonprofit's funds.
Other aid groups have had similar experiences as a second flood -- of charitable assistance -- poured into India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand. Private U.S. sources have given $1.775 billion to a loose coalition of 62 nonprofits (which includes AJWS and the American Joint Distribution Committee, another Jewish nonprofit that handled an influx of $18.5 million in tsunami-related donations).
Like Desingu, the American Jewish World Service saw an opening to effect change well beyond emergency relief or short-term recovery. The AJWS wanted to take on the pre-tsunami landscape of poverty and deprivation. Just as surely as the tsunami altered so much for the worse, the AJWS, working with local leaders like Desingu, wanted to make permanent changes for the good. Although it granted immediate aid where most needed, the organization also created a long-term development plan to spread out its windfall resources over five years.
"A lot of donors come and go after an emergency," said Kate Kroeger, senior program officer for AJWS. "The real work kicks in three to four years after a disaster, when a community is stabilized. If donors pull out before that, they'll miss out on three-quarters of the benefit."
The American Jewish World Service already was working in India when the tsunami hit. But the storm thrust both AJWS and Desingu suddenly -- and willingly -- onto a larger stage, where their efforts can accomplish vastly more.
Aftermath of Frustration and Opportunity
But first, when the wave hit, Desingu had to survive.
In an instant, he was swimming desperately, pushing himself above the brine for air, where land had suddenly become ocean. Then the pull of the water reversed, and his pumping arms had to outpace the receding flood that wanted to pull him to sea.
As he struggled out of the water, he recalled, "my wife was coming down in search of me, and she began to be pulled by the water. Nearby, I saw my wife's aunt taken by the flood, and I tried to catch her. I couldn't. She was washed away forever. The water began to take my wife, too, but she was saved by her brother."
As he gasped and stumbled to unsteady feet in this upturned, sodden world, another monster wave rolled in at 8:15 a.m. And another at 8:30.
For Desingu the gains and losses contrast starkly.
His children, ages 5 and 2, who were with relatives, escaped harm. But in minutes, Desingu had lost house, boat, fishing nets -- all his belongings to the largest earthquake-caused tidal wave in modern times. The water not only destroyed his village but nearly every village along a vast swath of India's southeast coast and adjacent islands.
Even pre-tsunami, these villagers never had much, yet they were proudly self-sufficient -- eating part of their daily catch and selling what was left over. They typically lived in two-room, cement-floor houses of unreinforced masonry near the very edge of the high tide. Some residents had electricity; a few even had televisions. Simple boats and fishing nets were their fundamental possessions. Often, three or four families would work a single boat, sometimes little more than wood poles tied together.
The men would begin their fishing day with first light. Crews worked different areas of the ocean: the shallows, the middle depths -- about 5 kilometers out -- or the deep water. The men would haul in prawns, crabs, pomfrets, sharks and something called crackers. Their work day ended in the late morning, which is when the women changed tack from other duties to remove fish from the nets, preparing them as needed.
Although born to this lifestyle, Desingu never especially liked fishing. And he resented having to leave school at age 10 for the sea. He quietly refused to surrender his curiosity for knowledge of other worlds, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in psychology through a correspondence course. And when he set up SEA, his nonprofit, a primary goal was to end child labor and keep children in school -- and also to make these hardscrabble schools into something that families would consider worth sticking with.
His own course in life had been guided -- he felt limited -- by tradition and circumstance. He wanted more for his own children; his own son, he decided, would spend his childhood in a classroom, not on a boat.
After the tsunami such dreams seemed foolish; never in anyone's memory had these clans of fisherman been worse off.
But shortly after the tsunami, aid workers who admired Desingu's efforts hooked him up with the American Jewish World Service. Tsunami aid ballooned his budget from about $8,500 before the tsunami to about $90,000 in the year since. Some of this was one-time funds for emergency relief. Grants from AJWS totaled $44,150 for short-term as well as ongoing work.
That level of funding goes a long way in India, where you can buy a meal on the street for little more than pennies.
Desingu takes no salary from his nonprofit -- he's still, after all, a self-sufficient, if not especially willing, fisherman for the first eight to 10 hours of his work day. But the money infusion allowed him to provide emergency aid to 13 villages he works with along the East Coast Road of the Kanchipuram district. He also was able to hire a fulltime social worker with a master's degree.
In the tsunami aftermath, Desingu coordinated with relief agencies to distribute foodstuffs such as rice, vegetables, water and curry powder. Mountains of donated clothes from abroad went unused, however, because village women felt uncomfortable in Western-style dress that did not fit cultural norms. Instead, cash aid that came in was used to purchase clothes locally, which also helped the local economy.
The Indian government, which declined aid from foreign governments, earned generally positive marks for distributing food. But longer-term relief efforts, despite good intentions, allegedly were often sidetracked by bureaucracy and inefficiency.
Aid workers and residents in village after village recite a litany of shortcomings: You got more help if your village was conveniently close to a major city or a main road, they said, and more aid if the story of your village made the newspapers. Yes, said villagers, the government created a program to replace lost fishing boats -- but your prior catamaran had to be properly registered or you needed other documentation -- a tall order for people left without so much as a chair, let alone a file cabinet.
Post-tsunami, providing housing proved more difficult than food. Many villages had no shelter at all for a month or more. Numerous families were stuck together in sweltering tents. One of the first types of one-room, one-family shelters was fashioned of particleboard that seemed to suck in the oppressive summer heat. Another was fashioned from an asbestos-laden corrugated siding that aid workers say is toxic and carcinogenic; it would be illegal in the United States.
Desingu's own village benefited from proximity to Chennai (formerly known as Madras, under the British). Desingu and neighbors were initially flooded with foodstuffs and replacement boats from various sources. Because Desingu helped coordinate receipt of the aid, he also could insist on an equitable distribution of goods among villages up and down the coast.
Villagers from his hometown angrily opposed his largesse, almost forcing him out of the community for redistributing so much of the windfall away from them. For that reason, and because his former office was needed as living quarters, Desingu moved his headquarters to what he calls a "neutral" site, a small, two-room building on the inland side of the coast highway.
Signs of the Time
A placard amid the palm trees and ruins of Akkarai Gori village proclaims the name of three organizations for providing "Gym Meterials" (sic). But there is no gym and no trace of gym equipment. The sign stands on a lot strewn with discarded paper, rags and containers amid fallen palm fronds and a discarded truck tire.
"When the tsunami first hit, each village had between 15 and 20 signs put up, from the various [regional] political parties and donor agencies and religious organizations that were supposedly helping," said Deval Sanghavi, founder of Dasra, a Mumbai-based nonprofit. "And it got to the point where [an official of] the southern district outlawed these signs completely because he realized it was more of a ploy to get people's names out than actually helping communities."
Sanghavi's NGO helped make the marriage between Desingu and the American Jewish World Service. The fit between Desingu and AJWS made sense because the aid organization's model is to look for effective local groups that it can help to accomplish more. And Desingu, a Hindu, was pleased with an aid partner that wouldn't also want to hand out Bibles.
In an instance recounted by aid workers, a Christian aid group -- which was otherwise providing valuable help -- persuaded village parents to send their children to their first-ever "camp." The Hindu villagers were discomfited when their children returned singing Christian religious songs. Villagers also were proselytized by a sect of Hindu vegetarians, who insisted that the tsunami was their punishment for eating meat.
Desingu didn't know much about Jews, but was satisfied to know he didn't need to.
AJWS also made sure that Sanghavi and his Dasra organization remained in the equation. Dasra helps provide oversight, coordination and equitable distribution of aid for all the tsunami-related work of AJWS in India.
It's just the sort of challenge the 30-year-old Sanghavi, who grew up in the United States, wanted when he abandoned a career as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley in New York City.
"At Morgan Stanley, we were in the business of taking over companies, fixing them and selling them for huge profit margins," explained Sanghavi on the drive between two villages. "You can apply the same idea to nongovernmental organizations. You fix them, or, rather, you help them learn how to fix themselves. And they also can generate huge margins, except that the profit is expressed in terms of how many people they can help and how this help translates to permanent benefit."
Desingu, for example, is learning how to evaluate his homemade class-size reduction plan. He had started hiring local educated adults as extra teachers in the public schools to compensate for student-teacher ratios of about 100 to 1 -- not to mention problems such as a high teacher-absentee rate and the regular beating of students.
One of his post-tsunami programs trains villagers how to act as lay counselors -- to help adults and children deal with trauma from the tsunami and anything else. The lead group in this effort is called Dreamcatchers, and its partnership with Desingu was brokered by Sanghavi on behalf of the American Jewish World Service.
Sanghavi speaks fluent Hindi, but that's not enough in this southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Sanghavi can't communicate directly with Desingu and most of his fellow villagers, so the AJWS team also includes B.S. Vanarajan, an ebullient native Tamil speaker. "Vana," as he's known, is a Christian whose formerly Hindu family had belonged to the lowest cast, the so-called untouchables (now called Dalit). Vana didn't learn English until college, where he partly worked his way through school as the lead singer in a band called The Playboys.
Even Vana's skills, however, don't suffice at an AJWS-project village further south, where the mission is to help villagers re-grow the region's ecologically crucial mangrove forests. The team down there includes J. Alexander, a former minister and Bible school teacher, who speaks the local language of Telugu.
These are the faces of Jewish philanthropy in India: Desingu the Hindu fisherman; former investment banker Sanghavi, a nonreligious cultural Hindu; Vana, the former singer and Christian Dalit; and Alexander, the onetime Bible school teacher.
In both Pudu Kalpakkam and New Nemmeli Kuppam, a polite, puzzled silence descended over village gatherings when visiting journalists asked about Jews -- or even about the American Jewish World Service.
Among many aid workers, however, the low-profile assistance is building a good name for all Jews in a developing world that is sometimes bombarded with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel messages.
"Before we didn't know about Jews," said Karthik, a 26-year-old coordinator for the Rural Organization for Society Education, another AJWS partner. "Now we're learning something about Jews. The Jews are a community that has suffered a lot. There are so many martyrs. Even the rich businessmen have had to leave their community, and now, the Jews are scattered all over. They are not now a collected people. They are a little like the Dalits that way."
One Tsunami After Another
In this part of the world, development work is a complex recipe of helping the poor achieve the benefits of modernity without allowing them to be overpowered by it.
In his corner, Desingu is sponsoring medical camps to improve health care and get prescription drugs and glasses to villagers. On these same beaches, developers are buying out village families -- or nudging them out with the apparent complicity of local officials -- to make room for factories and resorts.
"There is a real threat that thousands in the tsunami-hit countries may face either eviction or inadequate compensation," wrote researchers in a report by the nonprofit Oxfam, "because they do not have title to the land or cannot prove entitlement. This particularly affects fishing communities, whose rights were often extremely fragile even before the tsunami. There is also widespread suspicion that the tsunami might be used as an excuse to move communities to make way for lucrative property deals linked to tourism."
The industrialized cities are also filling up with former villagers in search of jobs and places to live. In bustling Chennai and further south in Pondicherry, thousands of squatters huddle in makeshift encampments next to the unceasing din of passing motorized rickshaws, trucks and motorcycles. Young women holding babies run into traffic to knock on car windows, begging for change. In India, there are larger societal forces at work -- a gathering tsunami that threatens to swamp village empowerment, which can seem like a boutique attempt to cut against the grain of cold industrial inevitability.
"It's very astute for the AJWS to connect with some of these organizations and to support them," said Michael Cohen, director of the New School for Social Research's graduate program in international affairs in New York. "They're truly local. They're truly indigenous and truly effective." At the same time, he added, "it's a moment in Indian development where privatization is on the ascendancy."
One of Them
When escorting visiting journalists to coastal villages, Desingu does not stand out as an overt leader. Sanghavi, the U.S. émigré with perfect English, deftly manages the foreign visitors. The charismatic Vana immediately draws a crowd wherever he appears and handles Tamil-English translations. But the villagers, when they speak up, are looking as intently at Desingu as anyone.
On this day, his style of dress is Western -- a pink button-down shirt and light green dress slacks; most of the village men wear work pants or a dhoti, which wraps around the waste and upper legs. But they know Desingu's one of them. Although his ballpoint pen stays in his shirt pocket, his earnest expression shows that he's taking detailed mental notes.
Villagers report that the catch has been sporadic. The fish are in different places since the tsunami; some haven't returned. The surf also is rougher -- too choppy to fish on some days.
Mostly, these are narratives that he knows, because he's shared their fate from the beginning.
Like others in his village, Desingu's "home," one year after the tsunami, is a temporary, one-room structure made of palm fronds with a dirt floor. No kitchen, no bathroom.
These thatch-hut villages line the road south of the metropolis of Chennai, one after another, like anachronistic set pieces from a 1930 National Geographic. These temporary encampments are closer to the road and farther from the beach than the former residences, making work harder for the fisherfolk. Closer inspection reveals pile after pile of masonry rubble -- the former village homes -- between the new thatch village and beach.
The most obvious evidence of natural disaster is from events more recent than the tsunami. Hard rains of the past weeks have led to regional flooding. Some thatch structures now sit in water, uninhabitable, mosquito-infested and ruined. Fields of crops are flooded, and lakes ripple where there should be dry land.
Despite Desingu's efforts at equity, some well-provided villages now have more fishing boats than fishing crews; elsewhere, multiple families have had to crowd onto rickety, salvaged catamarans, on which there's hardly room for the catch.
"The government officials said, 'We don't have time to visit your village,'" said Jegtha, a woman from the remote village of Pudhukuppam. "We still don't have all our boats. We have 10 people on one boat and are having to rely more on agriculture."
But farming, too, has been hampered by salt the tsunami left in the soil, contaminating more than 96,000 acres, according to the relief agency Oxfam.
"We went to the government for help," added a woman in a red sari with a floral pattern, "but they said we weren't on the list."
Because no one died in this village, said one worker, it wasn't as high a priority for government assistance, even though the town's structures and the fishermen's boats were virtually obliterated.
Also left out were villages of Dalit, members of the lowest Hindu caste. In some cases, officials denied these communities existed until aid workers proved otherwise.
Government officials agreed to address questions about tsunami recovery efforts with a foreign media delegation that included The Journal. But they canceled the December meeting in the wake of widespread monsoon-related flooding that they said demanded their attention.
The government has announced plans to build 130,000 permanent homes; so far about 1,000 of these simple structures, with up to four rooms, have been completed, Oxfam reported.
Desingu does not have the resources to build homes. Following the counsel of the AJWS, he's focused instead on developing self-help groups in villages, usually led by women, who have learned how to make demands of the government for drinking water, electricity and more. Some of this work is akin to labor organizing; government-approved federations are entitled to certain rights and benefits under Indian law.
After the village visits, talking over coffee, Desingu confessed that he would have preferred to be a professional of some sort rather than a fisherman. He would like for his children to become doctors or engineers.
Desingu is grateful to have a wife who has been fully supportive of his work, a lucky thing given that they never had a chance before their arranged marriage to see if they were soulmates. It would be OK with Desingu if his children choose their own spouses, although he's not sure he can persuade his wife on that one.
He also expresses his gratitude for the help that the American Jewish World Service has provided. Yes, he said, it's true that the villagers don't know much about who is helping, but look at how these once-subservient women spoke up energetically when asked to talk about the goals they had already achieved and what they had learned to pursue for themselves.
Desingu smiled broadly: "I am very proud and happy that the people are responding to the questions you ask. When people first visited here, it was not like that."
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and its partners contributed $2.54 million to tsunami relief. Of these donations, $25,000 went to the Red Cross. The rest was split between the American Joint Distribution Committee, which received a majority of the funds, and the American Jewish World Service. Nearly 6,000 L.A.-area donors support AJWS.
Additional reporting by Peter Ephross of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Sandee Brawarsky of The Jewish Week. Howard Blume was part of a media delegation hosted in India by AJWS.
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