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Life in a Tin Box: Temporary Housing in India

Toni Radler, director of communications for Christian Children’s Fund U.S.A., was part of CCF’s original tsunami-response team. She returned to the region in July 2005 for a three-week update tour through India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Hundreds of thousands of lives were changed by the devastating tsunami of December 26. But for the thousands of survivors living in "temporary housing," life has become a lingering tsunami ... filled with extreme daily hardships.


 Image of India barracks
Temporary housing has families living in cramped conditions.

Christian Children's Fund, an international child development organization headquartered in Richmond, VA, is helping many of these families by providing fishermen with boats so they can get back to work and get back to supporting their families.


But one of the problems we can't help them with is getting them out of the "temporary housing" that has families living virtually in boxes, sweltering in heat of 100 degrees and more, day and night, sleeping whole families in a windowless room, 8 feet by 12 feet, made of corrugated tin on a concrete floor.

A Family Eager to Return to Its Home

We met one of the families in India in the village of Velangani, about 10 kilometers from Nagapattinam, where 19-year-old Ramesh anxiously watched as a skilled craftsman worked on completing his catamaran. Replacing catamarans destroyed in the tsunami and repairing fiberglass fishing boats is one CCF’s many livelihood interventions.

These catamarans bear no resemblance to the luxury catamarans that dot Virginia's Chesapeake Bay. These fishing boats, comprised of five large wooden logs, lashed together by ropes, are really wooden rafts that fishermen poll out to the ocean to fish for a living.

Ramesh, his brother, mother and three sisters were living in a small, but comfortable four-room house on the oceanfront when the tsunami took away everything they had ... their small home, their few possessions and the catamaran, which was their only means of earning a living.

With the completion of the catamaran, Ramesh and his 15-year-old brother, Elangovan, will be able to go back out on the water and begin earning a living for their family again. Ramesh is very excited about this prospect. But the catamaran won't solve their biggest problem ... the hardship of living in "temporary housing."

The unbearable conditions of temporary housing for those who were displaced by the tsunami are not unique to India. Temporary housing has been set up for thousands of families in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The one-room units may look different.

In Indonesia, typically, the temporary housing is made of wooden sides and a tin roof with a small window and maybe a raised platform (stilts). But, while they may look somewhat different, life in these inhospitable barracks is the same — hot, lacking privacy, overcrowded and unbearable.


 Image of the small tents families cook and sleep in
Families cook, sleep and try to take shelter from the sun in small tents.

In an effort to alleviate some of the heat, residents have put dried palms over the tin ... but it's not helping much. Children are getting what Ramesh describes as  jaundice, fevers, sweating and respiratory illnesses from the heat. In these tiny dark rooms, families cook, sleep and try to take shelter from the sun and rain. At night they sleep on the concrete floor, body to body, filling every inch of the small space.


Affected villages in areas of India where the tsunami wiped out oceanfront houses average about 150 of these temporary shelters each, according to a CCF-staff worker who travels from village to village overseeing the progress of CCF's boat repair and building and other livelihood interventions.

Setbacks to Rebuilding

The dilemma is that governments and the people are at loggerheads about where tsunami-displaced families will rebuild their homes. Most of these fishing families want to go back to the oceanfront to rebuild their homes. But the governments want to create protective setbacks ... setbacks that will prevent families from rebuilding on their original home sites.

The proposed setbacks vary by locality, from 200 meters to 500 meters. If the oceanfront setbacks are created, they will move fishing families inland where generations after generations of fishing skills will be useless.

The arguments on both sides are compelling ... so it's not easy to point a finger of blame at either side. The governments say that another tsunami could put people at risk again if they rebuild where their houses once stood. It's difficult to counter that argument. It's possible that another tsunami could strike in the same place once again taking with it life and property.

But most displaced villagers point out that tsunamis such as the one of December 26 haven't happened in 100 years and they are suspicious that the land will be used for beachfront development. They want to return to the places where their homes once stood and rebuild.


 Image of Ramesh, his mother and his siblings outside of their temporary housing unit
Ramesh, in the black T-shirt, his mother and siblings have lived in temporary housing for eight months.

They want village life back as it was.


Even with the hardship of rebuilding their lives, even with the struggle of having to overcome the grief of losing family members, they feel that if they could rebuild on their original home sites, at least they would be home again.

For Ramesh, moving inland would mean the end of his ability to fish and earn money for his family. The catamarans are heavy. They must be near the water so that they can be launched each day. Even then, the men of the village get together to take the catamarans and the fiberglass boats to the water. In the oceanfront communities of India and the other tsunami devastated countries, there are no boat ramps, no cars, trucks or trailers to do this work. It's all manpower.

When the tsunami struck on December 26, Ramesh saw what he first thought was just a big wave ... but then, as he saw it taking houses and people when it topped 50 foot high palm trees, he realized it would hit his house even though his house was 200 meters (about 215 yards) from the ocean. He became instinctively afraid. He and his family ran for their lives and they made it.

Now he wonders if this is a life that was worth running for ... as life in a tin box stretches into its eighth month with no end in sight.

"We are getting sick. No one my age is living there. I need to live near the ocean and my catamaran. His mother, Muthammah, remembers the small four-room house where her family was happy. "We had a kitchen, a bedroom, a hall and a sitting room. This is too hard," she says as she tries to prepare lunch, sitting on the floor cooking over the equivalent of a small gas camp stove.


 Image of Ramesh's sister cooking for her mother and siblings
Ramesh's sister uses a crude kitchen to cook for her mother and siblings.

Ramesh is worried about whether he and his brother will be able to make a living for his family ... whether they will be able to earn a dowry for his oldest teenage sister and the others when their time comes to marry ... whether he will ever be able to rejoin the fishing community he lived in and loved for 19 years ... whether he will be able to have a family in the fishing community where his family has lived for generations...whether his life will ever resemble what it once was.


The answers to these questions are unknown and the displaced seem to remain invisible in lands were rebuilding is happening everywhere and for everyone but the displaced ... and where the word, temporary, is fast losing its meaning.