01 January 2005
As the first chilling images of the death and devastation caused by the tsunami flashed on Indian television Sunday, Tara Kaushal, 21, a freelance writer and accessories designer, started receiving text messages from friends on her cell phone. She in turn sent messages to others about the disaster, expressing a need "to get together and do something."
"We all felt helpless watching the terrible tragedy. We had to do something. We couldn't just wait for the slow government machinery to give relief," Kaushal said. "There were so many people who had lost their lives and homes, and I felt horrible that all I could think of was where to party next."
The next morning, Kaushal's extended group of friends circulated e-mail asking for contributions to an effort to buy relief supplies. Money poured in -- from young fashion designers, teenage students, lawyers, corporate executives, software professionals, aerobics and yoga instructors, cooks and car drivers.
Survivors in the southern state of Tamil Nadu said the relief efforts organized by wealthier, urban do-gooders such as Kaushal's friends arrived more quickly and had been much more visible than government assistance. As soon as news streamed out about the disaster, which killed more than 6,000 people in the state and displaced hundreds of thousands, concerned citizens and charities began sending truckloads of cooked food and water to scores of suffering villagers.
"We did not want to keep sending rice and vegetables all the time," said Shivranjan Sahgal, 32, a Madras-based senior executive for the Sara Lee Corp. who helped send e-mail pleas. "So we began by sending them soaps, towels, blankets, buckets, floor mats, cooking oil, grains and vessels. This will help them rebuild their lives. They can't keep queuing up for food forever. They are not beggars."
What to send the survivors has been an important issue for the groups and individuals across the country. Donors and nongovernmental groups across India collected huge bundles of used clothes for the homeless and sent the clothing to shelters, but aid agencies have appealed to people to stop because heaps lie about on roads unclaimed.
"The idea is to give the people what they want, not what we can spare. That would be dumping," Jeffery Vardon, 35, a gym manager sporting a handlebar mustache, said as he assembled and packed relief materials Friday before loading them into a pickup truck in a fashionable neighborhood in Madras.
A friend of Vardon's stood by the truck listing each item on a Pokemon writing pad. A teenage volunteer sat nearby playing games on her cell phone. Just then, another volunteer arrived, complaining about a government order that barred people from distributing charity directly to distressed people.
An article Friday in a local newspaper, headlined "Hand over relief materials to corporation," reported that the Madras police chief had "warned nongovernmental organizations and volunteers against directly distributing relief material to tsunami victims." The article said that direct distribution created law-and-order problems and that supplies should be handed over to the nearest municipal office. It ended on an ominous note: "Serious action would be initiated against violators."
The new rule caused a stir among the volunteers.
"What do we do if the cops stop us?" asked a man talking on a cell phone.
"I just don't trust the government with the supplies," another volunteer said. "For that matter, I don't even trust the big NGOs."
"We will just go ahead with our plans. If we leave it to the city government, the relief would not even reach halfway," said Richa Goenka, a fashion designer. "Unless you do it yourself, you can never be sure that it has reached those in need."
A police officer stopped by the truck and tried to inspect the supplies. He then asked the driver about the destination of the aid. The volunteers observed him angrily from behind a wall.
"I don't understand this," Vardon said, shaking his head. "We are all trying to do something good here."
After about an hour, three trucks left for a tiny fishing village outside Madras. Seven cars filled with teenagers and young professionals followed them.
When the group reached the village, the trucks were unloaded. The villagers were told that there was enough for everybody.
As the team started distributing the aid, village women standing under a tree said the supplies were what they needed.
"At least we can try to start cooking our own food now," said Kalvi Desingu, 32.
"Next time, bring some textbooks, paints and drawing notes," said Sankari, 13. "My school bag was washed away."
After the aid was distributed, the volunteers said they felt fulfilled but also somewhat guilty.
"Although I am not responsible for what happened to them, I feel guilty," said Divya Srinivasan, 22, a fitness instructor. "After this, I don't think I will be able to go back and party tonight."