Fresh push to coordinate tsunami aid

India rebuffs offers of international help as South Asia's death toll nears 80,000.

The stench of rotting fish mingles with something more sinister in the balmy December air. The villagers of Sadras, many wearing the last pieces of clothing they own, stand on empty spaces in the sand where they trace with sticks the former locations of their homes.

Their thatch-roofed huts are gone, their cooking pots are gone, and many of their children, women, and men are gone. "For us the sea is a goddess who gives us everything; our children play in her arms and we depend on her for our lives," says Jagan Mohan, a fisherman who lost his wife and his daughter in Sunday's tsunami and whose grief is beyond tears. After a moment, he quietly adds, "We didn't know that we would depend on her for our deaths as well."

The death toll here on India's southern coast, and across Southeast Asia continued to climb to at least 76,900 people. Indonesian officials say the toll on Sumatra is more than 45,000. Wednesday, President Bush said the US, India, Australia, and Japan have formed an international coalition to coordinate worldwide relief and reconstruction efforts.

The British aid charity Oxfam said it raised $1.2 million in three days for the relief effort, the most it had ever received in such a short period.

A spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the charity planned to send a plane to Sri Lanka and Indonesia with water-storage tanks, emergency toilet equipment, buckets, and plastic sheeting. Denmark said it will head a Nordic-British-Dutch effort to establish a UN disaster coordination center on the island of Sumatra.

When a local aid worker arrived in Sadras Wednesday, the villagers pulled out white sheets of paper with handwritten petitions to the government for money to buy boats, fishing nets, and to rebuild their homes.

As in many of the villages dotting this Indian Ocean coastline, the people depend on the sea for their livelihood.

It is estimated that it will cost each family a minimum of $2,000 for each fishing boat, and to get them back generating an income in the waters that now glint gently just a few hundred meters away.

Officials hear say that nearly 4,000 people are believed to have been killed by the tsunami here in state of Tamil Nadu.

As they talk, The Women's Collective, another local nongovernmental organization, arrives with clothing piled high on the back of a truck and begin to distribute it quickly. "We are being given food and water, but what are we going to do about our boats and our motors without which we will surely die?" asks another villager, Kali Amma who shows injuries to her leg sustained as she swam to safety.

An NGO worker from the Association for Rural Women's Education and Liberation (ARWEL), says that based on past experience, the Indian government is likely to take six months before it responds to such requests.

"The government here has said that it is willing to give one lakh of rupees (about $1,000) to those families that lost members, but what about those who lost [all their property] but nobody died?" Sadras villager Jayanthi Jerome asks.

Delhi has advised the state governments to collect requests to provide housing to those who have lost their homes, especially to fishermen. But the state government is just started the process.

Local NGOs like ARWEL, armed with local knowledge, are the first to go into disaster hit areas with fresh water and clothes, along with the government. But the local NGOs say they don't have the manpower or resources for dealing with a disaster of this magnitude.

The Indian government has pledged to spend about $116 million for victims of the disaster, which it says is on par with the 1999 cyclone that hit the state of Orissa and killed 10,000 people.

One official in Delhi told Reuters that India has not accepted international offers of help because Sunday's tragedy was not of the same magnitude for India as an earthquake that struck the western state of Gujarat in 2001, killing 20,000 people. "In comparison to the Gujarat earthquake we have the resources to handle the situation at this juncture," he said.

India's government, the UN, and local aid agencies have begun distributing survival packs of food, water, and shelter to some160,000 people left homeless along the mainland coast.

Oxfam plans to give nearly $500,000 to the tsunami victims in India, says P.J. Chako, the group's humanitarian program manager in Delhi. He's not surprised by the attitude toward outside help. "The Indian government has for a number of years said that it can handle all disasters by itself, and this tends to slow down the aid from the international community to us because they then feel that their aid is unwelcome, and secondly they worry that they will not be able to make sure where the money goes if no one seems to care about it," he says.

Mr. Chako says that reluctance by the government to accept "outside help" has in the past also resulted in a "deliberate" lack of coordination on the ground with government officials. "This can lead to chaos and silly delays," he adds.

UNICEF Chief of Emergencies in India, Vinod Menoni, says that a meeting Wednesday evening was scheduled in Chennai, India, to help coordinate the work of a number of international aid agencies. "Some are good at some things and others at other things. This is going to be one of the largest initiatives in the sense that it involves so many countries all at the same time and we have to make sure that we get what we need for this country," he says.

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