For around three weeks, four-year-old Anushree has been living in a high school on Santhanam Street in Thalaignayiru, a town in Tamil Nadu’s Nagapattinam district. “I cannot go home, it is broken,” she said. For most residents of Nagapattinam’s Vedaranyam block – where Cyclone Gaja made landfall on November 15 – the immediate crisis is shelter and housing.

Going through the many flood-affected villages in Vedaranyam, Keezhayur and Kilvelur blocks of the district, the number of tiny mud huts with thatched roofs is staggering. According to Census data, 52% of Nagapattinam’s population lives in “semi-permanent” or “temporary” housing. The Census of India describes temporary houses as those built with kutcha material such as grass, reeds, bamboo, mud, wood and unburnt bricks, while semi-permanent homes are constructed using “other types of material”.

Many villages in Talaignayiru barely have even a single permanent structure. Even the subsidised homes built by the government, called “group houses”, are difficult to locate.

Revathi is a mid-day meal cook at the primary school in Pichakattalai village in Vedaranyam block. After the death of her alcoholic husband a few years ago, the 40-year-old worked hard to provide for her three children. “I always dreamt of a roof over our heads,” she said. “I took a Rs 50,000 loan from the SHG [self-help group] and put in all my meagre savings and built a house three months ago. Now it’s just a heap [of rubble] and I have my loan to repay, which will take more than half of my paltry salary.”

She listlessly walks around the relief camp, narrating the story of her destroyed home to every new visitor to her village.

In Nagapattinam, 52% of its population lives in temporary or semi-permanent homes – most of which have sustained great damage in Cyclone Gaja.
In Nagapattinam, 52% of its population lives in temporary or semi-permanent homes – most of which have sustained great damage in Cyclone Gaja.

At nature’s mercy

Talaignayiru is a low-lying area prone to floods. Yet, almost all the homes here, lying on the edges of water bodies, are kutcha – raising questions about the precautions that need to be taken in such vulnerable regions.

“In the last 10 years, our houses have been completely destroyed at least four times,” said Karthikeyan of Pazhayatrankarai village. “Every time, we have had to start from scratch. How is this possible? When a flood comes, officials come and ask us to move out. But then they never come back. Only if they give us a house elsewhere can we move.”

Flattened huts in flooded Pazhayatrankarai village.
Flattened huts in flooded Pazhayatrankarai village.

The damage from Cyclone Gaja has been particularly bad. Most huts have lost their roofs. In some homes where the roof is partially intact, the floors are covered in muddy slush. “To rebuild this house, it will cost us anywhere between Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000,” said Karthikeyan. “We don’t know if we will get coconut thatches also since most coconut groves have been razed.”

At a small community hall-turned-relief camp on Lingathadi Street in Thalaignayiru, residents sit in huddles, lamenting the loss of their homes. Incessant rain in the aftermath of the cyclone has added to their misery. “Even if I want to go and set my home, who will lend me money now?” asked Amudha. “We want the government to build us houses. We do not want any other help. How can we live with dignity without a roof over our heads? How do we raise our children in such conditions?”

Most homes in Pazhayatrankarai are covered in muddy sludge.
Most homes in Pazhayatrankarai are covered in muddy sludge.

Housing for all

At the beginning of the year, the Tamil Nadu government sought a special allocation from the Central government to build 3.42 lakh dwelling units in 13 coastal districts. According to a demand survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, the urban housing requirement assessed in these 13 coastal districts is 5.85 lakh.

In Vedaranyam block – which has been at the receiving end of numerous floods and cyclones over the years – 26,089 households lived in temporary housing and 10,512 in semi-permanent homes. Cyclone Gaja has destroyed all of these homes.

Two weeks on, the state government is yet to announce relief or rehabilitation measures. Nagapattinam has seen a string of VIP visitors, from Chief Minister K Palaniswami to Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and a Central team. But there has been no official word on what the state intends to do for the people who have lost their homes in this calamity. There is a general fear among people that they may not receive compensation if they repair their homes, even partially.

The only long-term solution is for the government to build pucca homes for the cyclone-affected, said Somu Elango, a social activist working in Thalaignayiru. “They [the government] should not try to move them as it would affect their livelihoods,” Elango added. “Also, for every 100 houses, they should build a flood protection centre that can accommodate livestock as well.”

During her visit to India in 2016, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, Farha Leilani, suggested the country adopt a national legislation incorporating a human rights approach to housing that is binding on all states. Looking at the aftermath of Cyclone Gaja, it is clear that access to proper housing alone can protect communities along the Nagapattinam coast from the recurrent onslaught of floods and cyclones.

Malathi (right) built this home with her own hands, buying the bricks and sand for it bit by bit.
Malathi (right) built this home with her own hands, buying the bricks and sand for it bit by bit.

Rebuilding a damaged house and making it a safe, happy home for one’s children is an uphill task for anyone – perhaps more so for single women like Malathi. For the widow from Karpaganathakulam, her dream of having her own home took years to realise. She bought the bricks and sand bit by bit with the money she earned as a construction labourer, and built the house with her own hands. That much cherished home is now unliveable, thanks to Cyclone Gaja.

All photographs by Revathi R