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Building new hope in Tamil Nadu

By Mike Milne

In the weeks and months after a tsunami slammed into the India Ocean coastline, killing more than 200,000 people and causing billions of dollars of damage, United Church people donated $1.6 million to a special appeal. Today, much of that money is at work, helping to rebuild homes, communities and livelihoods.

An initial response that helped local church and social organizations meet victims' immediate needs included about $144,000 sent to partners in India, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Another $300,000 went to various long-term rehabilitation projects around the region through the global ecumenical organization Action by Churches Together (ACT). Most of the church's long-term reconstruction efforts, however, have been focused on India's hard-hit Tamil Nadu province.

About $850,000 of the United Church fund -- including all of the matching funds provided by the federal government -- has gone into an ecumenical project in the Tirunelveli district. The Puma Project has been building homes since last fall and is also helping people who traditionally rely on fishing to develop new ways of earning a living.

The project, with a total of $6 million in funding, is working with Dalit people, formerly known as "untouchables" in the officially banned Indian caste system. Financed by a Canadian group that includes the United, Presbyterian, Anglican and Mennonite churches, it's one of $82 million in tsunami relief projects being undertaken through ACT.

In Tirunelveli, the Puma Project has gone ahead with construction of 735 tsunami-resistant homes. Six multi-purpose shelters and repairs to 13 schools are also planned, under the management of ACT's India-based partner, the Churches Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA).

As well as helping local people organize co-operatives to market squid they catch and seashells they gather, another United Church-funded project is helping them develop new skills such as tailoring, furniture-making, computer keyboarding, organic farming, composting with worms, block-building and candle-making.

The five-year, $500,000 project, organized and administered by Mumbai-based partner Vikas Adhyayan Kendra (VAK), will also promote primary health care and advocacy issues, and operate a mangrove nursery. The aim, says United Church area secretary for South Asia, Margaret Sumadh, is also to "broaden the awareness of people, especially youth, of the impact to the environment" of local activities. Destruction of mangrove trees and loss of shoreline to sand mining may have worsened the effects of the tsunami in many areas.

VAK, whose Hindi name means Centre for Development Studies, will get people in the Tirunelveli area involved in their own development and growth, says Sumadh. "The intention is that the communities are participating and will take on real involvement." VAK also operates programs aimed at helping Dalits get increased access to government services and compensation.

Another Indian partner, the Institute For Development Education, received $47,000 last year for a women's empowerment project that included literacy training in six villages south of Chennai. Other programs that promote the rights of children and villagers and work to preserve coastal areas from environmental degradation and sand mining have also received church funding.

United Church pastoral charges have been sent a poster with information on how funds were spent and names of about a dozen local partners. And the Puma Project will be featured in a Spirit Connection documentary called "Day by Day, Step by Step," on Vision TV Feb. 12. Funded by the project's church backers as well as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the documentary tells the recovery story through a fishing family. (Broadcast times will be listed on the United Church Web site, www.united-church.ca).

"People were struggling before" the tsunami struck, says Margaret Sumadh, dealing with issues that also include overfishing and tourism development. She doesn't want people to think the aid pouring into the tsunami-stricken areas will provide "a magic solution." The money may, however, fund a step in the right direction.

The South Asian tsunami also resulted in the United Church forging a new funding arrangement with the Canadian government. When the Kashmir earthquake struck last October, for example, killing about 80,000 people, the government was quick to promise matching funds for donors. That matching contribution added $76,000 to $113,000 in United Church donations. Most of those funds are being funneled through another Canadian ecumenical effort that is contributing a total of $750,000 to ACT's earthquake appeal. Those funds are being split between Indian and Pakistani areas of Kashmir.

In addition, last fall CIDA relaxed its rules on food purchases made with government funding. After much lobbying by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) and support from Canadian farmers' groups and individuals, the spending limit for local food purchases was raised from 10 percent to 50 percent.

The rule change means agencies such as the CFGB, made up of the United Church and 12 other Canadian churches and relief and development agencies, can, when it makes sense, purchase food closer to its ultimate destination rather than purchase and ship it from Canada. The limitations of the previous policy became clear during tsunami relief last year, when local purchases were the only timely way to provide relief.

The value of the new policy quickly became clear when the CFGB saved about $1 million in shipping by making local white maize purchases for a $3.2-million food program for drought-stricken areas of southern Africa late last year.

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