Canadian project saved Indian village in 2004 Boxing Day tsunami

OTTAWA — The fisherman’s son feared for his family across the ocean as the Pacific rumbled.

OTTAWA — The fisherman’s son feared for his family across the ocean as the Pacific rumbled.

Five years ago, Vijayakumar Gunasekaran watched the early ripples of the Boxing Day tsunami on his television in Singapore and thought of his home village of Nallavadu on India’s eastern coast.

He immediately phoned home, setting off a chain of events — one with a crucial Canadian link — that would save thousands of lives on a day of mass carnage.

The Dec. 26, 2004 South Asian tsunami killed 225,000 people across 13 countries. In Nallavadu, hundreds of houses and fishing boats were swept away, but all of the village’s 3,630 souls survived.

Gunasekaran’s phone call from Singapore warned villagers, sparking a group of men to knock down the door of the village’s “knowledge centre” — a communication’s hub that Canada’s International Development Research Centre played a key role in creating. Using the centre’s loudspeakers and warning sirens, the men sounded an alarm that sent villagers scurrying to safety inland.

The knowledge centres were born out of a partnership between the IDRC, a Canadian Crown corporation, and a foundation led by M.A. Swaminathan, a philanthropist named by TIME magazine as one of the most influential Asians of the 20th Century.

Twelve centres were created in a pilot project in 1997, with about $300,000 coming from the IDRC. The goal was to bring information technology to India’s rural poor, to places that had been passed over by the Internet boom. The centres gave farm families access to important information that could improve their lives, such as local market crop prices or health information to help a mother cope with an ill child.

In fishing villages like Nallavadu, the centres relied on a public address system of loudspeakers to update fishermen on weather conditions, the latest market prices, the tides, or anything that could help them decide whether to set out to sea with their fishing nets on any given day.

As the corpses of fishermen began washing up on Asian shores in the tsunami aftermath, the value of the centres took on new importance. Along India’s eastern coastline in the mainly rural Pondicherry province, thousands of inhabitants in Nallavadu and about 10 other villages all escaped the tsunami.

“Never, I thought, will the project have spin-off benefits, including that of saving lives,” Basheerhamad Shadrach, the senior project officer for the telecommunications project, said from New Delhi.

“The people of Pondicherry are indebted to IDRC and those who conceived the idea of village knowledge centres.

“Everyone responded and moved to safer places, and thus, not a single person died. All neighbouring villages suffered death and losses of livestock . . . wherever a knowledge centre did not exist in the coastal lines of Pondicherry, many people were consumed by the waves.”

On the fifth anniversary of the Boxing Day tsunami, the rebuilding continues in the countries hardest hit — Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India. The United Nations estimates that more that $13.5 billion was pledged to aid in the rebuilding, with about 40 per cent of that coming from public donors answering emergency please for pledges.

Canadians set a record for personal generosity contributing $195 million to an emergency appeal by the Canadian Red Cross. That allowed the Canadian Red Cross to raise $360 million after adding in $131 million from the Canadian International Development Agency, $19.3 million from provincial governments, and $15.1 million from corporations.

“It was quite an extraordinary event, and an extraordinary response,” said Conrad Sauve, secretary general of the Canadian Red Cross and the leader of the organization’s fundraising effort five years ago.

Some 97 per cent of that money has now been spent. The Red Cross built 6,500 new earthquake resistant homes, easily exceeding its goal by 1,000, said Sauve.

Most of the Canada’s tsunami efforts were focused on Indonesia, the country hardest hit by the tsunami unleashed by the massive underwater earthquake that registered 9.3 on the Richter Scale.

But Canada’s much quieter efforts to bring telecommunications to rural India have also paid dividends since the tsunami. In 2007, the Indian government, convinced of the benefit of knowledge centres, committed $1.2 billion to building 240,000 more of them by 2012. Canada’s contribution, through the IDRC, has grown to $1.2 million.

Five years after the tsunami, Shadrach said rural residents are not looking for government handouts or welfare schemes.

“They are demanding village resource centres and village knowledge centres and stronger linkages to scientific institutions . . . so that they can put to use the knowledge passed on to them in real time.”

As for Gunasekaran, he still works in Singapore, in the information technology sector. He broke into the industry after showing his new employer a key entry on his resume: working in his village’s knowledge centre.

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