August 31, 2006

Indian tribe baffled by tsunami relief tillers

PORT BLAIR, India (Reuters) - A group of children clamber
curiously over their new toy, a power tiller that sits
otherwise unused by the side of a dirt road in a coconut
palm-fringed village.

Hundreds of power tillers, sometimes known as walking
tractors, have been sent to India's remote Andaman and Nicobar
islands in the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami.

But tribal leaders, farmers and activists say the Indian
government has simply been wasting its money as they don't know
what to do with the machines, including the one that has become
a plaything in Malacca village in Car Nicobar.

In the southern Nicobar group of islands, which lie much
closer to Indonesia than to India, tribes have maintained
coconut plantations for generations and have no tradition of

"This relief package for agriculture is a surprise for us,
as most of our people don't know how to use a power tiller or
how to do cultivation," said Martin Luther, a member of the
tribal council on Car Nicobar island, who lives by Malacca

"Very few of us are making use of it, and in most cases in
Car Nicobar these tillers are either used for carrying goods or
simply kept unused," he said.

More than 300 tillers, each costing nearly 100,000 Indian
rupees ($2,150) were sent to the Nicobar islands. Thomas
Philip, secretary of the tribal council on Car Nicobar, says
106 were sent to his island when just one or two would have
been enough.

It does not surprise Samir Acharya of the Society for
Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, who says he has seen tsunami
relief often mis-spent in the archipelago, some 1,200 km (750
miles) off India's eastern coast.

"It seems there were funds available for tsunami relief and
there was pressure to invest them, so without proper survey of
tsunami-hit farmers these power tillers were purchased," he
said. "They are now laying unused in the Nicobar islands."

Acharya, who says mainland India often shows little
understanding of the needs of the Nicobari people, said sarees
were sent from mainland India after the tsunami, even though
tribal women never wear them.


Half-a-dozen auto-rickshaws, or three-wheel taxis, were
also sent to islands lacking even a petrol pump in a misguided
attempt to generate employment, he said.

The vehicles now lie unused.

In the northern Andaman group of islands, where paddy is
extensively cultivated, more of the tillers are being used but
farmers are scarcely any happier.

"It is very difficult to work with these low quality iron
wheels given to us with the tiller," said Asish Halder, a
farmer from Chouldari village on South Andaman island. "After
this season, this machine will be of no use."

Around 40 tillers were distributed in Chouldari but just
three are used regularly, locals say.

The government says teams of experts visited the islands to
assess local needs and received requests for tractors to
cultivate land. Tillers were given as an affordable

"At that time, the prime focus was relief and
rehabilitation and so not many people got enough time to feed
the committee with proper information," said Janak Digal,
agriculture secretary in the Andaman and Nicobar

"But the team also consisted of local experts, too and the
reports were made in their presence," he said. "Until now we
haven't heard from any villagers that they don't want power
tillers, so that means they are satisfied."

In all, around 550 tillers have been bought with plans to
buy about 500 more. But locals says some of the machines were
given to people who could hardly afford to buy fuel, and are
already being put up for sale at knockdown prices.

More than 3,500 people were recorded as dead or missing in
the Andaman and Nicobar islands after the December 26, 2004

After the tsunami, the Indian government approved a 2.4
billion rupee ($50 million) package for the revival of the
agriculture sector including the removal of surface salt, the
repair of dykes, improved drainage and buying farm implements.

($1=46.5 Indian rupees)