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New Growth in India

India, February 15, 2005

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    Two local farmers near the village of Velankanni, India, dig a trench as part of Mercy Corps' post-tsunami cash for work program. This program is helping local families re-establish their ruined farms. Photo: John Stephens/Mercy Corps Photo:

If necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps calamity is the father of community. I thought about this as I stood in the full Indian sun, witnessing a scene that I never imagined could take place.

In front of me, forty men, mostly farmers, stood knee-deep in mud and water. They were Hindu, Muslim and Christian men of over a dozen different castes. Although India has a long-standing tradition of religious tolerance, a scene like this is extremely rare, especially in rural areas where religious divisions are more pronounced. They had come together to dig a mile-long trench through farmland towards the sea. Their lands had been flooded with saltwater, and nothing would grow in the fields until all of it had been drained.

The waves of the tsunami hit the shores of India on December 26, ravishing the communities along the coast. But the powerful waves didn’t stop there. Unbeknownst to most observers, the waves continued up canals and across fields, in some place moving almost a mile inland.

The water, saturated with mud and sand, covered fields and villages with a layer of silt that was over two feet thick in some places. The salt water then seeped into the soil, killing all the crops.

When Mercy Corps representatives and our local partners from the DHAN Foundation first visited these farms the damage was immense. What looked like a large beach at low tide was actually acres of rice paddies. From Mercy Corps’ long experience with farming communities, we knew that the work to repair these fields had to begin immediately if these communities were to recover. New crops needed to be planted before the new growing season started.

The trench digging is the first phase of a program to revitalize farmland destroyed by the tsunami. Later, we’ll pay community members to haul the many tons of sand off of the fields, and finally we will help them rinse the salt from the soil and replant the fields.

Once the fields are cleared and rinsed, new crops are planted and harvested and the cycle of life that sustains these farming communities is once again restored, you might think that our work is done and our mission is accomplished. But we may have accomplished something far greater on the very first day we started work - the day that men from different castes who worship different gods, live in different villages and lead different lives came together and set foot in that very first canal.

On this day, a community found common ground in the very soil that sustained them and it charted the course of a canal that would not only revitalize their land, but also redefine the boundaries of their community.