There were six of them waiting for me in the forecourt of Radhakrishnan's two-room, thatched-roof, home. This is on the outskirts of Nambiar Nagar, the dominant fishing settlement in Nagapattinam, Tamilnadu. This narrow sliver of sand on the Coromandel suffered the most in the tsunami of December 2004. It has also seen the largest volumes of aid. The waters ravaged many of the houses closer to the shore, but Radhakrishnan's is higher up, on an elevated plane and was left unscathed. Radhakrishnan and his wife, therefore, did not get one of the new houses.

Kuppamma, Tsunami widow, Nambiar Nagar. Pic: Gautham S.

The new houses dominate the landscape on the approach road from town; only half the promised total have been built so far. They are arranged in the neatest of rows, an impossibly perfect grid, a playhouse array of Lego-like structures, each of them identical in every minute detail. Their contours are so ordered and perfectly aligned that they seem more like a film set from an ancient and kitschy period production and not the homes of a living, workaday people. An army cantonment awaiting a landscape architect perhaps, or coolie lines in a colonial plantation. These hamlets are all along the coast now, their one significant, enduring and common feature, the gigantic signposts heralding the name of the benefactor and builder. Several of those who live in them have quietly restored their original homes by the sea. That is where they used to live and where they'd rather be, closer to their boats and their fishing grounds.

We met at Radhakrishnan's house because it was technically not a part of the village. The other women said they felt safer meeting a visiting researcher here. There would be no spies in an excommunicated household. The traditional panchayat of the village has excommunicated him and his wife Chinnaponnu. They claim that their fault lay in an application they made to the collectorate, seeking information on the fiscal performance of the local fishermen's cooperative. This happened before the tsunami and the couple are still campaigning to be taken back.

Each one of the waiting women was single, and widowed in the tsunami. Kamakshi, Kuppamma, Sundaram, Vellachi and Nagaveni, all had their houses damaged during the disaster. And not one of them has been able to register as a beneficiary of the new housing scheme. They have had no help in restarting their trade as fish sellers. They are back at work now, servicing usurious loans from local moneylenders. In their struggle to rebuild their lives after the tsunami, they have one common complaint: being ignored by the traditional, or Katta Panchayat of the village.

"We get nothing from the panchayat. They are the ones who supply the list of affected people to the government. It is they who coordinate the relief with the agencies and volunteers. They claim that they act in the interests of all the villagers, but it is a lie. They are prompt in imposing fines on the women though, if we make a mistake, or rather what the panchayat thinks is a mistake," said Kuppamma, the irony in her voice unmistakable.

Nagaveni, however, was the most vocal of them all; with her greying hair just a trifle unkempt after a long walk to market and back, she smiles wearily through her brittle, pan-stained teeth. She also has the verve of a professional performer. She flails her arms with gusto and amidst some seriously dramatic and vocal breast-beating, she says - "I am truly single, I have two daughters but neither live in the village. But the men in the panchayat are blind to that. They either never give in my name, or remove it if it is found on the housing list. If only I had been a man..." Everyone giggles at her performance, but it belies the grim and harsher daily reality. They are laughing at the farce of it all. The futility of their situation has reversed their rage. The fact is that the tsunami notwithstanding, women are below the radar in every aspect of coastal life.

Systematic exclusion

In the Kuppams of the Coromandel, the fishing hamlets where the meenavars live, amidst the damp of the foam and the gurgle of the waves, the traditional or Katta Panchayats -- which on paper have no legal sanction -- are the supreme power. In many villages, these were hereditary positions. The leaders, or thalaivars were called Natars and the baton passed on from father to son. Some of this has changed over the years and in many places now, an informal electoral system chooses the leaders; not surprisingly they are almost always the wealthiest boat owners.

These traditional panchayats have endured many storms. They are not to be confused with the fishermen's cooperatives, which first emerged in the 1960s, or the elected gram panchayats that came via the 73rd amendment to the Indian constitution, which came into force in 1993.

The Katta Panchayats are the strongest because of their vaarikaarar system, where every member, normally the male head of the household, pays a vaari or tax for management of community affairs, and for access to fishing rights. Tax collection is the backbone of the panchayats' fiscal health and local clout. The traditional panchayat is the organisation to maintain communal peace, and social order. It celebrates religious festivals, and rules on local disputes. It therefore becomes the custodian of village well being. It plays an explicit role in village politics and is the paramount institution for decision-making.

The cooperative society on the other hand is a professional body, a guild, a lobby group. It regulates cooperative activities that can bring material benefit. This allows paying members to participate in programmes of the fisheries department of the Tamilnadu state government. The elected gram panchayat itself is more recent, with elections monitored by the Election Commission. But it is absent from local discourse. Though the membership lists of the first two (the Katta Panchayats and the cooperatives) are often the same, the cooperatives sometimes omit fish-workers who don't own boats. Their arbitrational domains also differ.

The structure of the panchayats may have changed over time, but its essence remains the same. In the southernmost districts, like Kanyakumari and Thoothukudy, for instance, the church has in many cases, replaced the panchayats and the 'taxes' are paid to the parish.

Group of tsunami widows, Nambiar Nagar. Pic: Gautham S.

The membership system of all these however, rests on three well-entrenched pillars: fishing, patriarchy and local residence. Together these guarantee that the members' list coincides with the list of adult men in the village. Women have never been eligible for membership. This is in tune with their 'undesirability' in public spaces. The one exception to this rule is their crucial role in actually monetising the catch the men bring in. They are the ones who sort the fish, and ferry it to market. That is welcome.

But here, as we sit and talk on the outskirts of Nambiar Nagar, there is nothing enabling about the panchayat for the women. Nagaveni continues her ranting - "There are disputes all the time in the village and the panchayat becomes the arbitrator - but nothing excites them more than a wayward woman. If I were to leave my husband and go off with some one else, they will fine me, not the man. They will never ask me why I did that, whether my husband is a drunkard, or if I am beaten at home. In adultery, she is the only criminal. That is fairness and justice at the panchayat."

In his compelling novel The House of Blue Mangoes, set, almost presciently, in a coastal village on the Coromandel, publisher and writer, David Davidar has written eloquently and with deep insight of the politics of gendered exclusion in the traditional panchayat. In one of the early scenes in the story, a young girl, Valli, on her way to a local fair, exuberant and eager to buy a few trinkets for herself and her cousin, is assaulted in the most brutal fashion. Over the next few days the collective task of the panchayat is geared towards assuaging the seething rage of the men, incoherent and thirsty for revenge. The focus is on preventing what could become a caste clash. Little is said about the feelings of the girl herself. To the women, the incident is only a reminder of the misfortune of being born as a woman. When the leader's wife, a woman of privilege and some education, tries to raise the issue over dinner, well within the confines of home, she is thrashed by the thalaivar. He is a man portrayed as being otherwise decent, a benign leader of men, committed to village peace. The implication is that women must simply do their anointed work, and be neither seen nor heard. And tradition must be accepted, not trifled with or contested. In the story, Valli hangs herself, hours after the Panchayat meets.

Davidar has set this scene in his novel in the late nineteenth century, but he may well have been writing about the Coromandel today. At every stage in my conversation with local women, I was reminded that it was not a woman's place to ask questions of any kind - soft or searing. Acquiescence was the mot juste.

The tsunami widows of Nambiar Nagar are unanimous about one thing. They have received no aid but for the interim cash relief they were given immediately after the disaster. They also got food at the transit shelters. "When we ask the panchayat why we are not getting the houses or other things, their argument is that they cannot give it to us because we do not pay the tax."

The traditional panchayats of the Coromandel have always collected the vaari or tax. The members of the body are called varrikarars, which translates both into taxpayers and shareholders. The tax collection works in several different and confusing ways. Sometimes the fishing rights in a particular village are auctioned off to the owner of a larger vessel like a trawler. He then charges smaller boat owners a fee each time they venture out to sea. In some villages everyone pays a fee to the panchayat, each time they go out to sea. And then there are panchayats, which sometimes take a day's catch at regular intervals as tax.

The panchayats have argued that since women don't pay the tax, they are not members of the community; that they will be looked after by family. This system however, doesn't have space for deserted or separated women, or those whose children have turned their backs on them. There is no allowance for the possibility that a woman may just want to live on her own.

The grinding poverty of life in the Kuppam today, and the daily struggle have made the memories of the past fill up with pleasant nostalgia. Chinnaponnu claims that in her younger days, there was much more harmony and that social bonds were stronger. She uses the word kattupadu, meaning, well knit, tightly woven – also well behaved, disciplined. "I remember the panchayat persuading people who wanted to leave to stay. It was possible to approach them and get a hearing. But now it has changed. They are not sympathetic to questioning at all." Suddenly the days of the Natars seem to be much better, until someone reminds her that this is the way it has always been.

Now, Nagaveni lets go in another barrage of invective. She says that the men have historically conspired to render the women idiots. They are now incapable of anything. "Mandailai vennai rombi irruku" she tells me, "Our brains are addled now, all made of butter."

Tsunami relief on the traditional panchayats' terms

The aftermath of the tsunami saw an unprecedented outpouring of goodwill. There was such a rush of NGOs to Nagapattinam that they were often crossing swords with each other, rather than delivering help to the affected people. It was a time of misery and chaos, and for many of the well-meaning volunteers, the traditional panchayats were a convenient way of negotiating access to the community. "We had no experience in this kind of thing, It was the first time we had seen such havoc and destruction," says R Kandaswamy, Deputy Collector, Relief and Rehabilitation, at Nagapattinam." People were raiding relief vans, assaulting volunteers. We eventually handed over the responsibility to the community itself." This meant the panchayats became the controlling interest and the existing power structures took over. The exclusions were noted early on, but little was in fact, done. The excluded were of course, the most marginal - dalits and women.

A fish market, it is the women who sort and sell the fish. Pic: Gautham S.

To stem the confusion, the UNDP has incubated a special coordinating agency, the NCRC, (The NGO coordination and Resource Centre) to moderate the information flow between agencies, government and the affected people. In a report released in September 2005 the NCRC acknowledges that traditional panchayats often used their own formula to distribute aid, deriving from their own ethical and traditional values. It agrees that these can sometimes seem unjust to the outsider. The report seems to imply that this is something that cannot be avoided.

"When the traditional structures took over the decision making, it was inevitable that the process would be based on their idea of equity. There can be no denying the fact that these were inherently patriarchal," agrees Annie George, the CEO of the NCRC. But this realisation has had little impact on ground reality; two and a half years of rehabilitation have made no dent.

"It is cowardice to simply accept that this is a tradition and it is difficult to interfere, change or challenge" says Revathi Radhakrishnan, a filmmaker who came to work as a volunteer and stayed on, horrified by the systemic exclusion of the weakest. She now runs Vanavil, the rainbow, a school cum shelter for children of Adiyans, a Dalit community. They too were victims of the tsunami but saw little relief. She has been trying to introduce a debate on systemic exclusion at every forum she can access locally, and elsewhere at the risk of becoming unpopular." The traditional panchayats are a well entrenched system of exploitation and this fact must be recognised and battled," she says.

At the core of all this are two problems. One, a shortsighted policy which sanctions only an asset based definition of a victim. Only those who have lost a house or a boat, or had them damaged, are seen as victims. People who worked in auxiliary trades, and who too, lost their livelihoods are ignored. So, the fishermen get boats and nets, and male heads of families get new homes. But the woman who sold idlies in the fish market, or the labourers who carried the headloads, and indeed women who actually traded in the fish are all forgotten.

Two, neither the district administration nor the gram panchayats have their own list of all the people -- men and women -- who live in these kuppams, their full names, and their occupations. If the government does not have a system to track down and identify people, how can they, during times of disaster, have an independent beneficiary identification policy that does not rely on the traditional panchayats' network with the vaarikarars?

The men and tradition

What do the men think of all this? It took me three days of trying to get one meeting with a male panchayat member. Kandaswamy, the main thalaivar of Nambiar Nagar, failed to turn up at the panchayat hall on two successive days, after fixing appointments. The hall itself has been taken over by a temporary fire brigade battalion stationed there in the aftermath of a fire that further destroyed the already fragile homes. Many local activists believe it is part of a more sinister conspiracy to evict the fisherfolk from their coastal homes, in an act of land grab but that is another story.

I finally managed a meeting with Selvam, another member of the panchayat. He sees the self-respect of the community as the biggest challenge. This, he explained, was more important than anything else. His vocabulary is that of a correctional officer. He liberally uses phrases like "only with punishment can we reform the errant." He explained that the rule of the panchayat was outside the ambit of government. "We are older than the Indian state." He says with fervour. "And we are not extra-legal. We do not adjudicate crimes, so if there is a murder, we go by the law. But when things affect village peace, like adultery or elopement, then it is we who decide the punishment. It can be a fine, or even excommunication."

We begin to talk of specific actions taken by the panchayat in the relief process. "After the tsunami, it was the panchayat which organised and supervised the relief. We are the ones who control the village and no one can work here without our help and support," he said. When I asked why the single women were not nominated for housing benefits, he began by saying that they were forgotten in the confusion. He recanted to blame the government for not listening. He finally said that traditionally women did not own property. Their children would look after them and that was that.

Endless abuse, toothless government

Traditional panchayats all over India have been in the thick of controversy for several years now. Every now and then, reports filter through of caste panchayats in the gangetic plain lynching young lovers who dared to elope, or a father in Purulia shooting his daughter dead. Some years ago, a harassed Superintendent of Police in Muzzafarnagar even set up a counseling cell in his office. He was desperate to stem the tide of caste rage in such cases. A recent newspaper report cited 16 such deaths in Uttar Pradesh alone in one year.

These were merely the cases reported in 2005. It is also, by no means a phenomenon only of the rural hinterland. More recently, in Bhopal, there was a diktat from the Sindhi Panchayat banning their girls from using cell phones, riding two wheelers, or covering their faces. It is an epic and endless litany of atavistic abuse, control and vicious and violent obduracy.

Months before the tsunami ravaged the Coromandel, the Madras High Court had passed severe strictures on the traditional panchayats. In effect, it directed the government to pass an ordnance to ban them. Justice M Karpagavinayagam was as blunt and unsparing as he could be in his final order. He called it a "nauseating system". The judgment, as quoted in The Hindu also says that the "actions of Katta Panchayats result in deprivation of social status, access to food, water and shelter." He said that they amounted to a violation of human rights. He went on to ask the government to publicise the evils of the panchayats.

There is in fact a Tamilnadu Government Order issued in December 2003. It explicitly states that Katta Panchayats have no legal sanction. It also mandates in words that are crisp and clear, that government servants should "neither participate in nor pay heed to their decisions." It takes less than a walk along Nagapattinam beach to realise that this is not worth the paper it was dispatched on, floating out, as it did along with the debris that followed the waves of wrath.