THE AFTERSHOCKS

Print edition : February 17, 2001

The administration appears to be still at a loss, but as relief rushes in the earthquake victims begin to rebuild their lives.

PRAVEEN SWAMI PARVATHI MENON LYLA BAVADAM

A FORTNIGHT after the great earthquake of January 26, the size of the tragedy inflicted by nature has become clearer than it was in the immediate aftermath. The contours of another tragedy, this one caused and aided by people, are now becoming visible.

What is left of Jikadi village in Gujarat.-KAMAL KISHORE/REUTERS

A Frontline team travelled through villages and towns in Kutch to assess the impact of the earthquake on the region's diverse communities. It found disturbing signs that relief continued to be dogged by chaotic administration, as well as caste and religious bias. Even more worrying, there appeared to be no coherent agenda for the long-term reconstruction of the area.

It is not that aid has been slow in coming. The Gujarat earthquake has provoked an unprecedented outpouring of assistance from across India - and from elsewhere in the world. Major aid agencies, Indian and foreign, were joined by the most ordinary of peo ple. Doctors from New Delhi were joined by students from Orissa; farmers from Punjab and Haryana with software professionals from Andhra Pradesh; Sikh religious organisations by Christian, Muslim and Hindu bodies: no State or group was un-represented in the villages and towns of Kutch. Indeed, the sheer volume of food and medical aid was almost an embarrassment, exceeding the capacity of thinly populated Kutch to absorb it.

The real problem, the Frontline team found, lay in the way the official apparatus had responded to the calamity, and the near-absence of vision for what had to be done to restore civil society in Kutch.

Offering namaz inside what remains of a mosque in Dhruvabanu village.-VIVEK BENDRE

namaz

Consider this: the principal long-term reconstruction programme announced by the Gujarat government consists of the commitment of Rs.3 crores each to 250 villages that have been "70 per cent damaged". Since almost all villages in the affected areas have suffered damage to the extent of 100 per cent, this criterion makes little sense, and is open to abuse and arbitrariness. All aid is to be administered through a committee made up of Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel and seven senior bureaucrats. "You coul d set up a group to handle recreation instead of relief," says the Ahmedabad-based Disaster Mitigation Institute's Mihir Bose, "and it wouldn't be much different in composition."

Worse, there seems to be no effort to involve local communities and representative bodies to decide their own relief and reconstruction. The emphasis seems to be on dumping imported aid, rather than on rebuilding the homes and restoring the means of live lihood of communities in Kutch. No one has, for example, asked individual panchayat bodies what shape they would like reconstruction to take. A 40-member team from the global donor agencies, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, was ex pected to arrive in Gandhinagar to commit funds for reconstruction. Indeed, the eagerness to seek international help in Kutch is in stark contrast to past disasters, notably the Orissa cyclone of 1999. It takes little imagination to see just what will ha ppen to the cash that comes in.

Petty political concerns seem to underpin this top-down structure of relief. Last year, Congress(I) nominees took control of the bulk of panchayats in Kutch. The assumption of office by new panchayat leaders had been deferred owing to drought conditions in the area, but the decision to bypass local bodies seems related to the balance of power.

Water that rose from the earth in the Greater Rann of Kutch after the earthquake.-VIVEK BENDRE

UNSURPRISINGLY, then, the state apparatus' credibility as an agent of relief has been severely eroded. It is now clear that at least some of the devastation appears to have been the consequence not as much of seismic calamity as it has been of human gree d. The devastation in Ahmedabad was restricted largely to upmarket luxury apartments in the affluent areas. These buildings, it is now clear, were shabbily constructed, in violation of official building regulations. Reports suggest that such violations t ook place with the connivance of politicians and bureaucrats. Some 55 Ahmedabad builders now face police action, but there seems to be little prospect of their politician-sponsors being prosecuted. The Frontline team found that similar violations of rules had taken place in Bhuj, where remittances from non-resident Indians, mainly in the Gulf countries, have led to a proliferation of inappropriate high-rise structures.

But the destruction in new high-rise areas of urban centres such as Ahmedabad and Bhuj accounts for only a small part of the overall damage inflicted by the earthquake. Some of the worst destruction in Bhuj and Bhachau, for example, took place in crowded , old-city market areas. Traditionally built village homes, too, were flattened. Here, the Frontline team found, the issue was not the nexus between politicians and builders; it was the inability of the state apparatus to deliver aid to those who needed it.

A tent housing 250 people in the Bidada Sarvodaya Trust Hospital in Kutch.-PRAVIN KAJOLKER

The Gujarat government seemed to have collapsed along with the buildings that fell. Border Security Force (BSF) troops were out within half an hour of the earthquake, scouring the devastated Bhuj General Hospital for survivors, but it took days for the a dministration to get its act together. Up until 3-15 p.m. on January 26, there was only one doctor available at the central maidan in Bhuj where hundreds of injured persons had collected. And this doctor was the BSF's Jasvir Singh. When relief did come i n, no one seemed to know what to do with it. During the first days after the earthquake, trucks of potatoes were despatched in one direction; trucks of wheat in another direction.

It was only on February 4 that an effort was made even to build an inventory of what had arrived. On top of all this, repeated visits by top politicians threw relief operations out of gear. Normal operations at Bhuj airport were closed down in order to f acilitate the arrival of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, while troops deployed for rescue operations were put on security duties. "Each time there was a massacre or a killing in Punjab, there would be a huge number of VIP visitors," says the BSF's s traight-talking Inspector-General, Bakshish Singh. "Then, K.P.S. Gill told people who had no immediate work to attend to in Punjab not to come there until the emergency had been dealt with. Politicians must, of course, interact with their constituents, b ut there is a time for everything."

RIGHT-WING religious groups have meanwhile moved to cash in, cynically exploiting the spaces created by the government apparatus' absence. Bhuj residents say that some volunteer relief supplies had Bharatiya Janata Party stickers pasted on to them. While the Hindu Right sought to cash in on the tragedy, their counterparts in Muslim revanchist organisations were not far behind. Right- wing Islamic groups urged residents of Ahmedabad and Surat to destroy their television sets, claiming that supposedly imm oral programmes had provoked divine wrath. Predictably, the most vulnerable sections were worst hit by such chicanery. Muslim communities complained of bias in relief allocations, while Dalits and Adivasis often received next to nothing. In several areas that the Frontline team visited, tents lay empty, because upper-caste people would not share space with Dalits and other marginalised communities.

Representatives of the Delhi Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, with relief materials.-VIVEK BENDRE

Another curious process is under way in Gandhinagar and New Delhi. The Frontline team found that claims from top BJP politicians and Union Defence Minister George Fernandes that 50,000, even 100,000 people, had died in the earthquake were grossly exaggerated. At the time of writing, the Bhuj administration had recorded some 15,500 fatalities. Some decomposing bodies were indeed still trapped in urban debris, but the number of these did not appear to exceed a few hundred. Even if the number of bod ies recovered is, for the sake of argument, only half of those who died, the figure is still nowhere near the numbers put out.

Why have the indisputably enormous numbers of dead been hyped by some politicians? For one, the Gujarat government has sought to evade responsibility for its incompetent handling of relief, by suggesting that the scale of the disaster was beyond official mitigation abilities. Second, the death roll has been used to leverage a massive flow of international aid: aid that will be a boon to corrupt builders, relief professionals and politicians, but of little use to its intended beneficiaries.

Tragedy for some, it would seem, is opportunity for others. There is still time to learn from the mistakes of the past, and put together an appropriate programme for reconstruction in Kutch. Sadly, there are few signs that anything of the kind will in fa ct happen.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor