Relief, delayed or denied

Print edition : February 17, 2001

The administration responds to the crisis rather slowly, and when it starts distributing relief there are complaints galore of discrimination.

PARVATHI MENON in Bhuj, Bhachau and Rapar

THE free-standing doorway that frames an open sky and a vista of debris has become, at least in rural Kutch, a visual metaphor of the earthquake that devastated the villages and towns of the district. The district of Kutch, the second largest in India, h as a population of 12.85 lakhs (according to the 1991 Census). It is, however, in the urban centres of Bhuj (the headquarters of Kutch district, with a population of 1.35 lakhs), Bhachau (population 70,000), Anjar (population 65,000) and Rapar (populatio n 25,000) that the intensity and concentration of devastation - of homes, commercial property, and indeed life - has been the maximum. With their structural supports jerked out by the force of the shock, multi-storey buildings simply pancaked into themse lves in a crush of concrete and steel, single or one-storey houses collapsed forward in an avalanche of rubble, and even those structures the foundations of which were relatively strong developed huge cracks in walls, making them unsafe for habitation. T hese small towns with their narrow streets and bylanes, along which multi-storey buildings, shops and houses stood cheek by jowl, were buried under concrete debris in a matter of 30 seconds, stopping all life in its tracks. "We have lost everything," sai d Jayesh Mehta, sitting atop the mound of rubble that was once his shop in Bhachau, supervising the removal of his pitifully few possessions that were intact. "Two weeks ago everyone used to come to me for charity," this owner of a business that had a tu rnover of Rs.25 crores mumbled in despair. "Today I am a beggar, and as you know beggars can't be choosers."

A hospital in the open at Khavda village, near the Pakistan border.-JASON REED/REUTERS

The timing of the earthquake was in a sense fortuitous. Unlike the 1993 earthquake in Latur, which occurred at night thus taking a huge toll of its population that was asleep, the Gujarat earthquake happened around 8-45 a.m. on a holiday. Children, who c ould have died in massive numbers had it been a normal working day, were in their school compounds celebrating Republic Day. News of what happened in Anjar, where almost 400 children were buried en masse as their Republic Day parade wound its way through the city's narrow streets, stunned the nation, and subsequently galvanised it into a massive humanitarian relief effort. A tragedy like this could, but fortunately did not, happen elsewhe re. In the villages of Kutch, most school-going children and a large number of onlooker-parents were saved because they were in the school compound getting ready for the flag-hoisting and the sporting events that had been planned for the morning. "There we stood waiting to salute the flag as it unfurled, and instead the person upstairs decided to unfurl his own flag," was how Amba V. Sathwara, a resident of Dudhia village, described it.

Two weeks after the earthquake, a new set of energies was already in evidence. The first glimmer of hope in the form of reconstruction was being felt. Food and relief was reaching not just the towns but villages as well, and the district administration w as putting in place the basic infrastructure of roads, electricity, telecom facilities, water and civic services.

While destruction of property has been near total, it is now established that the number of deaths is vastly below the numbers that were put out by the less-than-responsible members of the Central government, and which were picked up by sections of the m edia. The figure of one lakh to 1.25 lakh deaths, which Defence Minister George Fernandes spoke of, is an exaggerated one, by a factor of seven. The total number of deaths, calculated on the basis of bodies recovered by the State administration for the w hole of Kutch district, was 14,956 as on February 7. By this time the stage of body recovery was almost over, and the large numbers of heavy machines, such as cranes, excavators, dumpers and gas-cutters were deployed in the next stage of operations, whic h was the demolition of unsafe buildings and the clearing of smaller roads of the towns (the main roads had by then been cleared). Assisting the administration and the Army in the task of recovering bodies were the local residents and a number of teams f rom abroad with specialised equipment and sniffer dogs.

The administration's figure of deaths is met with scepticism, and often with sheer disbelief, by the media and the public at large. Yet, there are reasons to believe that the figures are fairly accurate. To begin with, every complaint or doubt expressed by a member of the public of the possibility of bodies remaining in a collapsed building is immediately acted upon, as such search still remains a humanitarian priority. Heavy machinery is immediately sent to the site, which is excavated again to recove r any bodies that may still be buried in the debris, and recovery teams from abroad make independent searches of the site. A useful independent verification of the death count is provided by the casualty rate among the employees of the Department of Post s. Of the 1,300 postal employees in Kutch district, most of whom live in the heart of the towns and villages of the region, there were only seven deaths, one death of a family member of an employee, and injuries to seven employees. (The Department of Pos ts started functioning partially in the affected areas on January 28 and its operations were fully in place on February 6).

An injured 81-year-old woman (left) with her daughter.-VIVEK BENDRE

The figure of 15,000 deaths for Kutch (the official figure for the whole State was 16,488 as on February 8) is still shockingly high, but when measured against the figure of 50,000-plus that is still being put out by sections of the media, it provides a degree of optimism to the affected people and those involved in relief operations. It is a figure that the Gujarat government in Ahmedabad, for reasons best known to it, is not going public with.

The district of Kutch, which occupies a fourth of the State of Gujarat, is a region of scarcity and persistent drought. The main occupation of the people of rural Kutch is animal husbandry. Agriculture is seasonal and a good monsoon year yields a single crop. The district was already facing drinking water and fodder scarcity, and food-for-work programmes had been planned for this month. Yet, for all its backwardness, there is a high concentration of wealth in this region. Climatic adversity created a pa ttern of out-migration that Kutch became known for. Starting from the early part of the century, Kutchi communities fanned out all over the country and the world, while retaining their economic and social ties with the region. This historical factor migh t explain the huge amount of relief that has been pouring in from the network of prosperous Kutch communities that have settled elsewhere in India and across the world. Kutch district has one of the highest NRI (non-resident Indian) bank deposit rates in the country. "Kutch has a money-order economy and is an over-banked area," Sharad Kulkarni, Manager of the State Bank of India NRI branch in Bhuj, which ranks eigth in the country in respect of NRI deposits, told Frontline. "This district has a f oreign currency deposit volume of Rs.2,100 crores," he said.

This factor has of course had enormous implications for the present crisis, and partly explains why Gujarat, unlike Orissa which also suffered immense damage after last year's cyclone, has received a measure of aid from private sources that can arguably be called the biggest voluntary aid effort in independent India. The magnitude of the aid has not been computed in quantitative terms, but there is not a part of the district that has not been touched by it.

Towns such as Bhuj, Bhachau, Anjar and Rapar have become large camps where Indian and foreign NGOs and aid agencies have pitched their tents. The arterial highways of the district are choked with trucks bringing in relief materials, each carrying a banne r proclaiming the name of the organisation and the region represented. Apart from established NGOs and aid agencies, there are religious groups, caste-based organisations, and a large number of smaller, quickly-put-together volunteer groups that have mob ilised relief materials and reached Gujarat.

There are associations of software professionals, chartered accountants, college students, philanthropists, urban youth groups from towns as low-profile as Kesrisinghpur in Ganganagar district of Rajasthan, even groups like the Lodhi Garden Morning Walke rs Association from New Delhi (headed by Food Corporation of India Chairman Bhure Lal), not to mention assistance from industrial groups, big and small.

At the Kandla port, a heap of wheat waits.-KAMAL KISHORE/REUTERS

There is also some amount of misplaced philanthropy, as the mountains of old and unusable clothes that lie dumped along the highways are testimony to. The massive voluntary response indicates the kind of solidarity that the rest of the country has shown for the earthquake-hit people of Gujarat.

The nature of the damage and the response to it by the government and the non-government sector have been different in the urban and rural areas. The focus of attention, one that is now slowly getting corrected, has until now been on the towns of Bhuj, Bhachau, Anjar and Rapar, where the damage is physically concentrated. In Bhuj, the district headquarters, the damage was maximum in the business area in the walled fort area and in some of the newer colonies where the construction boom that started in 1 996 resulted in a number of high-rise apartments.

Interestingly, property prices in Bhuj were as high as or even higher than those in cities such as New Delhi and Bangalore. Although Bhuj is located in an area of high seismic activity that experienced a severe earthquake in 1956, the Bhuj Municipal Corp oration's building regulations, unlike those of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, were not drawn up with the seismic sensitivity of the region in view. Added to this was the competition in the construction industry. There was unregulated construction, cost cutting and compromises in construction quality and safety.

The death roll in the Bhuj municipal area is unlikely to exceed 3,500, according to S. Jagadeesan, former Municipal Commissioner of Surat and now Special Officer in charge of the Bhuj Municipal Township. "I think that there should be exemplary punishment for builders and contractors who violated building regulations," he told Frontline. According to him, the removal of bodies, restoration of potable water supply on alternate days, and sanitation measures to prevent the outbreak of epidemics are c omplete. The administration is now in the process of distributing blankets and tents, free rations through the public distribution system (PDS), and a cash dole, which goes up to a maximum of Rs.2,000 for a family of four and above.

The administration's claims on relief are not fully borne out by the situation on the ground. The two major demands of the people of the region, for temporary shelter (tents and tarpaulin sheets) and for jobs, have not been met, regardless of what the ad ministration might say. Tents are still in short supply. According to Anil Mukim, the District Collector, the administration has received just 8,000 tents against a demand of 1.5 lakh for the district. (This does not include the tents distributed by the non-governmental sector). Where supply falls far short of demand, there is predictably cornering of stocks. There are complaints of relief articles (tents in particular) being cornered by corporators and municipal councillors, of influential persons from within the Bharatiya Janata Party diverting relief to their support bases, and of bias against minorities and Dalits in relief distribution.

The residents of the predominantly Muslim localities of Sanjog Nagar, Mustapha Nagar, Bakali Colony, Korki road (which come under Ward 1 of the municipality), who work as labourers, taxi drivers, vendors and small businessmen in the city area, now live i n the open or in makeshift shelters put together with tattered strips of cloth and plastic sheeting. "We have stood in queues and we have been sent from one official to another, but not one of us has got anything from the government, leave alone tents," said Abdul Rahman Ismail Ladka, a bus driver who lives in Sanjog Nagar. He was speaking for a large group of people who aired similar complaints.

A roadside meal.-VIVEK BENDRE

For Mariamma Abdul Kader, a widow with two young children who used to earn Rs.200 a month as a worker in a block printing manufactory, the earthquake destroyed her home and her source of livelihood. "There is a Muslim organisation that runs a kitchen her e where we all eat, but we have got nothing more than that," she said. "How long can we survive like this?" she asked.

In Bhachau town, where the residents now live either in relief camps or in makeshift shelters pitched outside the remains of their homes, the complaints against the administration are shrill and angry. Many of the more prosperous residents who are now ou t on the streets are loath to stand in queues and fight for relief materials along with those who until two weeks ago were suitably subordinate to them. "I recognised my dead 12-year-old son by his shoe, which was sticking out from under a wall that fell on him," said V.A. Thakkar, a Gujarat State Transport employee who lived with his family in Ramwadi Colony of Bhachau town. "Not once has a government official come to our area to enquire about me or anyone else," he said angrily. "We have got no water, no milk, no ration cards. I feel embarrassed to stand in a line and fight for blankets and tents and food. I have never done it in my life."

In the villages of Bhuj, Bhachau and Rapar, the demands are the same, namely for tents, blankets, and, most important, jobs. The death roll in the villages is far smaller than that in the urban areas, largely because houses there are single-level constru ctions. Cash doles have been given by the State administration in several villages. The removal of bodies in the villages was done largely by the residents themselves.

The district administration started the process of debris clearing in the bigger villages, and when a Frontline team visited villages in Bhuj, Bhachau and Rapar on February 6-7, most of the main roads were clear of debris.

The relative slowness of the district administration in reaching relief in the form of dry rations to the interior villages has been more than compensated for by the non-governmental initiative. Typically, all villages have one major relief camp, where s upplies are stocked and distributed. There is now enough food stocks - rice, wheat, potatoes, oil, sugar, salt and dal - to last for the next two months in many of these villages, and relief is still coming in. In fact, large quantities of food th at has come in has given economically deprived groups such as Dalits and Adivasis the kind of access to food they would not have got in normal times.

Unlike in the towns, where upper-caste members must rub shoulders with groups that they consider socially inferior in accessing relief materials whatever their source, once relief from private sources reaches the village it is caste that determines its d istribution. The trucks that bring in food and other items of relief, like lanterns, blankets or stoves, simply dump their cargoes at the main relief camp which is invariably controlled by the dominant caste of the village.

A doctor of the Israeli Army medical team with a prematurely born baby.-PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI/REUTERS

Every village has several smaller 'camps', one for each caste. There would typically be a camp for Patels, Rajputs, Brahmins, Ahirs, Sutars, Dalits and Muslims. Each of these camps are given their 'share' of relief, a share determined by the upper-caste residents, based to a degree on the population size of the caste group, but largely on the standing of the particular caste in the social hierarchy.

Dalits, who are at the end of the supply chain, get the least, although even that is more than what they would get in normal times from traditional distribution channels. Muslims are bypassed by upper-caste Hindu relief organisations but have their own s ources of supply from Muslim charitable groups in different parts of the country. It is Dalits who are grossly short-changed in this highly inequitable distribution chain.

"I don't go to the camp over there," said Khema Ben, pointing to a large, well-stocked camp in Dhamadka village, Bhachau taluk, on the other side of the Bhuj-Bhachau highway. "They are the big-caste people, they give us very little if we ask. We can't ev en take water from there,"she said. Khema Ben is a Dalit woman who lives in the Dalit section of the village. Salari village in Rapar taluk, with a population of 3,000, has five caste relief camps. Here there were 48 deaths, mainly of very young children . "It is better this way," said Bhavan Raimul Kohli of Salari village, referring to the caste-based distribution of relief. "There are at least no fights now." He belongs to an Adivasi tribe, which has 40 houses and a separate 'camp'.

This was not, however, the reaction of Dalits of the village. The poorly stocked Dalit camp was proof of how inequitable this form of distribution would surely be. There are 80 Dalit homes in Salari. "We get less of everything," said Lakhman Bikha, a you ng agricultural worker and a member of the village Dalit Samaj. "When we go for our share to the big camp, the Patels tell us that the stocks are over. They will feed their buffaloes before they give us anything. They even hide blankets in the fields to avoid giving us our share."

Non-governmental relief, which is now the biggest source of food and relief materials to the villages, has undoubtedly reinforced the caste network in respect of the crucial issue of earthquake-related relief. Collector Anil Mukim feels that once the sup plies from the non-official sector dry up, as it is expected to over the next fortnight, and the PDS is back on the rails, there will be a more democratic process of distribution.

There is perhaps an element of wishful thinking here, considering that 50 years of development has done little to create social justice in caste-bound Gujarat.

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