Far from the focus

Print edition : February 17, 2001

Villages along the India-Pakistan border face official neglect and inadequate assistance.

FOR four hundred and fifty years, the Darbargarh fort has stood perched on the edge of the bleached, stark vastness of the Rann of Kutch. Darbargarh has seen many calamities. It survived war, drought, famine, and even the great earthquake of 1819. Perhap s unsurprisingly, then, the fort's six foot-thick stone walls have emerged unscathed from the tragedy of January 26. Around it, however, lie the ruins of Bela, the last village in this area before the border with Pakistan. Most of Bela's 800 stone-and-mo rtar homes have been reduced to rubble. Many of the residents now live in makeshift tents strung around the fort's ramparts. While Darbargarh may survive many more centuries, the fate of those who live around it is much less certain.

At Dhruvabanu village.-VIVEK BENDRE

Unlike urban centres such as Bhuj and Bhachau, small border villages like Bela have received little media attention. The reasons are not far to seek. Despite the massive devastation, just three people died in Bela - two elderly women and a child. Most of the adults left their homes when the earthquake struck. They moved to the safety of the pastures where their herds graze, or to the jeera (cumin) fields on the edge of the village. Early relief, too, was not a problem. Within minutes of the disas ter, troops from a nearby Border Security Force (BSF) forward post arrived to help the survivors. By that afternoon, a field kitchen was up and running, using the BSF's water supplies and the troops' rations.

However, the earthquake devastated the region's fragile economy. Most people in Bela survive by selling wool and milk, produced by their herds of goats and cattle. The near-drought conditions that have tormented Kutch for the past three years have made h erdsmen dependent on fodder shipped in from other parts of Gujarat. The disruption caused by the earthquake has led to fodder supplies drying up, and the destruction in urban centres has meant border villagers have nowhere to sell their milk. "Relief org anisations have sent us lots of food," said Hetubhai Waghela, the village head of Bela. "I don't want to sound ungrateful, but we now have enough to last for years. On the other hand, if we don't get fodder soon, our herds will start to die," Waghela sai d.

It is a sentiment that is widely shared in the area. Across the Rann from Bela, the border village of Sumrapore lost six of its residents in the earthquake - four children and two old women. The presence of BSF troops in the area meant that early relief was not a problem. Soon, the Delhi Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) set up a relief centre nearby, bringing in 21 trucks of food and medicine, enough to meet the needs of 22 villages for six months. Residents of Sumrapore also had shelter i n the form of thatched-roof earth boongas (traditional structures used to house cattle and fodder). But the shortage of fodder and water threaten its cattle. "These are the only wealth we have," said village resident Abdullah Ghafoor, "we can rebu ild our homes, but cannot replace our herds."

FAR from the focus of relief efforts, the border villages have also been slow to receive other kinds of essential assistance. Tents, essential for survival in the cold nights of Kutch, had not arrived in Bela as late as February 8. Temporary settlements put up by relief organisations were largely around large towns and villages, to which residents of border villages could not travel. The Haryana government, which adopted the taluk of Rapar, later began distributing tents and poles to villages in the are a. At Balasar, near Bela, the Haryana government even provided infrastructure for the village school to start functioning again. But for the most remote villages, such aid was slow in coming. "We can only handle one village at a time," said Ambala City M agistrate Virendar Dahiya, who is in charge of the area, "and there are some other peculiar problems here."

What Dahiya means by "peculiar problems" is only too evident. Deep fissures of caste have slowed down rehabilitation and relief efforts along the border villages. Often the poorest have received less aid than the better-off in village communities. Laddhe Rana, a Dalit agricultural worker near Bela, said upper-caste villagers in the area had appropriated foodgrain supplies, and then handed them out piecemeal, as a kind of payment for work. "They think that if we get so much food," said Rana, "we might no t work on their fields." Rana works on the jeera fields of Laxman Singh Thakur, a local landowner. Wages in the area are as low as Rs.25 a day, and poverty led over a quarter of Bela's 100 Dalit families to migrate to Gandhinagar over the past sev eral years.

Shortage of tent space has been accentuated by the unwillingness of different caste groups to share precious space. Babulal Govindji, who worked as a labourer near Khavda, is now packed into a small tent camp, sharing space with some 350 other families. Food is not a problem, but shelter is. At a nearby school, Baniya victims of the earthquake have set up a separate camp. The community has cash and political influence, and the backing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteers active in the area. T here is more space in this camp, but the caste group is unwilling to share the surplus tents. Govindji's Thakur caste, in turn, has made sure that no Dalits are able to encroach on their resources. In general, Dalit communities seem to have been the last to receive tents and relief supplies.

Relief workers like Dahiya have sought to find a way around the problem. "We found that the village sarpanches (heads) were insisting that we route supplies through them," he said. "In the end, we agreed to give the sarpanches twice what we gave everyone else. Now, we carry out a survey in each of our target villages, and then hand out relief on a home-by-home basis. It is slower, but at least it is fair," said Dahiya. The working of the caste factor has also been evident to relief groups running community kitchens. The Delhi SGPC found, for example, that people were reluctant to sit together and eat at its langar-style kitchen. "Most people seemed to want to take grain and other supplies from us, and cook it themselves," said Jasb ir Singh, the Secretary of the Delhi SGPC. There is no unity, it would seem, even in deprivation and tragedy.

OTHER kinds of biases are also evident, notably in the Gujarat government's local-level handling of relief operations. Although local officials had visited the Hindu-dominated village of Bela to assess damage, no one other than BSF personnel was active i n the Muslim dominated village of Durbani. Similar treatment was handed out to Sumrapore, all of whose residents were Muslims. The only government relief that the village residents have received, however, is five kg of rice and wheat from the mamlatda r (tehsil head), that too handed out to a village representative at the main town of Khavda. The lack of official attention was all the more surprising because Durbani lost a relatively large number of people in the earthquake. Thirteen people, mainl y women and children, were buried in the debris, while about 20 people suffered injuries.

Almost two weeks into the relief operations, the residents of Durbani are entirely dependent on what is made available by the BSF and the Army. The village has a large concrete water tank, built in anticipation of a visit in 1987 by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. However, Rajiv Gandhi never came. Neither did water to fill the tank, except once every few months. Now, villagers rely on BSF tankers, which drive through the area several times a day. No tents had arrived in the area, and this forced village re sidents to manage with impromptu shelters put together with fodder and fertilizer sacks. The Army field hospital set up at a forward airstrip near Khavda is the only source of medical attention. Ironically, the only building still standing in Durb ani is the recently constructed primary health centre. However, it had neither doctors nor medicine when this correspondent visited the village.

Border Security Force personnel in the Greater Rann of Kutch near one of the holes from which a bluish liquid emerged during the earthquake.-VIVEK BENDRE

Durbani villagers are deeply concerned about the loss of social infrastructure. "The village school has been destroyed," said Sadiq Saleh, "along with the mosque and the madrassa where children used to receive religious education." The small Baniy a community of the village has also suffered severe financial losses. "All my goods were buried when my shop collapsed," said Thakkar Narsingh Gopalji, a general store owner. "I had bought everything in the shop on credit, and have no idea how I'm going to repay the wholesalers in Khavda," said Gopalji.

The Dalits of the village have more immediate concerns. Unlike their Muslim neighbours, who have herds to generate incomes, or the Hindu shopkeepers, the community has no resources to rebuild their homes. Many say they plan to migrate and seek work in ur ban Gujarat.

While the scale of death and devastation in the border villages is nowhere near those in the urban centres, it is clear that their short- and long-term needs are no less urgent. Official relief is, however, non-existent. While cash relief has been handed out in Bhuj and other major centres, enabling local residents to meet their immediate needs, no apparatus has been set up in the border villages to achieve anything of the kind. It seems probable that future reconstruction projects will focus on urban, not rural, devastation. The major towns, with their well-established RSS units and proximity to power, have an evident ability to attract resources. "At one stage," said BSF Deputy Inspector-General M.M. Khandelwal, "we had to escort relief trucks to vil lages, to make sure people in Khavda or Rapar did not end up grabbing everything."

ONE consequence of the earthquake is that the poor of the border villages in Kutch get enough food. Enough grain has moved into this poorly administered area to avert the prospect of starvation, a reality in past years of drought. The real problems of th e region will, however, become evident in the months to come. BSF troops brought in from the Rajasthan border in Jaisalmer and Barmer have begun to pull back to their forward locations, making it imperative that the Gujarat government act in a meaningful way. Ways will have to be found to ensure that local workers receive a share of the funds committed for reconstruction, and that local resources are protected. It makes little sense, for example, for vast amounts of milk powder to be shipped into the ar ea as relief, when milk is easily available and will provide incomes to the community.

Will the border districts benefit from the reconstruction of Kutch? The region, contrary to popular perception, is not poor. Remittances from migrants to the Gulf countries and cities like Mumbai have ensured a massive accumulation of wealth. Bank deposi ts in the village of Sukhpur exceed Rs.130 crores, and local myth has it that the right to name a charitable hospital in Bhuj was auctioned for about Rs.2 crores.

Little of this affluence, however, has become evident in the small villages that dot the last patches of usable land along the Rann of Kutch. "The infrastructure here," said Haryana government surgeon Sanjeev Trehan, "is ten years behind what we have in our State." The earthquake should be an opportunity to address the long-standing problems of rural Kutch. But if the pace of official action so far is any indication, a year from now Bela's residents will still be living in patchwork tents strung along the hardy Darbargarh fort, dependent for food and water on the BSF post nearby.

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