Unbounded confusion

Print edition : February 17, 2001

Governmental inefficency stands between the relief materials that are pouring into Gujarat and the people who are in urgent need of them.

A delegation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) visited some parts of the earthquake-affected Gujarat on January 31 and February 1. Led by Sitaram Yechury, Polit Bureau member, the delegation included Mohd. Amin, Minister for Minority Affairs i n the Left Front government in West Bengal, and Basudev Acharya, Sarla Maheshwari and Bratin Sengupta, all MPs. Arun Mehta and Kanubhai Kalavadia represented the Gujarat State Committee of the CPI(M). The writer accompanied the delegation.

"WE are launching the biggest relief and rescue effort ever undertaken by us but I don't know where to start. There is no one to talk to me, to tell me where to start," said an extremely dejected Lauritzen Holvar, the Red Cross' director for Gujarat rel ief operations. He added: "We plan to fly in planeloads of relief and rescue materials, medicines, 1.5 lakh blankets, two hospitals that can perform major surgical operations and other support worth millions of dollars to start with. But if these people don't talk to me, I will be forced to cancel it."

At work on their already razed house.-VIVEK BENDRE

Bariller, the leader of the Unite Legere D'Intervention et de Secours, a French rescue team, had a similar tale to tell. "Your country is telling us that we are not wanted," he burst out; it took his squad 36 hours to reach Bhachau since landing in Ahme dabad.

Corroborating such dismaying reports were annoyed relief workers, whom we came across in Ahmedabad and at Bhuj. These workers, including fully equipped medical teams and those carrying supplies, were returning after having failed to elicit any response from the authorities.

The government's response to a calamity of such enormity was, to put it mildly, not prompt. The inadequacy and lack of direction resulted in unbounded confusion. The lack of coordination in rescue and relief work was too evident - in the posh colonies of Ahmedabad, in the ravaged town of Anjar, in Bhuj, in Ratlan or the other places that the CPI(M) team visited. Proper planning would have helped matters to a great extent, given the magnitude of the crisis. In the absence of such a plan, the task was to minimise, if not eliminate, the chaos that marred the rescue and relief operations. The apathy of the government was appalling at every place that we visited. The government worked without a clear strategy, without setting its priorities, and was unable to gear up its machinery. While relief materials continued to pour in, there was no government official or agency to coordinate the work of taking them to the affected people. The absence of a comprehensive plan was obvious.

As we crossed the Subhas Bridge and moved towards the satellite areas of Ahmedabad, we were confronted by rows and rows of dark, uninhabited buildings. We mistook them for buildings that had suffered damage.

At 9-00 p.m., Ahmedabad looked deserted. Arun Mehta, a member of the CPI(M) State Secretariat who accompanied the team, said that the residents spent the nights under shamianas and ventured into their flats only to finish the morning chores. Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel contributed in no small measure to the heightening of the people's fears by his unwarranted prophecy of another quake "within 48 hours".

While visuals in the media provided some glimpses of the tragedy, it was not until we landed in Bhuj that the picture unfolded fully. Bhuj had turned into a ghost town. There were very few people around. Most of the survivors had left the town. Those who chose to stay on were living in make-shift camps, under plastic sheets or old saris, which were the only shields against the harsh winter chill; they did not have even blankets.

Similar was the situation in Anjar, Ratlan and other towns and villages that the team visited. It was a tragedy unimaginable, a catastrophe beyond description. The survivors will be haunted by memories of those few seconds when death struck their land in all its cruelty. Rows and rows of collapsed buildings, shops, schools and houses, mangled vehicles, and dislocated electric poles were what greeted a visitor in town after town. Death was in the air. You reach out for the handkerchief as the stench of r otting bodies hits you. Numbers mattered no more.

WE got an inkling of what was in store when we boarded the flight to Ahmedabad in Delhi. The flight was delayed by an hour, owing to the non-availability of parking bays at Ahmedabad airport. As we disembarked in Ahmedabad, BBC correspondent Seema Chisti , going to Bhuj, told us that her flight had also been delayed for the same reason at Bhuj airport.

Relief materials aboard five cargo aircraft were waiting to be off-loaded at the time in Ahmedabad. While the affected were crying for relief, materials meant for them were either not off-loaded or were lying unattended in the hangars. Piles of blankets, quilts, tents and other materials remained unpacked at several places along the highway.

There were reports of food and other perishable goods being dumped on the roadsides, being thrown away or fed to cattle. We were also told that hundreds of packets of blood that were rushed in from Andhra Pradesh were lying unused at Ahmedabad.

The nation and the world responded to the tragedy in a befitting manner, which was evident from the streams of vehicles on the highway to Bhuj and other parts of Kutch, carrying rescue teams and food and other relief materials. But the response of the Gu jarat government was nothing but scandalous. It took two days for the Keshubhai Patel government to begin rescue operations in a city like Ahmedabad. It took more time to reach Bhuj and Anjar. Villages like Drag, Rodai, Loria, Tappar, Kukawada and Damadk a, to name only a few, had not been approached by the administration even five days later, when the CPI(M) team reached Bhuj. The official excuse was that gas-cutters and other equipment were not available and had to be procured from outside. That these were available in plenty at the Alang ship-breaking yard in Bhavnagar occurred to the government only later.

Complaints of delay in rescue teams reaching affected areas or not reaching them at all were rampant. At many places people told the CPI(M) team that they were still awaiting somebody from the administration. Thousands of lives could have been saved had rescue teams reached in time. Jayantibhai Patel, a resident of what was until sometime ago Santanu Apartments, was a bitter man. The two-year-old multi-storeyed apartment in Maninagar, an upper middle class area of Ahmedabad, had come crumbling down. Whi le Jayantibhai escaped with minor injuries, his two daughters, Jeena and Netra, could not do so. With help from neighbours, he dug a hole and passed on a cellular phone and a bottle of water to his trapped children. Jeena and Netra lay beneath the heaps of concrete for full nine hours before they stopped responding to him. Neighbours came together, collected money, hired cranes and started removing the rubble and extricating the living and the dead. Sadly, not many could be saved. Seething with anger, t he residents said that for 72 hours no rescue team from the government reached the site.

The residents said that Minister for Home Haren Pandya and the local MLA, Kamlesh Patel, visited them days later and were driven away. Harin Pathak, a local resident who represents them in the Lok Sabha, had not visited the spot until then.

A few metres away stood a residential complex called 15th August Avenue. Three floors of this multi-storeyed building had sunk into the earth. Nirmala De looked on as rescuers from the Army attempted to extricate the bodies of her in-laws. Her husband wa s in the nearby L.G. Hospital with multiple fractures. In the same hospital were 26-year-old Naliniben and her one-year-old son Keyur, who were rescued after 100 hours under the debris of their collapsed flat in Mangalam Apartments. Keyur was still in a state of shock when we met him at the hospital. The blank stare was telling. Naliniben, an Excise Department inspector, lost her daughter. It was her son who gave her the fortitude to survive, she said.

Even as such tales were making it to the headlines, the Gujarat government announced the cessation of rescue operations. Nothing could be more shocking to people such as Purshotam Nadwala, whose 70-year-old mother lay buried under the rubble of the Murli manohar temple at the entry point to Anjar town. Nadwala, drained of all emotion, took solace in the fact that there were thousands like him. While teams were engaged in relief work at one corner of the town, hundreds of people, like Purshottam, were wai ting for help, six days after the quake. Anjar, with a population of around one lakh, has been reduced to rubble. Around 400 students along with their teachers were buried alive while participating in the Republic Day function.

For Mehar Manji and hundreds of others in Loria, a village 20 km off Bhuj, it is a different story altogether. Three deaths have been reported in the village while most of the 200-odd houses have been damaged. Mehar and thousands of others were originall y residents of Nagarpakar across the border. During the India-Pakistan war of 1971, they were lured by the Indian Army to cross over. The government gave 10 acres of land to each family that migrated. During the quake, a bluish fluid flowed out of the ea rth and drenched the land, making it uncultivable.

THE tragedy in Ahmedabad was not entirely unavoidable. Buildings such as Mansi Complex, 15th August Avenue and Santanu Apartments were all built without the requisite dimensions to carry the weight of the structure. Avaricious builders, in connivance wit h the authorities, construct such buildings, using substandard materials and deviating from approved plans. Only recently the Bharatiya Janata Party government promulgated an ordinance seeking to regularise illegal constructions in six municipal corporat ions. Less than a month ago, builders were permitted to construct two additional floors above the 10-storey limit that was in force earlier.

In Ahmedabad, multi-storeyed structures have mushroomed. Strangely, only one block of Mansi Complex came down while the others developed cracks. In blatant violation of building norms and the approved plan, a swimming pool and an additional water tank wi th a capacity of 60,000 litres were built on top of the 10-storeyed apartment block. According to Rapid Action Force personnel involved in rescue work there, when the quake struck the pool collapsed, bringing down the entire block. In 15th August Avenue in Maninagar, rescuers from the Army said the building collapsed when the huge water tank crashed under the impact of the quake. The majority of deaths in Ahmedabad were caused by the collapse of high-rise buildings.

There were no skyscrapers in Anjar, though. Here the intensity of the quake was such that even small buildings crumbled. Most of the bodies were recovered from crowded lanes and bylanes. Obviously, buildings collapsed on people attempting to flee. In vil lages like Loria, although the structures were fragile, the spacious surroundings offered safety.

The CPI(M) team did not come across any government-run relief camps. But in various places, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) combine had taken over the camps. Complaints of the State government routing relief material thr ough these camps were widespread. The RSS was coercing those carrying relief material to off-load the materials in the camps being managed by them.

THE way the calamity was handled by the BJP government and the naivete displayed by it when earlier a cyclone hit the Kandla port and when drought stalked the State will surely affect the BJP's fortunes. The party is yet to recover from the verdict in th e recent panchayat and nagarpalika elections. Unable to face the people's wrath, BJP leaders and cadres will not dare to go to the people. The BJP, therefore, is relying excessively on the RSS to do its political work and try and salvage whatever little ground it can.

While the quake did not distinguish between the rich and poor, town and village, there is a definite bias in the way the administration is handling the rescue and relief operations. It is tilted against the poor and the rural people. There were scores of villages where neither mediapersons nor government officials had reached even a week after the quake. First on the priority list was Ahmedabad, then Bhuj, then Anjar, later Bhachau, and then the others followed. How long will the administration take to reach the villages away from the highways is the big question.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor