Kutch, a year after

Print edition : January 19, 2002

One year after the earthquake in Gujarat, while much work has been done, reconstruction and rehabilitation remain largely incomplete and inadequate.

TRAVELLING through Kutch a year after the devastating earthquake, the initial impression is one of great activity. Roads are being widened and resurfaced, damaged bridges strengthened, buildings that had hung at dangerous angles have been demolished and the rubble has been cleared. In some rural areas, construction activity is progressing at a fast pace. Work done by the government, local non-governmental organisations and external aid agencies is visible everywhere. Of course, signs of the damage caused by the earthquake remain - mangled lamp-posts, uprooted petrol pumps, electrical transformers that were ripped apart by explosions, and so on.

Reconstruction in progress in Chandarani village of Anjar taluk. A sense of desolation and incompleteness still hangs over Kutch.-LYLA BAVADAM

Agricultural operations have been aided by a good monsoon and the timely provision of seeds and equipment by the government. It has virtually been ensured that the region will not experience food scarcity.

Immediately after the earthquake, the Gujarat government formed the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (GSDMA). This was essentially meant to be a coordinating agency. Speaking of the GSDMA's work, Sushma Iyengar of the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghatan, one of the key administrators of the umbrella NGO organisation Abhiyan, says: "The GSDMA played a critical role. We found it very responsive. We were nervous that it would be like a typical government organisation, but that has not happened."

One of the first things that Dr. P.K. Mishra, Chief Executive Officer of the GSDMA, says while speaking of his organisation is: "The magnitude of the task has to be appreciated." This is not a preamble to bureaucratic excuses but a realistic reminder of the enormity of the devastation. Latest government estimates put the death roll at 13,800 (about 11,000 of these deaths took place in Kutch). As many as 2.4 lakh houses were destroyed, while the loss in terms of livestock and agricultural production is yet to be assessed fully. Says Mishra: "In the first four months we had to include all sectors - housing, infrastructure (both physical and social) and livelihood. Simultaneously we started a five-step process of making cash doles, conducting a preliminary survey of the damage, making a technical assessment of it, opening bank accounts in the name of victims, and handing over cheques."

It is no wonder that most people give the GSDMA full marks for the work done in the first four or five months after the earthquake. The criticism concerns the period after this. There are two aspects to the rehabilitation work that need detailed examination. One is the issue of shelter and the other, of health.

According to Sudershan Iyengar, Director, Gujarat Institute of Development Research (GIDR), the rehabilitation package is a failure. He says that his opinion is based on research done by his organisation, which has been engaged by the GSDMA for social research documentation and process documentation of the rehabilitation. Initial research indicates four areas of concern in the rehabilitation package.

One is the economic rehabilitation of the physically disabled. The second is their physical rehabilitation. The third concerns tenants, a category of people who initially found themselves in a situation in which they were not eligible for any recompense. (However, Sudershan Iyengar says that the government has agreed to recognise tenants and that "something is being given to them".) The fourth problem concerns the categorisation of damage. "The engineering logic in the categorisation is understandable, but the administrative logic is not," he says. "Category 5 relates to 'Demolish and Reconstruct' and Category 4 'Repairs'. Between these two categories there is scope for manipulation since the value difference between them is about Rs.40,000. Consequently, what happens is that structures that should be in Category 4 appear in 5. The solution to this was to encourage greater transparency in the assessment process by including a local representative, a panchayat member, an NGO representative and a government official on the assessment committee. The category declaration was to be made publicly. This procedure was suggested at a workshop on November 27, by which time most damage assessment had been completed," says Sudarshan Iyengar. He is critical of the approach taken for long-term rehabilitation and voices the opinion of a large number of people when he says that "rehabilitation is a difficult process. You have to be with the people, talk to them. You cannot just impose new housing, new structures, and new ways of life on them. For appropriate rehabilitation the consultation process is long and tedious. But it is necessary."

One of the areas assigned to the GIDR is Anjar taluk, which is remembered for the mass death of schoolchildren who were taking part in a Republic Day parade when the earthquake struck. Dr. Shyam Sundar of Anjar says that while the rehabilitation process has been long and tedious, none of the benefits are as yet visible. The surgeon, who owns a nursing home in Anjar town, has spearheaded a campaign for an adequate rehabilitation package. According to him, what is offered at present is not only inadequate but incomplete. It has spurred him and other citizens of Anjar to form an NGO, Group 2001, which was registered in March. Group 2001 has asked the government for a geological and seismological study of the affected areas and a package that is concomitant with the findings.

Formed with the purpose of ensuring that the people of Kutch get their due, Group 2001 is persuading people to relocate to a safer place. Anjar is one of the few towns whose people wish to relocate. "There was a major earthquake here some decades ago and much was lost then," explains Sundar. "At that time many people shifted to an area that is referred to as New Anjar - practically alongside the old town. We want to persuade people to shift out of old Anjar which lies on the fault line and into new Anjar."

CURRENTLY, Package 5 is applicable to the four affected towns of Kutch. But draft development plans have been published only for Rapar, Anjar and Bhachau (they are not acceptable to the residents), while the package for Bhuj is under review. Group 2001 wants the government to release an appropriate development plan for all the affected places.

Even under Package 5, none of the affected people has been given aid for construction (apart from the aid for building temporary shelters). Says Sundar: "Worse still is the fact that even if people want to forgo the aid and begin construction, they are not allowed to build houses with their own money because the Area Development Authority has not yet finalised the rules and norms for construction. Is it any surprise that people are going ahead with their own construction even though they know that these could be declared illegal once the development plan is announced. In such a situation, corruption is bound to take root." In Bhachau town, for instance, the roadsides are lined by shabby structures made of corrugated sheets, tattered canvas, broken tiles and other assorted materials. These structures, though they are illegal, constitute prime real estate. Measuring about three square metres, each tenement is rented out at about Rs.1,500 a month. The 'landlords' are members of the local construction mafia and the tenants are earthquake victims who eke out a living by doing some petty business.

Part of Package 5 involves the appointment of town planning consultants. It is one of the reasons why Group 2001 has rejected the package. "It is unbelievable that the government has hired a private consultancy firm to assess public opinion about relocation and town planning. All of old Anjar wants to relocate. Why does the government bother to spend Rs.80 lakhs from earthquake relief funds to pay the consultancy fees of a company whose employees cannot even speak the local language?" asks Sundar. He says that residents of old Anjar are willing to shift to a site near new Anjar but the consultancy firm is recommending a site further away. Sundar alleges that at the meetings called to discuss town planning, "only municipal councillors-cum-builders are invited. None of those who have lost their houses is called to participate."

Even the Rs.24.51 crores that has been disbursed to 22,616 families of Bhuj, Bhachau, Rapar and Anjar for the construction of temporary shelters has caused disconent. Seated in the tin shed which is her house, Shanta Gohil confirms the receipt of Rs.7,000 as part of the first instalment for her family. "We were actually supposed to receive Rs.12,000 but since they gave patra (tin sheets) to build the house, they cut off about Rs.5,000." The actual construction of the house was done with the help of the tailor community, to which she belongs.

ONE of the main points of criticism about the rehabilitation process is regarding housing for the poor. Prasad Chacko of the Behavioural Science Centre, an organisation that looks at housing, especially for socially marginalised communities, believes that the rehabilitation package has neglected the poorer communities. "Cheques have been given to the people but the amounts are ridiculously low. There is no way the poorer sections can build earthquake-resistant houses with what they have been given. We are questioning the policy behind these disbursements," he said.

Also criticised has been the use of funds. According to the Government's estimates, about Rs.8,000 crores to Rs.10,000 crores will be needed for a three-year period of rehabilitation in which housing will be completed. Protesting against this, Kirtee Shah, an architect, says: "If this huge investment just creates what was lost, then you have gained nothing. All that was lost was the creation of decades and decades - sometimes even centuries. If you merely replace it, then what have you gained in terms of technology and other expertise? Therefore the government is expected not just to reconstruct houses and villages but to give the whole region a new face. It has to address the problems of water scarcity, poverty and unemployment. A whole new policy and strategy is required."

Shah is the honorary director of the Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG), which was formed 30 years ago by a group of professionals who decided to work for social causes. He is also the founder of the Home Losers Service Association of Ahmedabad, an organisation formed after the January 26, 2001 earthquake to provide professional services to affected families. According to Shah, 90 per cent of the construction work in the city is illegal - most of it being Floor Space Index (FSI) violations. The dilemma of the reconstruction process in Ahmedabad is that if the new structures are built within the ambit of the law, then a large number of people will be houseless. ASAG's solution is to let people who were affected by the earthquake build exactly the same structures they lost and employ strict construction regulations for construction in the future.

In a December 7 letter addressed to the Prime Minister, Sundar points to the growing feeling that basic issues are taking too long to be resolved. He wrote: "We look forward to the Central government for our rights. We expect you at the Centre to take the initiative and expedite things. Do something to reduce our misery. We want our normal lives back again. Don't let us down."

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