Latur revisited

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

Ten years after the earthquake in Latur, its victims continue to suffer - as a result of faulty rehabilitation.

IN a span of eight years, four massive earthquakes - in Latur-Osmanabad in 1993, Jabalpur in 1997, Chamoli in 1999 and Kutch in 2001 - killed about 20,000 people and destroyed property worth almost Rs.140 billion. The International Institute of Earthquake Predictions warns that with the lapse of time the severity of earthquakes in the Himalayan range would rise manifold. V. Subramaniam, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, cautions that seismic-prone Mumbai might be particularly vulnerable. Tremors across the country provide a steady stream of alarm signals. However, we do not seem to have learnt any lessons from the disasters.

On September 30, 1993, the severe earthquake that shook the Latur area killed 9,782 people and caused damage totalling Rs.10 billion. But that also offered a unique opportunity to restructure the region's drought-prone villages. Ten years later, Rs.12 billion has been spent for rehabilitation. The entire quake-affected area is dotted with single-kitchen-type blocks, which look more like lifeless barracks rather than homes. People who live in these buildings cannot use the traditional chullah to cook food because it blackens the walls with soot. One cannot put a nail inside the walls made of concrete blocks that are either cast in situ, or pre-fabricated with geodesic domes. There is hardly any space to keep agricultural implements, store foodgrains or rear cattle. People accustomed to staying in age-old wada-type buildings have created space for cooking and living by constructing tin sheds The rehabilitative block became prestigious storerooms. Besides, there are plenty of complaints about percolating walls and dripping slabs. But there seems to be hardly anyone to repair the houses built by donor agencies.

At least 50 villages were relocated. And each village has acquired five to eight times more area. "In our old village one could easily move around. Now its such a large area that our regular gathering is difficult," says 70-year-old Satyabhama Manale of Mangrul. A colony-type, brutally right-angled grid iron pattern has come up in place of the neighbourhood-cluster pattern. This structural change has made dents on the socio-psychology of the village. The settlements are two to seven kilometres away from farms. Rivers in the vicinity of the farms have become part of nostalgia; proximity to barren land and tarred road is the reality. In a place where summer temperatures hover around 45oC, heat-conducting houses make life miserable. There are perhaps two villages where cluster-type layouts were provided - in Malkondji village, where rehabilitation was provided by Development Alternative, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) from Delhi, and in Tembhi village, where it was done by the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO). In these two villages, houses have courtyards and people are generally happy with the new spatial arrangement. Extension of the houses is also easier.

In the initial phase of reconstruction, when experts in various fields such as the architect Laurie Baker, the seismic engineer A.S. Arya, the agricultural scientist S.A. Dabholkar and the structural engineer and specialist in water management C.M. Pandit were prepared to give their inputs, there was definitely a chance to draw up a meaningful plan for rehabilitation. However, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar, wanted all the houses constructed within six months by giving out contracts. After the idea was rejected by the World Bank and the Central government, the State machinery, along with donor agencies, took over the task of construction. Though peoples` participation seemed to be the buzzword at that time, nobody seemed to be sparing time for discussion.

The quake victims just wanted ready-made, quake-proof houses. And people's representatives concentrated on exerting pressure on the authorities concerned to increase the number of houses or the assistance for construction of partially damaged houses. There was not a single serious debate about the pattern of housing. It was a purely mechanical approach, where `a house for a house' was the sole objective. "This is definitely not model rehabilitation. But given the bureaucratic framework, you cannot expect more. As many as 55,000 houses were constructed, approximately 250,000 houses were strengthened and all civic amenities were provided to relocated villages. Such a gigantic work was undertaken for the first time in independent India," said a senior officer.

Gujarat did not repeat some of these grave mistakes. After the mighty quake that hit Kutch, 4,00,000 houses had to be constructed but not a single village was relocated. People were brought on board the housing programme. They were given adequate literature and proper training in building earthquake-resistant structures, and a large team of engineers for guidance. NGOs formed the Kautch Navanirman Abhiyan, to disseminate information and upgrade skills. Such a coming together of grassroot workers and technical experts resulted in meaningful rehabilitation.

Disasters of this nature provide the opportunity to design excellent habitat with inputs from all strata of society. Latur too had this opportunity. There was a visionary architect in Laurie Baker, who is admired for constructing environment-friendly, cost-effective buildings. But an unimaginative leadership ensured that the project never took cognisance of these facts. Moreover the NGOs that were active in Latur were inexperienced when it came to housing. They handled rescue and relief operations in the early stages very well but could not undertake the more challenging work of repair and reconstruction. In Kutch, innovative individuals such as Praveen Pardesi (who was the Collector in Latur in 1993), Keerti Shah and Rajendra Rupal Desai, among others, and organisations such as the Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG), the Application of Science and Technology for Rural Advancement (ASTRA), Auroville, the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) and the Kutch Mahila Sangathan are playing a catalytic role in the process of rehabilitation.

One can be proud of Latur's `achievements' only on a physical level. The massive reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts involved 750 engineers who formed a Project Management Unit along with consultants who were hired at a cost of Rs.140 million. Yet nobody could detect the spurious quality of the construction. After testing 600 of the houses, Indian Institute of Technology-Mumbai recommended that at least two houses be demolished and reconstructed and 97 be partially rebuilt. The quality of the concrete used in the walls and the slabs was found poor. Yet nobody was held responsible. The time schedules were not adhered to. Engineers, revenue officers, consultants and people's representatives blame each other for this, but nobody is penalised.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, there was scope for sustainable development. For five years, the quake-affected area was bustling with economic activity. Concrete block and brick production and stone crushing became commonplace. Hotels thrived, telephone booths mushroomed, and rickshaws, jeeps and tractors plied the roads in increasing numbers. But five years down the line, nothing could survive. The business activities shifted to nearby towns. Although the major crisis facing the area is water shortage, neither the government nor voluntary organisations thought of implementing micro watershed development projects or planting trees on a large scale.

Rehabilitation in Latur was mired in politicking and bureaucratic red tape. While Pawar wanted instant rehabilitation, Principal Secretary and officer-in-charge of the rehabilitation project K.S. Siddhu did not support innovative ideas. Rehabilitation with the help of Laurie Baker would have made a remarkable difference. He asked people to choose between the grid iron and the neighbourhood pattern. Villagers unanimously accepted the latter. Remarkable savings could have been made in terms of pipes for water supply and cables for electricity supply, had the latter been adopted. Baker caught the ethos of the place and designed houses that were suitable for the agricultural way of life. There was simplicity, utility and beauty in his models. His plan provided for a stone compound wall, a rainwater storage tank, a cattle shed, and a biogas plant, together costing only Rs.180 a square foot. The cost of construction by donor agencies would range between Rs.200 and Rs.450 a square foot. Some agencies even collected donations from the people and used the funds for relief work and the construction of houses. Although the intention was noble, the accounts were never made public. The people made complaints about alleged improper utilisation of funds. The agencies should have avoided extravagance not only in the construction but also in every aspect of the project. Donor agencies and NGOs are in a position to create awareness among the public about cost-effective, environment friendly housing by actively supporting all such efforts.

ON May 22, 1997, tremors measuring up to 6.1 on the Richter scale razed 5,000 houses and damaged more than 3,50,000 houses in Jabalpur. The total loss was estimated to be around Rs.90 million. The Madhya Pradesh government sought Rs.8,380 million as aid from the Centre but received only Rs.450 million. The World Bank turned down the State's request for a soft loan. The lesson is that there will not always be a flood of relief and aid; Kutch was an exception. Gujarat's vibrant economy, whole-hearted support from the Central government, and great contributions from industrial houses and non-resident Indians made the sailing smooth for the rehabilitation project there.

Geologists warn that India will have to live with earthquakes. We do not have an independent Ministry in the Centre to tackle disasters, and our disaster management system is still in a dormant state. The only option available to us is to motivate people and empower them.

What is the message from Latur? Are not traditional, non-coarse rubble masonry houses (stone and mud), in which 90 per cent of the people live, safe? Houses in which the poor live are always susceptible to heavy rains or floods. A.S. Arya has developed methods to strengthen such non-engineered houses. He demonstrated retrofitting techniques, by strengthening weak joints in the architecture. Iron rods of a small diameter and angles were introduced. Chicken mesh was provided to encompass walls at the roof level. Reinforced cement concrete (RCC) headers were given after every 1m x 1m area. The thickness of the roof was reduced to one-third by removing excess soil.

Arya and Professor K.S. Jagdish of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, along with Professors from the Indian Institutes of Technology, conducted a historical shake table test on July 25, 1995, in Umarga. (The shake table test is conducted by constructing prototypes of houses on a platform, which is then subjected to shocks.) One strengthened house and one Killari-type traditional, unscientific house was built on an RCC platform. (The epicentre of the 1993 quake was near Killari.) Two tractors dashed into the platform to generate an acceleration of 750mm/sec2 (1/3 of the momentum generated by the quake in Killari). The traditional house collapsed whereas the strengthened one only developed cracks. Thereafter, the ASAG conducted many such tests in Latur to build confidence among the people. These and measures like them should have been used to educate people elsewhere too.

Kutch Mitra, a regional newspaper, has been educating people by devoting at least two columns every day to explain the various aspects of rehabilitation. The national media were not used for this purpose. No effort was made by the English press or the visual media to pinpoint the shortcomings of the massive rehabilitation work. The successful countrywide Polio immunisation programme has proved that radio and television can educate millions of people. Both these media should be used to help repair and strengthen houses.

A massive programme to build houses for the homeless and strengthen existing ones can generate employment in the rural areas.

In 1968, Fernando Belonde, President of Peru, decided to develop a settlement for labourers. Himself an architect, he could have implemented his own ideas. But he humbly requested the architect Peter Land from the United States who is known for his crusades in favour of low-rise buildings, who was then a visiting Professor at the Peru University, to shape the project. Peter Land arranged an international competition welcoming innovative house designs and layouts. He then selected 13 architects from France, Poland, Denmark and India (Charles Correa). The workers were offered soft loans. When completed in 1974, the `PERVI' project was hailed as a great model. It exhibited 400 types of house designs.

The scale of the rehabilitation process in Latur was huge but not meaningful. It proved that financial input alone cannot bring in quality. Intellectual inputs from all sections of society are crucial. Sociologists, psychologists, architects, engineers, scientists, grass-root workers, politicians, and bureaucrats should come together to design novel habitats.

Atul Deulgaonkar is a freelance journalist. He has authored three books and is a recipient of the Statesman Award for rural reporting.

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