The devastating earthquake on 26th January 2001, with its epicentre about 20 km. Northeast of the District Headquarters in Bhuj, caused severe damage in four Talukas, Bhuj, Anjar, Bhachau and Gandhidham, while a number of other Talukas were also affected.
Communications with Kutch were cut off almost immediately after the earthquake, although some people reported that they could get through on the telephone in the first hour or so. The more direct route from Ahmedabad to Kutch was also cut off due to damage to the Indira Gandhi bridge.
On the approach to Bhuj via the Northern route via Radhanpur, one saw occasional broken houses till Samakhyali, where every house was reduced to rubble or had large cracks which made them uninhabitable. In both the urban and rural areas, the fear of after-shocks has forced most of the population to live in temporary shelters close to their own houses. While the urban population has had fairly immediate access to shelter, blankets, etc., the massive task of covering the rural areas is going apace, and is expected to be completed by the third week of February 2001.
There was an immediate public response; there is a large and relatively well-to-do Kutchi community in cities like Mumbai and Calcutta. Unfortunately, due to lack of proper direction, a lot of these supplies were offloaded on the main road, and did not reach the villages.
The District Administration took time to recover and get into action. I feel there are two reasons for this. Firstly, that they were themselves directly affected by house collapses, loss or injuries in their families, etc. Secondly, they were either untrained or poorly trained on responding to a calamity of these dimensions. In any case, no amount of theoretical training is adequate in such a situation, where mental frame and toughness over-ride all other considerations.
The NGO involvement.
Enter the NGOs. Kutch has had nine emergency years in the last fourteen. Two of these were cyclones (in 1998 and 2000); besides the earthquake, the rest have been severe droughts. The economy in the urban areas at least is strongly supported by the Kutchi community outside of Kutch.
During the 1998 cyclone, the NGOs in Kutch came together to set up a coordinating organisation for disaster situations, and named it Kutch Navnirman Abhiyan, contracted in day-to-day use as Abhiyan. At the time of the earthquake, there were fourteen NGO members. Between disasters, the Abhiyan addressed itself to training for social work and management for rural youth, developing a District level databank, including Village Gazettes, and Public Advocacy, particularly impacting policies on primary education, drinking water and drought-proofing. The Abhiyan did a rapid needs-assessment, and contacted Janvikas, an Ahmedabad based NGO, which took on the role of coordination with other NGOs and influential individuals for the State of Gujarat. A coordinating group, Janpath, was set up based at the Ahmedabad office of Janvikas, and immediately started contacting aid agencies and Government for a relief effort. In short order, as requests came in from the Abhiyan for supply requirements based on the rapid assessment, supply collection and supply lines were set up.
Both Abhiyan and Janpath have been recognised by the District and State Governments respectively as the official coordinating NGOs. Every morning there is an NGO coordination meeting attended by the District Collector, where he updates the information from the Government and the aid agencies and participating NGOs are briefed on the latest situation; these are duly minuted and circulated to all concerned. The effort, with the help of the District Administration, is to have any large or small participants channel their inputs after consultation on where they are needed, so as to avoid overlap and duplication. However, the system is not foolproof. Additionally, this kind of unorganised distribution has resulted in some local influential families, particularly the high-castes to garner large surpluses at the expense of the weak. All in all, however, distribution is better and more equitable than one can expect in such confused circumstances.
In Kutch, there is a great deal of coordination, particularly within the larger NGO groups (Kutch Sewa Trust, Sewa, Swaminarayan Trust, Ramakrishna Mission and the RSS).
The immediate requirements were communications linkage, and supplies of shelter, blankets and food. With the help of ham operators organised from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, a radio link was set up between Ahmedabad, Bhuj and Samakhyali, later spreading to some of the worst affected urban areas. Sadly, satellite phones were not immediately available, although a few were later brought in by aid agencies. The out-of-date rules for radio transcievers set up by the old Raj have never been brought up to date, and even ham operators are required to pass a Morse Code test in this day and age to qualify for a licence. Janvikas has set up a logistics base at the Vocational Training Centre of Navsarjan, a long-standing NGO partner, where tarpaulins, bamboo, ropes, blankets food kits and other requirements were put together and sent out to Kutch. Both production and availability of shelter materials (tarpaulins and tents) has been slow, while blankets and food have been adequately coped with. Food kits are ready-prepared for one month's supply, to ease distribution. Other requirements, such as crutches, electric equipment, etc. were sent out from the Command Centre at Janvikas in Ahmedabad, where a highly effective procurement unit purchased requirements other than food and shelter.
In Kutch, as supplies were being distributed, a team of professionals from organisations such as the National Tree Growers Federation, an offshoot of the National Dairy Development Board, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, The Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, etc. joined the NGO coordination teams to do a more thorough assessment. Simultaneously, twenty-two sub-centres were set up in key locations, with the idea of not only controlling distribution, but also for empowering villages by starting a process of village committees, which will ensure proper and equitable distribution, and shall plan the rehabilitation phase, inclusive of creations of needed village assets and drought-proofing measures. These sub-centres currently cover over 240 affected villages.
A word is needed based on the first reports of the teams who have been talking about rehabilitation of houses. Three different responses have been received - all positive. In one village, the villagers said that they would prefer to sort through the rubble themselves, recover usable building materials, and set up their own houses, requesting only some cement and hardware where needed. In another village, the planning was the same, except that the villagers wanted small interest free loans for the rebuilding. A set of villagers said that they would combine the strengths of their villages to rehabilitate themselves.
Attention is also being paid to areas outside the heavily affected Talukas of Bhuj, Anjar, Bhachau and Gandhidham, as the concentration has been on the most-affected areas. There has been a trickle of villagers from the outlying, so-called low priority areas with reports about destruction of housing and exposure, particularly affecting the children. Field teams are currently assessing the needs of these areas. While there is no dearth of volunteers, the problem has been one of finding volunteers who have the necessary expertise to carry out some of these tasks. In a resource crunch such as the current one, it has been necessary to turn down volunteers, as it makes more sense to employ local people for the physical end of these tasks - this also helps to increase their badly damaged self-worth and dignity, and helps them recover faster from the trauma they have suffered.
From the onset, qualified medical teams have responded to the injured, and are assessing the possible future scenario. It is singularly fortunate that there has not been an outbreak of gastro-enteritis so far - a few cases of viral enteritis have been reported. However, upper respiratory tract infections are taking their toll, and there have been a number of reports of children and older people being affected, including some pneumonia deaths.
At this point in time, three sectoral groups have been set up by the Abhiyan, covering shelter, health/water/sanitation and education.
The Government's involvement:
Power and water supply were very rapidly restored in Bhuj. The telephones took quite a bit longer. Fortunately, the borewells supplying the cities and dry rural areas of Kutch are intact, although some of the pipelines have been damaged. These affected areas are being supplied by water tankers. Large-scale distribution of chlorine tablets has been carried out. The restoration of power supply and communications is slower.
As mentioned above, the District Administration is cooperating strongly with the NGO efforts. They are re-activating the Public Distribution System (PDS) to set up an ongoing system for supply of essential food materials. The State Government has yet to finalise whether the food should be distributed free, at subsidised or at market rates. The option of earnings for the population under the Employment Guarantee Scheme, which would be very good for the dignity and self-respect of the population, besides creating permanent community assets, including drought-proofing measures, is under consideration.
The Central Government has also responded creditably by simplifying customs and immigration procedures for imports of supplies and aid agency personnel. The concerned officers are of a very high calibre, and are highly sympathetic to the needs of the situation.
The Army and Air Force have responded magnificently. Army personnel are in the forefront of efforts at rubble clearance and recovery of bodies -they even extricated a living person 105 hours after the earthquake! The Air Force has kept Bhuj airport operational despite the losses of personnel and materials they have themselves suffered, and have waived a number of set-piece regulations - a fine example of management by objectives!
Two short stories and an observation:
Mr. Prem Singh, son of Mr. Sultan Singh, age 52, comes from village Baheni Maharajpur in Rohtak District of Haryana. He is an Arya Samaji, a small farmer and livestock owner. When he heard about the earthquake, he felt compelled to do something for the victims. He went round his village and collected 80 blankets, wrapped them into three bundles, and, since the others in his village were too scared to take them to an earthquake affected zone, decided to bring them to Kutch himself. He took a bus to Mahan, the village with the post office for Baheni Maharjpur, then hitched a ride on a jeep to Rohtak, where he took a train to Delhi. After changing trains in Delhi and Ahmedabad, he reached Gandhidham, where he got on a bus for Bhuj and landed up at the Abhiyan camp. He has been helping out with the distribution and trying to locate a needy village where his 80 blankets can be handed out personally.
A plane load of tents, blankets, tarpaulins, jerry-cans, water tanks, kitchen sets, etc., shipped from Denmark by the Irish aid agency Concern, was delayed and landed at Bhuj airport after the Abhiyan clearing staff and Concern staff had left for the night. The aircraft also carried three aid agency workers. The Deputy Collector at the DM Control Room at the airport immediately sent a runner to the Abhiyan camp, whence the Concern staff were contacted, and rushed to the airport. Galchar, the Deputy Collector, with his staff, immediately went about lining up trucks to transport the materials to the Abhiyan depot. Mr. Shukla, Deputy Commandant of the Industrial Protection Force arranged for his troop to provide the labour for loading the 38.5 tonnes of supplies from the aircraft onto trucks - a four hour job, for which the NCO refused to take money for tea and biscuits. Sub-Inspector Patel of the Immigration Branch of the Police took the names of the three arriving aid agency staff and cleared them asking them to report and regularise their arrival at the Immigration Office in Bhuj the next morning. Most amazingly, Mr. P.P. Jadeja, Asst. Collector of Customs, and his colleague Mr. S.N. Nair, cleared the consignment in five minutes flat - I have never seen a quicker clearance anywhere! Here, as elsewhere, we tend to reserve our brickbats for Government officials. I would like to put on record that we need to see the other side, as I have.
Finally, the people of Kutch and my colleagues at the camp. Sure, there are problems of distribution and greed, caste and religious discrimination - the habits of a thousand years do not die in one day. But, in the main, the spirit of sharing and sympathy, concern and caring in this horrifying situation are beyond words. A salute to the people of Kutch and to my colleagues for the nine days I spent in Kutch.
Short think-pieces have been prepared: a position paper on the shift from relief to rehabilitation, and a concept note on rehabilitation. These are available on request.
Adi D. Patel
11th February 2001