The Earth Moved: The Earthquake and Its Impact on Society in Saurashtra, Gujarat
by Arun Vinayak
Arun Vinayak is associated with Asha Kendra, Puntamba, Maharashtra
Way down upon the Sawney (Machchi) river,
far from the old folks at home,
all the world sad and weary
everywhere I roam!.
runs a traditional African song.
26th January 2001: The blackest Friday in India in 50 years. The nation from Delhi to the smallest village in the remotest hills was celebrating the completion of the 50 years of the Republic. But even as the Tricolour was being hoisted, the earth shook in Peninsular India's West Coast. It opened its jaws like a hungry shark and swallowed whatever came in its way, human beings and homes, or laid them flat.
BHUJ in the Kutchch Region of Gujarat near the border between India and Pakistan with Bachao and Anjaar and other towns in it disappeared from the face of the earth. Whoever were at home in these towns lay buried and later rotted. Elsewhere, even in the remotest villages, the houses collapsed.
A revealing fact has been that even though the epicentre of the earthquake, the scale which has now been accepted as being 8 on the Richter scale, was at Bhuj, the destruction has been on the southern side from Bhuj. Gandhidham in Kutchch District, villages in Jamnagar District and villages in Maliya Miyana Taluka in Rajkot District in Saurashtra, bordering the Kutchch Region, were crushed as the earth waves moved,
The Impulsive Beginnings
Initiatives had been taken from Mumbai, Ahmednagar and Nashik as the announcement was made on Republic Day that earthquake had struck north Gujarat and that the adverse impact had been felt from Bhuj, down to Surat in the south. On 27th morning a five-member team comprising doctors and paramedical volunteers left for Surat en route to Ahmedabad and then to Bhuj.
The team arrived in Surat the next day morning and its co-ordinator, Dr. Anil Dubey rang up Asha Kendra, Puntamba, to say that the damage was minor in Surat and that they were moving on to Ahmedabad. From Ahmedabad they rang up to state that the District Collector there had told them that there was enough assistance in Ahmedabad and that they should proceed to Bhuj along with the Rotary Club Team. There was no contact possible after that as the communications links between Kutchch and rest of the country had been snapped due to the earthquake.
Meanwhile, the under the leadership of AGAPE Trust, the leaders of Asha Kendra, BUILD and Jeevan Kalyan put their heads constituted a first relief team, which moved out towards north Gujarat. Doctors from Shrirampur, mobilised by Shrirampur Sakhar Kamgar Sabha joined them for some time. These doctors however, moved towards Bhuj, Bachao and Anjaar after being told by authorities in Gujarat that they were badly required there.
MALIYA MIYANA - The Unfocussed Destruction
Maliya Miyana was not the destination when activists: and doctors left from two starting points: Asha Kendra in Puntamba village of Ahmednagar district and Jeevan Kalyan in Nashik.
Both teams moved towards Bhuj independently on 1st February 2001. The authorities and other NGOs had told us that they have "money and there is no need even for medicines as the government had sufficient and was caring for quake hit!" This had been the general opinion, even in Gandhian institutions in Ahmedabad, where sufficient medicines, clothes, tent material and blankets had been stocked. The team from Puntamba had contacted Mr. Rajesh Bhat of Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG) earlier and had stayed overnight at the Safai Vidyalaya, near Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. Discussions in Ahmedabad with various activists groups, medical professionals and others resulted in the team being informed that there had been sufficient blankets and medicines sent to the affected areas. If more was required contacts could be made later. There were enough stocks with these NGOs and could be forwarded as and when required.
The team moved forward to Rajkot and were met by activists from NDSHD and transported to the Jeevan Kalyan Office set up in that city. From them information was received that there were large number of villages near the Kutchch Region but in Rajkot District, which had been forgotten or ignored. The team then moved northwards towards the district boundary and found Maliya Miyana. The relief workers finally arrived at the Primary Health Centre (PHC) in Maliya Miyana. The compound of the PHC was large and sufficient for camping of the relief team. The basic aim in the first fortnight was to investigate, provide medical relief and to assist the poor in getting protection from cold climatic conditions.
The entire team was of the opinion that the site chosen was correct, as no relief work had been undertaken here as the focus was concentrated in Bhuj. Here the Primary Health Centre (PHC) compound was the place where tents were pitched. The PHC itself had crashed down like a pack of cards in the earthquake. There was enough place in the compound to pitch tents and start work.
Maliya Miyana is the northern most taluka of Rajkot District. It has an overwhelming majority of Muslims and Dalit population. Most of the people in Maliya Miyana itself and the villages around it depend on the Mithagars or salt works in the Little Rann of Kutchch which borders the taluka and Kutchch. There are of course, traders in Maliya Miyana but the villagers are workers in the salt works or are out in the Gulf of Kutchch. In the four months of the monsoon they are agricultural labour working in the fields of the hundred 'Rajas' of Saurashtra, who in real terms are zamindars who have been left untouched by land reform for political reasons. The main crops are groundnuts, jowar, wheat and in some parts rice.
The Raja's Palace itself had become a relic, with the roof crashing down and the walls dilapidated. Mr. Jadeja, the 'Raja' was staying in the open under a tent. Initially, he was the least concerned about his 'subjects' and refused to give any support to them. Neither was he willing to take any government support or work with government or voluntary organisations to help the people of Maliya Miyana.
Maliya Miyana with a population of about 20,000 is a town which had just grown with people living in whatever dwelling they could make of their own. There are various Mohallas or Vas as they are locally called. The quake has left no dwelling standing. Even the masjids and temples have cracked or have fallen down. Prayers are held in the open spaces before them. The official count is 57 dead but the local people assert that there are 120 dead.
Minorities and Dalits Neglected In Relief
Complaints have been made here by voluntary organisations that the oppressed and exploited sections of society mainly dalits and Muslims, were being ignored when relief was being distributed. This, they said was evident when it came to distribution of relief in remote areas and villages, away from the highways and roads which were not in focus of the media. Most villages in Maliya Miyana Taluka of Rajkot District are away from the highways. Development processes even before the earthquake had not reached them.
Complaints were also made that local authorities ignored and delayed government directives regarding supply of funds, foodgrains and essential commodities and shelter material. Amongst these complaints, was that people living "Below the Poverty Line" (BPL) were entitled to receive subsidy for reconstruction of their homes, at an official rate of Rs. 30,000 per household had not received it by 4th February 3001, the last date for receiving such subsidy. However, most had not received this subsidy,
The authorities stated that one of the shortcomings was that this money was to be given by cheque and by verification of ration cards as proof of residence but banks in many villages had not resumed operations as their offices had crashed down in the earthquake.
Besides, since the homes of most poor had crashed down the ration cards could not be located or they had none. Authorities agreed to extend the period and also to find a way out for payment of the subsidy for those whose ration cards were missing or had none.
The Situation had worsened so much that when the Union Minister of State, Mr. A. K. Rana and Maliya MLA Mr. Kranti came to Maliya Miyana for a visit. A host of voluntary organisations barraged them with questions and complained that villages in the taluka were being ignored because the people in the region were not politically with the ruling party/coalition. They hastily assured the voluntary organisations that minorities and dalits would get parity in distribution of earthquake relief and in rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes.
Voluntary organisations found plenty of shelter material in the local government godown situated in the emergency operations headquarters at Maliya Miyana. This office is situated in the Mamlatdar's office converted into emergency operations office since the disastrous earthquake in 50 years that hit on 26th January last with its epicentre in nearby Bhuj.
The situation regarding distribution of earthquake relief material has become similar to that in the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Latur in Maharashtra. Agencies come along highways and dump material in government offices or in tents of groups posing as local organisations and request them to distribute the material including foodgrains, medicines and blankets.
The material is often grabbed by anti-social elements and in many cases it had been found in the shops in the markets of nearby Morbi.
The authorities and voluntary organisations in the area agree that there is need to form a co-ordination committee to co-ordinate the distribution of foodgrains, material and subsidies to the villages concerned, particularly to those away from highways.
Medical Services in Full Swing in Quake Hit Areas
Medical teams comprising doctors, paramedical personnel, volunteers from Ahmednagar District, Nashik City and Mumbai moved along the Rajkot-Jamnagar and Rajkot-KandIa highway and treated villagers from villages like Wand Vistar, Thakur Vas, Karadwad, Surajbari, Maha, Deogarh. Jejasar, Beghasar and more.
Earthquake or not the vast majority of the population in this taluka has long been subject to poverty. They have been ignored by the development processes as a rejected lot. The earthquake has only served to add to their misery. Coupled with poverty is illiteracy. The worst fate is that of the girl child. Whether Hindu or Muslim, the parents, especially the father refuses to teach the girl child, even at the primary level. The better off from among the poverty-stricken but still poor, which is an exception, teach the girl child upto the fifth class. When asked at Beghasar, Nirmala said ''I do not want to learn more!"
In the beginning, the mobile clinic attracted on an average 150 patients per day. The complaints treated were mostly of cough and cold, since vast numbers slept in the open with chilly winds at night, hot and dry day and saline water for drinking. Stomach and gastric problems have been treated in large numbers.
There is abject poverty in the region. Earlier, drought conditions prevailed, and now the earthquake. Matters have become worse for the villagers of Maliya Miyana Taluka. There is fear and despondence on their faces..
Between 4th and 7th February 2001, more than 1,000 villagers were treated by the mobile clinic for various complaints. The attendance in the PHC at Maliya Miyana also rose to an average of 150 patients a day. By the middle of February the average number of patients treated by the mobile clinic rose to 500 a day. Doctors from Ahmedabad, mobilised by Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG) have begun taking part in the mobile on a two-day shift,
Are Women Counted in Gujarat Society?
A women patient approached Dr. Anil Rananaware who has been conducting the mobile clinic. A rare approach by a female patient to a male doctor. She asked the doctor to examine her daughter. On examination Dr. Rananaware found that she had cough and cold, which could be treated by a mixture. He asked the mother to produce a small bottle. "Doctor! My home has collapsed! Where can I find a bottle?"
These and other heart-rending situations have given us the lesson that none of us are prepared to respond to Disaster Management, a subject that has been noisily discussed since the Latur Earthquake.
The women in the region, irrespective of religion cover their faces before men, covering their "Lajja" and it is not possible for male a doctor to examine women. Women doctors or paramedical personnel are a must. The team from Puntamba had a community health volunteer, and thus it was possible to examine female patients. Most had anaemic physical conditions. A whole lot of them were given medicines for eye problems, as well as for stomach ailments.
The team found the condition of women in Saurashtra society worse than that experienced in Maharashtra. Women have been kept illiterate by this male dominated society, again irrespective of religion.
Primary schools are non-existent in most villages and where there are it is rare that a female child goes to school. If she does, she will not be allowed to go beyond the fifth class. Legal or not all the girls are married off by the age of 15.
Proofs of Residence, Like Ration Cards Not Possessed
A shocking fact is that a large number of persons staying in these villages for last more than three generations do not have ration cards, the basic document which is one of the proofs for residence.
It is not impossible to get a feeling that social welfare programmes meant for the poor and those below the poverty line is used elsewhere, globalisation or before globalisation.
All the bureaucracy is not politicised by the ruling BJP. There are persons who are willing to assist all comers, despite pressure by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In villages where there are a few or no Hindus, the RSS puts pressure on the local bureaucracy to ignore the dalits and minorities. Where the Hindus are dominant, the RSS has a tent at the entrance of the village and sees to it that all relief passes through its hands, and that too to the upper and middle caste Hindus.
In fact, an activist was asked to register his name in their register at a village near Dhrol. The activist, of course, refused. On the day the train arrived at Maliya Miyana, two Swayamsevaks were seen consulting with the Additional Tehsildar co-ordinating relief at Maliya Miyana. What was the outcome one does not know, but they were never seen again after our team camped in that town again.
Profile of a Quake Hit Village: Beghasar
Gujarat has a good network of roads from National Highway, State Highways to Major District Roads. But even these do not suffice to reach the poor and the poverty stricken, who live in large numbers out of reach and sight of many a traveller on the Highways.
A major highway has been built from Ahmedabad to Kandla, a free port that is supposed to bring dollars to India, in lieu of third rate technology and third quality goods from the North (the Developed World). As soon as you leave Gandhinagar bypass, the road winds through barren wasteland, where for miles together you might come across an occasional mirage but nothing else. Then after a loathsome journey across this wasteland you come to crossroads near Maliya Miyana. Maliya Miyana is the Taluka headquarters of the taluka by the same name.
You take the road which leads to Jamnagar and a short while later, a small but tarred road leads to Manpur. Maybe the road is tarred to allow easy movement of salt collected after photosynthesis in Mithagars or salt pans in the Little Rann of Kutchch, which is the boundary between Saurashtra and Kutchch to the north of Maliya Miyana.
Mind the workers in these Mithagars get little or nothing compared to the traders or money changers, who use codes to buy the salt from one of hundred "Rajas" or Zamindars of Saurashtra, who purportedly own the saline land in the Little Rann of Kutchch adjacent to the village. This salt then goes to one of the big companies in Saurashtra or elsewhere. The already iodised salt is "purified" and claimed to be the real iodised Salt in those companies and sold at a high price. The price of salt is dearer than the price of milk!
A team of social workers and paramedical personnel of the Jeevan Asha Trust in Nashik came across the village as their vehicle moved into areas uncovered by any other organisation, government or voluntary, on 6th of February, 2001. These activists began investigations into the conditions of the people of Beghasar.
They found that there were 140 homes in the village. Of course, all of them had crashed down in the earthquake. The population of the village was 1,400. It was a mixed population and though the Gram Panchayat was to serve and benefit all, the Dalit population had no voice The upper castes would have no relations at all with the Dalits within the village community. The social workers had to go independently to talk with the Dalits and discuss the issues arising out of the earthquake and its aftermath.
Despite the dominance of the upper castes, the literacy rates as a whole was as low as 20 percent. Education of women was out of question. The earlier generation of women were not educated at all and were steeped in blind faith. The sarpanch seat here is reserved for women.
In fact, the woman Sarpanch of the village commenting on the earthquake said, "Why is Narad Muni churning the Earth? His meanness should stop now!" The woman is the Sarpanch but all activities in the village are co-ordinated by her husband, who styles himself as the 'mukhia' (village chieftain) of the village.
There is still no enthusiasm about educating the girl child. Very few of the upper castes send their girls to school and that too, if they at all go they do not go beyond the fifth class. By the time they are 15 years of age, they are married off, legally forbidden or not.
Nirmala, one of the girls related to the Sarpanch studied upto seventh class, which is very exceptional. She was asked, "Don't you want to study more?" She shied and ran away. On being pursued she gave a stern look and muttered, "It's time to get married." She then had nothing to do with the social workers that day and tried to avoid any contacts.
The village itself has just grown around a salt contractor's home. The houses were sure to collapse, as they were dwellings of stone and mud. Even bricks were used (there is a brick kiln baking out small sized bricks in the neighbourhood, cement use to bind the bricks is rare),
The road that leads to Beghasar from Manpur, could hardly be called a road. The road has been carved because of tractors and trailers moving to and fro carrying non-purified salt from the Mithagars. Social workers from Jeevan Asha have plans to dig out a village road through shramdan by the villagers.
Jeevan Asha has undertaken a mission to rehabilitate the village and bring back confidence in its fear-ridden society. Medical services, temporary shelters are being constructed and light-weight building material is being brought into the village for construction of houses for all. The rehabilitation will be planned by architects and engineers in consultation with the villagers and gram sabha.
Jeevan Asha has also offered its services to distribute foodgrains to the population of the village. It has established a grain bank with the Gram Panchayat members acting as its trustees. The first lot was distributed by 12th February. It is hoped that this grain bank will be become a permanent feature, taking the place of government run Fair Price Shop.
While, Jeevan Asha has chosen Beghasar as its first village for rehabilitation and reconstruction, the activists of the Trust itself and other friendly institutions and organisations have been investigating and surveying the villages in the neighbourhood, which also could be taken up in a similar manner. The work has well begun. One hopes that this will last and an alternative rehabilitation and reconstruction process, not only of the physical structures, but also of society as a whole will be established.
Arun Vinayak is associated with Asha Kendra, Puntamba, Maharashtra