People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 11, 2001
CPI(M) TEAM IN GUJARAT
Criminal Neglect In Relief Operations
A CPI(M) delegation visited some parts of the earthquake-affected areas of Gujarat on January 31 and February 1. Led by Sitaram Yechury, the delegation included Mohd. Amin, Minister from West Bengal, Basudev Acharia, Sarla Maheshwari and Bratin Sengupta, all MPs on behalf of the Gujarat state committee Arun Mehta and Kanubhai Kalavadia. The writer accompanied the delegation.
The January 26 earthquake with its epicentre 20 kms off Bhuj, has according to the government of India's estimate, affected 3.5 crore people; 73,142 houses have been completely damaged and 142,180 houses partially damaged. The loss of property is estimated at Rs 13,500 crore; the worst of the 17 districts affected being Kutch, Ahmedbad, Rajkot, Jamnagar and Surendranagar, in that order.
These enormous figures notwithstanding, it is not until you have visited Kutch that you are able to perceive the enormity of the calamity. Thanks to the electronic media beaming visuals right into our drawing rooms, and descriptive write-ups in the newspapers, we had got earlier glimpses of the picture, but the film unfolds fully only when you touch down at Bhuj and start moving around.
Bhuj resembled a ghost town with very few people around. Those who had survived, had left the town; those behind were engaged in rescue work or trying to salvage whatever they could from the rubble. Those who could not move out were lying in make-shift camps. It was a dead town, as was Anjar, Ratlan and other such towns and villages that we visited. It was a tragedy unimaginable. No amount of words or visuals can convey the full story. It has to be seen to be believed; you have to be there to get the pulse of it.
Rows and rows of collapsed buildings, shops, schools, houses, mangled vehicles, dislocated electric poles is the sight that confronts you in town after town. Death was in the air; the stench of rotting bodies pierced your nostrils. People had stopped counting in hundreds or thousands, but were counting the dead in multiples of ten thousand. There was enough to indicate that for once George Fernandes, might have spoken the truth. Anjar and Bhachau are ingrained in ones mind and become synonymous with wanton death and destruction.
Great as was the tragedy, the lack of an adequate response from the Gujarat government was even more distressing. It was confusion unbounded, and the lack of direction and coordination was palpable. The Keshubhai Patel government seemed to be compounding the miseries of the affected people rather than providing help and relief to them. It woke up late, and when it did it created more trouble than it could solve. No doubt the magnitude of the crisis is such that one cannot be sure to what extent pre-planning could have helped, but definitely, the total chaos that followed could have been minimised if not eliminated. Every place that we visited, whether it be in the more affluent colonies of Ahmedabad, or the ravaged town of Anjar or Loria village 20 kms off Bhuj or Ratlan -- the apathy of the government was shocking. Five and six days after the calamity the government was still to chalk out a strategy to deal with the situation, set out priorities, and gear up its machinery to carry out the work. Although relief material continues to pour in from all over the world, there is no agency, or government official to coordinate the much-needed assistance to the survivors. Obviously, the lack of coordination stems from the absence of any comprehensive decisions. The government has become synonymous with ineptitude and inefficiency, an inability or callousness inexcusable in face of such a calamity and crisis. Only after the strident criticism did the government of India admit the failure of the Gujarat government to respond in time.
What for instance is one to make of the irresponsible statement made by the chief minister two days after the quake predicting that another quake can be expected "within the next 48 hours. Apart from the fact that currently there is no method of predicting quakes, Keshubhai did not care, to reveal the source or the methodology used for such a prediction and only compounded the panic and fears of an already sorely suffering people.
An inkling of the chaos ahead came as soon as we boarded the flight to Ahmedabad. It was announced that the flight would be delayed by 30 minutes, then an hour behind schedule. It was the reason for the delay that attracted attention -- non-availability of parking bays at the Ahmedabad airport. On embarking from the plane we found five cargo aircraft carrying relief material, waiting to be off-loaded. As we came out of the airport, BBC correspondent Seema Chisti, proceeding to Bhuj, informed us that her flight had also been delayed for the same reasons at the Bhuj airport.
While the affected were crying for relief, material meant for them was either not off-loaded from the planes, or was lying unattended in the hangers turned into temporary godowns. Consequent to this, there were reports of perishable food products being thrown away or fed to cattle; hundreds of packets of blood rushed in from Andhra Pradesh were lying unused at Ahmedabad; medical and rescue teams were going back; some international teams had threatened to go back if they did not get proper directions.
For instance, Lauritzen Holvar of Norway, the International Red Cross Society's director for Gujarat operations was quoted as saying:
"We are launching the biggest relief and rescue 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 We plan to fly in planeloads of relief and rescue material, medicines, 1.5 lakh blankets, two hospitals that can perform all major surgeries, 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."
In another case an extremely dejected Mr Brailler said,
"Your country is telling us we are unwanted". Brailler was leading a French team and it took his team 36 hours to reach Bhachau thanks to a directionless administration. A contributing factor to the delay in the French team reaching Bhachau was the prime minister's visit to Kutch the same day. Key personnel responsible for coordinating relief work were engaged with the prime minister's visit. Visits by VIP's like the PM, the union home minister, the civil aviation minister, the defence minister, have all hampered rescue and relief operations.
All vehicles that were visible on the highway from Bhuj town and other parts of Kutch that we visited were connected with relief work. They were carrying rescue teams, food and other relief material. This was the case with the Indian Airlines planes both from Delhi and from Ahmedabad to Bhuj. They carried several passengers, both national and international who were going to the affected areas. Despite such tremendous flow of relief, both in terms of volunteers and material, the response of the Gujarat government has been nothing but scandalous. Ineptitude and inefficiency apart, the administration has not been able to rise to the occasion. It took two full days for the Keshbubhai Patel government to commence rescue operations in a city like Ahmedabad! One can well imagine what the situation would be like in towns like Bhuj and Anjar, let alone villages like Drag, Rodai, Tappar, Kukawada, Damadka, to name only a few, who were not even approached by the administration till we had reached Kutch five days later.
Complaints of the delay in rescue teams reaching the affected areas or not reaching at all, were galore. In many places that the team visited we were told that we were the first people to visit the place. Thousands of lives could have been saved had rescue teams reached in time and extricated people from under the debris. At the Santanu Apartments in Maninagar, a higher middle class area, Jayantibhai Patel had a moving account to narrate. The newly constructed multi-storied apartment had come crumbling down under the impact of the quake. While Jayantibhai escaped with minor injuries his two daughters Jeena and Netra were not that lucky. Even after the building was reduced to rubble, he could communicate with his children for full nine hours before they stopped responding. With the help of neighbours, after making a hole in the concrete, he could pass on a cellular phone and some water to his children trapped inside.
Seething with anger, the residents revealed that for full 72 hours no rescue team from the government's side reached there. The people on their own hired cranes and started removing the rubble and extricating the alive and dead. Sadly, not many lives could be saved.
The residents complained that minister for home, Haren Pandya, and the local MLA Kamlesh Patel had visited them days later in a "drunken state" and were driven away by angry residents. Ahmedabad Lok Sabha MP, Harin Pathak, has not visited the spot, though his residence is just a stone throw away.
Just behind the Santanu Apartments was the 15th August Avenue. Three floors of this multi-storied residential complex and sunk into the earth on 26th January and all that was visible were the 4th, 5th and 6th floors. Nirmala De's husband is lying at the nearby L G Hospital with multiple fractures. Her in-laws, however, were not that lucky. In the same hospital, 26-year old Naliniben and her one-year-old son were being treated after a miraculous escape. They were rescued after lying under the debris of their collapsed flat, the Mangalam Apartments in the same area, for 100 hours. One year old Keyur was still in a state of shock when we met him at the hospital. Both of them were lying separately under the debris. Though they could see each other, the mother was unable to feed the baby. The mother revealed that it was her infant that gave her fortitude to withstand and survive.
Even while news of people being rescued alive after spending more than 100 hours under the debris were drawing attention, the Gujarat government announced the cessation of rescue operations. This came as a rude shock to people like Purshottam Nadwala, whose 70-year-old mother lies buried in the Murlimanohar temple at the entry point to Anjar town. While rescuers were engaged in one end of the town, at the other end hundreds like Purshottam were still waiting even after six days of the quake. Anjar, with a population of one lakh has been reduced to rubble, totally devastated by the quake. Around 400 students in the town were buried alive while participating in the Republic Day function.
But Mehar Manji and the hundreds of others in the Loria village, 20 kms off Bhuj have a different story to tell. While only three deaths took place in the village, most of the 200 odd houses have been damaged. They have not only to rebuild their houses but look for alternate means of livelihood as well. Mehar and thousands of others were residents of Nagarpakar on the other side of the border. During the 1971 war with Pakistan, they were persuaded by the Indian army to come over to this side of the border. The government gave ten acres of land per family and Mehar and those who came along with him settled here. But thirty years later, the land has turned uncultivable. During the quake, some bluish salty fluid had emanated from the earth's surface and drowned their land. It is yet to be established as to what this fluid actually is.
In sharp contrast to the ravaged town of Anjar, Bhuj and other parts of Kutch, the deaths in Ahmedabad were not entirely unavoidable. Whether it be the Mansi Complex, the 15th August Avenue Apartments or the Santanu Apartments -- all had one thing in common. They were matchbox like structures that were not broad enough at the base to withstand the weight that they were holding out the skies. The builders not only violated building plans but also used substandard material. In the case of the Santanu Apartments, the flat owners were not even handed over the papers for the flats they were supposed to have purchased two years ago!
There were no skyscrapers in Anjar though. Here the intensity of the quake was such that even the small buildings could not withstand it. When the whole town came crumbling down there was little the people could do. There was virtually no place they could run out to. In the smaller villages like Loria, despite the fragile houses, the open space provided them room to run out and save themselves.
With little to salvage, no belongings left and the absence of any relief camps, most of the people in Bhuj and Anjar were sleeping in makeshift tents or slept out in the open. In Ahmedabad however residents not only of the affected apartments, but others also, preferred to stay out under shaminas than venture into their homes. As our vehicle crossed the Subhas Bridge and moved towards the satellite area in Ahmedabad, where the multi-storied Mansi Complex had collapsed, there were no lights in the rows and rows of building that we came across. At 9.00 pm Ahmedabad seemed to be a deserted city. We learnt from Arun Mehta that people are not staying indoors. After spending the night in the shaminas they go into their flats only for the morning chores.
The satellite area is part of the newly developed area of the city. Multistoried buildings have mushroomed in their hundreds, violating all rules and regulations. Strangely only one portion of the Mansi complex came down while the other developed cracks. Why this has happened is a matter of investigation. But the builders had violated plans by constructing a swimming pool on top of the apartments without obtaining clearance for it. It was not part of the original plan submitted to the authorities. In all likelihood the pool collapsed and under its impact a portion of the building came crumbling down.
In the 15th August Avenue Apartments in Maninagar also, the army rescuers informed us that building had collapsed under the impact of the huge water tank that was erected on the top. When the jolt took place the water tank crashed first and under its impact the building was smashed.
While we did not come across any government-run relief camps, the RSS-VHP had taken over the camps at various places. While the government was routing relief material through these camps, the RSS was coercing those carrying relief material to deposit the same in the camps being managed by them. At Bhuj we were told that RSS workers had stopped vehicles carrying supplies to Muslim dominated areas. In sharp contrast was the behaviour of their Muslim brethren in the city of Ahmedabad. Many survivors made it a point to underline that it was the Muslim brethren that rescued and saved them. At the VS Hospital in Ahmedabad, young Muslim boys sat around the clock to donate blood to the injured.
The BJP is yet to recover from the shock that it had received in the panchayat and nagarpalika elections. The choicest of abuses are being used against the BJP and Keshubhai Patel, whether it be in the affected areas or not. BJP leaders and cadres dare not go amongst the people for fear of facing their wrath. The BJP therefore is relying excessively on the RSS to do its political work and salvage whatever little ground it can.
While death did not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the town and the village, the administration did while organising rescue and relief. Even here it was the poor and the rural folk who continue to be ignored. There were tens of villages where neither the media nor officialdom had reached even a week later. First they concentrated on Ahmedabad, then Bhuj, then Anjar, later Bachau and then the others followed in the priority list. How much more time it will take for the administration to reach the villages that do not come within the radius of the highways and provide them relief is a big question.
Despite the fact that there is no methodology to predict earthquakes, warnings were available as early as September 2000 when Bhavnagar experienced tremors repeatedly for days together. For weeks together residents in the town slept outside in the open. It is obvious that these warnings were not taken seriously. Kutch falls in Category V i.e., the most vulnerable seismic zone in the country. A quake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale had struck the Kutch region in 1819. For the people of Anjar however, it was a repeat of July 1956 when a quake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale had razed the entire town to rubble. The whole town had to be relocated then. Five earthquakes, though of a minor scale, measuring more than 5.0 on the Richter scale, have taken place in the country since September 2000 -- in Maharashtra, Andaman Seas and later in the Islands region, in Madhya Pradesh and Kerala.
Despite the harshness of the quake and the unpardonable inefficiency of the BJP government, what is heartening is the all-round support and sympathy that the sufferers have got. Coupled with administrative failures there were moving tales of the help pitched in by neighbours. People reminded us that "in hour of need it is the neighbour who aids".