PUCL Bulletin, March 2001

Earthquake in Gujarat: Nature's Fury, Human Folly

By Devavrat N. Pathak, President, Gujarat PUCL
and Hon. Professor, Peace Research Centre, Gujarat Vidyapith

Also see, Some Thoughts from Bhuj and Anjaar
Unprecedented Tragedy


26th January 2001, the 52nd anniversary of our Republic proved to be a day of great disaster and destruction in Gujarat the like of which India has never seen before. It was like an atomic explosion. The earthquake measured 8.0 Richter - the longest and the worst in recent history.

The Bhuj catastrophe would approximate some 300 Hiroshima type bombs or, a single modern nuclear weapon.
Estimates regarding death and destruction may differ but there is no doubt of the tremendous loss of lives in the range of five digits and the loss of property running into several crores of rupees, not to mention the psychological trauma that so many have suffered. Sights of crumbling buildings, the suddenness of the tragic happenings and the utter helplessness of the victims have caused deep pangs of pain and remorse.

Bhuj and surroundings villages have been razed to the ground as a result of nature's fury reminding us of the way in which ancient civilizational sites such as Mohanjodaro and Harappa were reduced to historical memories. For days together hundreds and thousands of people spent their days and nights in the open in the winter cold with the sky as the roof. People, high and low, have been leveled off, compelled to face a similar fate.

The earthquake is a natural calamity but deaths are due to unsafe constructions. Over 75 high-rise buildings in Ahmedabad have proved to be death-traps for thousands of people, Several high-rise buildings were vacated out of fear as tales of woe came pouring in from Surat, Rajkot, Surendranagar, Jananagar, Nasari and Mehsana. Tremors continued for several subsequent days as far away as Bangalore forcing people to stay out in anxiety and fear.

In the course of last 3 or 4 years Gujarat has suffered catastrophes like tornado near Kandla port, drought for two years resulting in severe scarcity of water in several districts of Gujarat and the inundation of several parts of Ahmedabad and Surat on account of heavy downpour just for a few hours. The universal impression that these crises created was one of incompetent handling and absolute insensitivity of the government of Gujarat. In spite of having been forewarned about the impending storm at Kandla, the government miserably failed to create an adequate machinery to warn people and to save lives of innumerable people.

Like the Bourbons of France, the Government refuses to learn anything or forget nothing. If anything, the change is for the worst. The earthquake struck on 26th but the government machinery worked up only on Thursday i.e. after five days. Those precious days, when several lives could have been saved, were wasted for getting the adequate measure of the magnitude of the crisis that the earthquake had created.

According to a survey conducted by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation about 1,500 flats have been completely damaged in the earthquake. About 800 of these are in AMC limits while another 700 are in Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA) areas. When unauthorized constructions, many of them high rise buildings were brought to the notice of the Gujarat High Court, the government while conceding the irregularities pleaded that "administratively removal or putting down of a large number of building was neither feasible nor desirable and that it was fraught with the possibility of creating law and order problem and hardships to the people". As reported by The Indian Express (February 5, 2001) "In Ahmedabad alone the government had identified no less than 9200 cases of illegal constructions". The connivance of the government could be easily derived from the way the government passed an Ordinance regularizing such structures having a small fee called an "impact fee". The Ordinance was passed with Congress support.

The willfulness and the oddities of such constructions were thoroughly exposed when Mansi high-rise which had a swimming pool on the tenth floor claimed some 40 victims. Most of these multistoried buildings were constructed during the last five years.

The greatest obstacle that the government continued to suffer from has been red tapism, unusual delay, rigidity of behaviour, complete absence of initiative on the part of government officers and extremely poor level of co-ordination. The big problem with the government has been the evil practice of frequent transfer of officers never allowing them to get in tune with the work they are to deal with.

As the news of the catastrophe spread round the world, help in terms of food, tents, blankets, medicine etc. began to pour in from all directions but the government did not have adequate plan, design or map for handling them with dispatch and skill. Precious time was wasted and lives were lost. Nature may be blamed for the earthquake but such a large loss of life was partly due to poor handling of the disaster.

The gravity of the situation demanded a stupendous collective effort irrespective of party affiliations and partisan politics. An all-party meet with NGOs of Gujarat should have been summoned and work of rescue and relief properly planned with proper delegation of work. But such an exercise would require leadership qualities, self-confidence, broad based outlook and deep concern for the suffering people. An excellent example of such leadership could be easily recalled when the town of Morbi faced a similar disaster. The then Chief Minister Babubhai J. Patel not only visited the place but stayed on the spot for days together transferring CM' s office to Morbi till the crisis was over. The saga of flood relief handled by Sardar Patel when he was the President of Ahmedabad Municipality in 1927 deserves to be remembered.

The credit for speedy and effective rescue and relief work should be given to the NGOs of Gujarat such as Janpath with 200 other NGOs attached to it, Kutch Nav Nirman, Ahmedabad Study Action Group and, of course, the army. Several NGOs complained that their work was often hampered by the Sangh Parivar hijacking the relief work. Indeed, the Sangh Parivar has been accused of making political capital out of the calamity. A truck carrying relief materials from Spain was hijacked by the RSS from the Ahmedabad-Bhuj highway. In the same way a plane from Japan was held up at the Ahmedabad airport for more than 48 hours. The consignment was marked for the State government but the Sangha Parivar took hold of it for distribution, the Parivar calling itself the officially recognised body. Isolated cases of looting such materials from trucks were also attributed to the Parivar outfit.
Gujarat is known for its enterprising ability, self help, community work and cooperative effort. These qualities are partly in their blood and partly inherited from the days of Gandhi and the Sardar. The civil society of Gujarat possess the initiative as well as the means for salvaging Gujarat. Several industrial houses, charitable institutions and the Gujarati diasporas can be relied upon to render every possible assistance. The native of Kutch are known for their love of the land as well as the brave spirit of free enterprise and community service. All these notwithstanding, the grim tragedy speaks in thousands voices from all over the State. There are any number of orphans who have nobody to look after them; there are innumerable broken families where husband or wife are separated for ever. With no support, no shelter, no money so many have suffered irreparable psychological trauma that has left its scar never to be effaced. Shocked by loss of life of the dear ones, many have lost their ability to speak.

The disaster required nothing short of an all out "war effort" but unfortunately there was neither any plan nor management skill that could be followed. Terms like "disaster management" had a hollow ring. While great attention was being focused on Bhuj, the villages and towns close by had to fend for themselves for quite some time.

Complaints have also been received when rescue work and relief material did not reach the dalits, and the minorities like Christians and Muslims.

Like war, earthquake is a cruel teacher and the single most important message, loud and clear, that has emerged is of corrupt practices indulged in by builders, engineers, officials of AUDA and the Municipal Corporation.
Some 44 builders have been booked by the police in Ahmedabad on the charges of culpable homicide (304) and criminal conspiracy (120B) under the Indian Penal Code. Legal experts contend that it would have been better and easier to nail them down under Section 13/a/d of the Prevention of Corruption Act. Besides, Section 27 of IPC wherein non-observance of norms or laws causing damage to public health can be invoked.
The grim reality that Gujarat and the nation as a whole has to face squarely is the nexus that has flourished between the builders and the politicians. Illegally built constructions, flagrant violations of all the norms and regulations, low quality of materials used and dubious "no objection certificates" issued by the Municipal authority - a horrendous combination of all these brought death and destruction to so many in Ahmedabad and Bhuj. Residents of Bhuj have admitted that most of the high rise buildings built in the course of the last five years collapsed on account of the earthquake.

After inspecting a few fallen buildings, an eminent architect, RJ Vasavada remarked, "In my investigations I saw to my horror that the debris is just sand and dust, apart from bricks. Criminal action needs to be initiated against the guilty. There is no other way." (P. 29 Outlook, Feb. 12, 2001)

Handling of such a grim tragedy involves four types of work: Rescue, Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. The first two, more or less, are over. The next challenge requires expertise, care, proper supervision, transparency and accountability - qualities that are conspicuous by their absence. India, in recent years has faced many catastrophies: the gas tragedy at Bhopal, railway accidents, fire in cinema houses, tornado in Orissa, Typhoon at Kandla, drought, Kargil and Kandahar. Apart from the army and a few outstanding NGOs none including governments have acquitted themselves well enough to earn our gratitude or praise. The tragedy that an outstanding progressive State like Gujarat has faced is a national crisis that has claimed international attention. In the present day world of information technology transparency gets compulsively enthroned on our lives and government can ignore it at its own peril.

But the darkest cloud at times has a silver lining. The earthquake in Kutch has opened several fissures in that arid land and at some places people have tasted sweet water gushing out. Is it the Indus river stream that once used to flow in Kutch? Or, is it the mythical Saraswati that ran through the land? Remote sensing division of the ISRO have yet to confirm about the flow and the quality of water. If confirmed, this may bring about a sea change in future and open out rich possibilities.

Another development, likely to be a watershed, is the helpful response that we have received from our hostile neighbour, Pakistan. Succor came in the shape of tents and blankets thereby opening a line of communication between Kutchies who were divided at the time of partition. Family relatives on both sides were anxious about their well-being. Musharraff's concern may have been politically motivated but his willingness to visit and conduct talks with our Prime Minister may serve to break the ice between the neighbours and open a new chapter in continuation of our ceasefire.

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