Kutch Navnirman Abhiyan
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Human-Quake Followed by the Earthquake
By Martin Macwan, Navsarjan - Ahmedabad, February 2001 (*)

Meena works with the Kutchh Mahila Vikas Sangathana, an organisation that has been working in Kutchh for a decade, organising women through economic activities. She with other colleagues, was in village Khavda when the earthquake hit. In response to the disaster, they quickly set up a health centre, trying at the same time to get aid from outside. When their team members did not come back with aid, they travelled to the district head- quarters. It is only then they learnt that the Earthquake had hit the entire region and among the thousands that lay under the debris, Meena's own mother was one of them. Moving beyond her personal grief, Meena along with other colleagues, started working round the clock, to help those who had survived.

The earthquake broke many myths. The largest among all is that India is a poor nation. The wealth that poured out to respond to the situation was enormous. If even a little of this wealth was distributed to the fellow citizens in normal times, where millions live in abject poverty whether there are earthquakes or not, India would be a different nation.


Mr. X, is another such young man, a worker in the organisation. When I saw him two days ago in Bhuj, 20 kilometres away from the epicentre of the earthquake, he was busy organising relief. I learnt that his family is living on the roadside and they themselves had not received any food rations. Many of his own colleagues had lost their houses and were living in tents and yet continue to work for others.

I visited Kodki, a village just 11 kilometres away from Bhuj, the district headquarters. After 10 days of the earthquake, the only aid they had received was 2900 blankets, that came not from the government but from the voluntary organisations. The day I was there the temperature in the night dropped to almost 3 degrees Celsius. The village people had managed to pull out some material that could cover their bodies against freezing cold, but for last ten days with thousand of such others they had been spending nights in the open.

"Do you have ration in the family to take care of yourself?" I inquired.

"We have it for four days." There was no begging in their voice. Their eyes were full of dignity. While talking to them I learnt that they had shared part of their ration stock with nearby villages who did not have even as much as they did.

There are so many things I saw that disturbed me personally compelling me therefore to write. None of the above stories have found their way to the media. I am so disturbed by the fact that while million of dollars worth of material in terms of aid has reached the area, hardly anything has reached to the people in need.

The day after the earthquake my colleague Gagan Sethi had rushed to Bhuj. Since many of the government employees themselves were severely affected, the district headquarters’ emergency rescue and relief operations team had only 15 people, who in the absence of electricity were using candlelight. The State capital, in crisis had cancelled leave for state employees, but in absence of direction all the employees sat in their offices without doing anything.

Their eyes were full of dignity. While talking to them I learnt that they had shared part of their ration stock with nearby villages who did not have even as much as they did.


On the night of the 27th I was co-ordinating with the Swiss rescue team to save as many lives as possible in Ahmedabad where people were trapped under the debris of multi-storey buildings, 89 in all, that crashed like a pack of cards, even after 40 hours. Thousands of people thronged around collapsed structures watching helplessly. The debris had to be cleared but no heavy cranes and such machines were available. The State had deployed the Rapid Action Force, whose function it was to control the crowds.

Amidst all the horror, I witnessed the dirty politics of the state officials. The areas that fell under the Municipal commissioner had better equipment than the areas that fell under the jurisdiction of the Ahmedabad Urban Development authorities. However the former would not help the latter. For the politicians this was the chance to prove that they were better than the others, as they were able to muster more relief for their constituency.

I reached Kutchh on the 3rd of February. Since we were handling the relief operation for Kutchh as well as other affected areas in the State, collecting and mobilising resources, gathering human resources and setting some functional systems, it was necessary to assess the damage. There was hardly any communication link with Kutchh and we were just able to set up a ham radio connection between two control rooms, Bhuj and Ahmedabad.

The only disturbing complaints and literally angry shouts that we kept on listening from Bhuj on the ham radio was that there was no aid reaching the victims. We failed to understand these cries sitting in Ahmedabad, when right in front of our eyes the TV and News- papers were full of reports about the enormous aid that was rushing into the area. Perhaps it was the first time that both the airports of Bhuj and Ahmedabad were jammed with so much traffic.

Surajbari is the famous bridge built over the creek that joins Kutchh land with Saurashtra. With the earthquake, it has bent at several places. The first major entry point in Kutchh is the big village called Samakhiyali. The place was decorated with sign- boards of hundreds of organisations who had opened up relief operations. It was difficult to understand who was working for whom. Thousands of used clothes, intended as aid were heaped along the roadside and there were hardly any takers. I saw a poor woman tryinf to select something out of the heap and deciding ultimately not to take anything. It was perhaps the first time that the poor had some choice, but the quality of clothes that were dumped there was disturbing. Only those clothes were dumped that was not anymore needed by the donors. Food packets lay scattered on the road. No one checked whether they were hygienic anymore. As we passed along the roads I witnessed some relief operators, throwing at the victims used clothes and food packets, without recognising the recipients as human beings.

Immediately after we crossed Surajbari Bridge, the destruction was visible. Hardly any building in the vicinity could be found standing. The residents were still surrounding their debris awaiting heavy machines that could clear it up.

Contrary to Samakhiyali, Bhachau and Bhuj, the centres located on the main line, that were thronged by thousands of relief workers, tents of the aid agencies and the international donors, the interior areas of the region were practically empty. Now it was making a little sense as to the complaint of our colleagues in Bhuj that the aid was not reaching to the victims.

There is so much to report and write but as we are racing against all odds to reach primary relief aid to the victims, I will only summarise below to provide a glimpse of relief operations in the area.

The only wish that remains in my heart is that this tragedy will make us all rethink our own lives and make us more sensitive and respectful to nature.


  1. The District administration: My colleagues went to attend a meeting with the district collector with a view to better organise the relief operation. Another high -ranking official was sitting in the meeting. The meeting that lasted for three hours basically discussed the ways in which 9000 blankets can be distributed effectively. The first question that came to the mind was whether the officials were aware that the total affected are nearly 1.4 million and it required immense speed on their part to reach the relief.
  2. The political leadership: The rift between the chief minister and his cabinet minister hailing from the area is the talk of the town. It is evident that their attempts to settle scores with one another is taking its toll on the relief operations.
  3. The distribution of relief: There is a wide gap between the receipt of aid and its distribution. A known industrialist was complaining that the chartered plane load of relief material that he had dispatched immediately after the earthquake was not traceable. While there is no dispute to the fact that millions of dollars worth of aid has come to the area, the question remains as to where the same has gone.
  4. It is not difficult to understand. The following pattern of distribution can be found in the area.

    1. Political distribution: The responsibility for distribution of relief was handed over by the to the existing local political leadership, whose credibility is rather low. The state cannot control the distribution of aid as it is controlled by the political entities and bigwigs. The aid under this system will inevitably, hardly reach the poor or will reach too late.
    2. Distribution based on accessibility: Those areas which are located on the main line have captured practically everything that passed their way. The mobs of people could easily be seen to divert the aid to their own area. The organisations that came with aid from other areas were helpless in their attempts to ensure the equitable distribution of aid. This was due to their lack of knowledge of the area and partly their lack of perspective.
    3. Aid and the social-political-religious ideologies: The aid distribution has been influenced by the traits of ideology. Various caste groups have mobilised aid only for their castes. A Dalit group from Kheda, had an experience beyond belief, when they went with relief to Kutchh and found the high caste victims asking them to identify their caste status. The religious organisations or the organisations with religious ideology ensured that the aid went to their supporters. RSS therefore would not go to the Muslim areas and vice versa.
    4. Inhumanity in the garb of humanity: It is an established fact that much of the relief aid is getting diverted in the commercial market. There are people in the Bhuj area who although not affected have filled their big houses with the relief aid at the cost of victims. The state administration remains helpless even when it knows the flaws in the system.

    What has been more disturbing in the relief so far is that much less respect has been shown to the need of the dignity of victims.


  5. The relief needs of the area:
    1. Employment: Both the agricultural as well as industrial units are out of operation. The people of the villages which I visited near Anjar and Mundra informed me of the fact that due to the change in the water table, many of the water bores have failed and there is therefore no employment available from agricultural operations. On the other hand, the industrial units are still out of operation. Taking these two factors into consideration, there is a need to provide ration, enough to sustain the victims for at least for two months. To the most conservative estimates, the ration cost per family of five members for a period of two months will be around Rs.1100.
    2. Housing: Even where the houses have not collapsed totally, they are not anymore inhabitable for reasons of the cracks and continuing tremors. By the time housing becomes possible it is going to take months. The need therefore would be for the creation of temporary housing that can provide shelter for a period ranging from seven months to a year. To the most conservative estimates the cost per family for setting up temporary housing will be around Rs. 3000.
    3. Water and sanitation: One cannot avoid the sight of dirty piles of plastic that have been brought into the area in tons by the relief workers and tourists. An area that in any case faces acute shortage of drinking water, has now the added responsibility of providing the same to the thousands of visitors. In bigger towns, the situation has caused sanitation problems, increasing the danger of the epidemic. What is required are community based water storage systems that can ensure water supply free of epidemic dangers.
    4. Widows and orphans: The relief operation has taken away much attention to focus on the issue of widows and orphan children. The initiatives for adoption are far removed from any legal and security standards. The sensitivity of the state on the issue is questionable. An assessment needs to be made and a system of rehabilitation needs to be established.

    All these above are the relief measures. But the relief measures also have to build a design that the relief culminates into promoting establishment of normal life cycle. What has been more disturbing in the relief so far is that much less respect has been shown to the need of the dignity of victims. It has to be remembered that the victims should be treated as human beings with dignity who are desirous of setting their life cycles in a normal way. Ultimately, even relief ultimately has to have a development approach.

  6. The rehabilitation:
  7. The phase of relief, say a period of next two months shall be followed by the second phase, i.e. the rehabilitation. On the one hand the State who is constitutionally responsible does not come out with a plan of rehabilitation while on the other hand some industrial houses and the international organisations have assumed the responsibility for the rehabilitation, making thereby their own plan of action. From the view point of long term strategy, the following crucial factors need to be considered.

    1. Peoples leadership:
    2. It is perhaps the first time that we have come across many initiatives who clearly said that they do not wish to give their contribution to the government. They have rather shown willingness to work with voluntary organisations and peoples groups. This is indicative of the fact that those organisations that have been working at the grassroots for past many years have found public sanction. Therefore in the process of planning for rehabilitation, such groups and people have to become consultants. Rehabilitation is not limited only to the creation of structures, but involves rebuilding the communities. The victims have to design their own plan of rehabilitation.

    3. Need for equitable distribution of resources:
    4. The shock of natural calamities does not obliterate political realities. There are specific caste groups or religious minorities that will always suffer from more hardship as compared to other groups. These marginalised groups are in a less able to mobilise resources than others. The rehabilitation process therefore has to take into consideration the aspect of equity which can only be ensured by a strong social bias in the favour of the poor and socially oppressed.

    5. Need for a common approach:
    6. It is but natural that so many people across the board have shown willingness to join the process of both relief and rehabilitation. It has to be understood that the relief and rehabilitation can be counter- productive if not organised properly.

Having spent last 15 days intensively to respond to various aspects of the earthquake, the mind is filled with both sorrow and pain. On one hand you see the workers who themselves have been affected, engrossed in their social duties and on the other hand you see people trying to use the situation to fulfil their narrow ends. The earthquake in a way is a large challenge to humanity and social order.

The builders who are largely responsible for flouting construction rules thereby pushing so many innocent citizens to death are still at large. The authorities who in spite having the knowledge of such irregularities in implementation of laws, are also at large. And above all, the so-called religious organisations, which promote communal hatred even in the subject of distribution of relief aid, are far from being condemned.

But still there is one thing that I cannot get over. On the roadside of Ahmedabad highway, where debris of the high rise buildings was dumped, such cites were crowded by herds of people. They were the Indian citizens but poor. They were trying frantically to search the debris for anything of use that they could earn money from. They were picking wood pieces, iron roads etc. At one time the crowd got so large in the riverbed of Sabarmati where most of the debris was tipped, that the state had to deploy police to control the crowd.

The earthquake broke many myths. The largest among all is that India is a poor nation. The wealth that poured out to respond to the situation was enormous. If even a little of this wealth was distributed to the fellow citizens in normal times, where millions live in abject poverty whether there are earthquakes or not, India would be a different nation.

The only wish that remains in my heart is that this tragedy will make us all rethink our own lives and make us more sensitive and respectful to nature.

Martin Macwan: Martin is the Convenor of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights and the head of Navsarjan Trust, an organization in India's western state of Gujarat. A lawyer and activist from India who is working to dismantle India's hidden apartheid and create protections for its most vulnerable people, the Dalits.

Navsarjan works with Dalits, or untouchables in over 2,000 villages, providing services ranging from drinking water to legal advice and job training. Under Martin's leadership, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights has enlisted grassroots organizations in 14 Indian states and 11 countries to advocate on behalf of the 160 million Dalits who continue to suffer under India's hidden apartheid, living in segregated colonies, performing caste-based occupations, and suffering abuses or even death at the hands of the police and higher-caste groups protected by the state.