Reading the Lancet  editorial  on aid agencies and quake-hit Haiti, took me back to my visit to quake-hit Bhuj in Gujarat in 2001. The story I filed for the Sunday Business Post, an Irish newspaper, is reproduced below.

 

Sunday, June 03, 2001
By Patralekha Chatterjee

Behind Bhid Gate, one of the entrances to the old quarter of the Indian town of Bhuj, Gujarat, a boy is rummaging through a pile of rubble that was once his home.

Suddenly, his eyes widen as he spots his frayed satchel. A few yards away, a woman steps out of a tent pitched on the edges of the debris and calls out to the boy, her student until the massive earthquake of January 26 levelled the school. The teacher has just found a tambourine and a tin box filled with broken bits of chalk.

The earthquake, which peaked at 7.9 on the Richter scale, killed more than 20,000 people. Long after the relief workers and visiting journalists have packed their bags and left for home, the survivors are still waiting for a permanent roof over their heads.

The Gujarat government has finally unveiled a reconstruction package of permanent houses for 44,805 families in the worst affected towns.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that many people may have to brave two scorching summers and chilly winters before houses are built for them. The population of Gujarat is about 50 million and about 16 million have been affected by the earthquake.

Before the earthquake, poor Moslems and low caste Hindus resided cheek by jowl in the small settlement of Sarayawada Matam. Now, most inhabitants have moved out, leaving only 40 families still living amid the dust.

“We are the unlucky ones. My brother has knocked on the doors of so many agencies for one of those sturdy tents. Everyone takes down names, addresses and says, `Don’t worry, we will come’. But none did,” says the local teacher, Gunavanti Behn.

Aid has poured into Gujarat from around the world. Those who have reached for their cheque books, or persuaded others to do so, include Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, the Aga Khan, the Australian cricket team and various Bollywood icons.

Soon after the quake, a battalion of aid personnel and their locally-hired assistants fanned out across Kutch, the worst affected region in the state, trying to identify the `real needy’.

“But they passed us by,” says Behn’s mother. “Before the quake, there were only two flights a day. After the quake, we saw many planes. Everyone said they were relief flights. But where is the relief? The first month, we got Rs2,000 (US$43) from the Revenue department. Nothing after that.”

Everywhere the refrain is the same. Victims say they have not been consulted about what they need most. Today, there are desperate and homeless people who are still waiting for the basics, while those with the right connections have bagged the lion’s share.

“No one was in charge during a critical period,” says Navin Joshi, a reporter with Kutch Mitra, a popular local daily.

“Many relief teams who came to help were well-intentioned but clueless. With no one to guide them, they did not have the foggiest idea where to distribute their material. Relief truck after relief truck would dump stuff.”

Joshi’s own search for a tent after his house collapsed led him on an investigative trail which eventually spurred reports of massive misappropriation of relief material.

“I went to the Revenue department to get a tent. I was told to come back at noon. Meanwhile I discovered that tents were coming in on the relief flights that morning,” he says. He went to the aerodrome but could not get inside. “I did not have an ID card. I had not shaved.”

He wandered around for the whole day. At a little past midnight, a local government official came to see him.

“I was sleeping out in the open near my brother’s place. This man said he had heard I was a trekker and figured that I would know how to erect a tent . . .”

Joshi says he spent the whole night teaching various government officials how to fix tents and at 3.30am was rewarded for his services with one of his own.

A few government officials have been arrested for stashing away relief material which were meant for victims of the earthquake such as tents, solar lanterns, milk powder, food packets and bed sheets. But it is hard to gauge the extent of the leakage.

Sadder still, though, while many offered help during the rescue and relief phase, few organisations have stayed for the long haul.

Today, the primary concern is shelter. Some quake-resistant structures have been erected near Bhuj as showcases. These belong to the fortunate few. Those lucky to be assessed as the “real needy” by international agencies such as the Red Cross or Caritas have received tents or tarpaulin sheets.

The rest sweat inside tin sheds, distributed by government agencies. Officials realised only too late that a tin hut in summer wasn’t everyone’s idea of shelter.

Many, like the residents of Avadhanagar, still hope for a slice of the aid pie.

“I saw a truck of 140 tents being loaded into the panchayat (village council) building. In the night they disappeared. We are low castes, no one listens to us,” says Manubhai, a weaver. His wife, Jamu Behn, wonders if the patchwork shelter they made out of bedsheets and tarpaulin will protect their two-month-old baby if it rains.

Relief agencies say there are limits to largesse and, given the magnitude of the disaster, it is tough to be fair to all.

Martin De Vries, relief coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), says his agency had a simple formula for the distribution of aid.

“If a village is more than 50 per cent destroyed, then everyone there gets assistance. We gave 300,000 people, almost 60,000 families, blankets and tarpaulin sheets.”

Much of the humanitarian assistance to Gujarat has been helpful. But a lot has also been irrelevant.

Dr Shyam Sunder, who heads Group 2001, a citizens’ group lobbying for a better deal for earthquake victims, says there was haphazard distribution of relief material in the first week after the disaster.

During the first three days, glucose bottles were desperately in demand. But virtually none were available. “Instead, we received lots of anti-cough and anti-cold preparations. Again, when we needed orthopaedic surgeons and anaesthetists, we got paediatricians, ophthalmologists, psychiatrists,” says Sunder.

But even amid so much chaos and despondency, some agencies are helping survivors pick up the threads of their lives.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is helping out in the design of quake-resistant houses in partnership with local communities, non-government organisations and the government. The IFRC’s emergency appeal for cash/kind services has resulted in several emergency response units such as the 350-bed referral hospital in Bhuj, set up by the Norwegian/Finnish Red Cross. UNICEF is assisting with creches and playschools for traumatised children.

Praveen Pardesi, UNDP’s point man in Kutch puts it crisply: “International agencies do useful work whenever they are backed by organisational structures.”

Aid-givers come and go but disaster victims have to live with the realities of relief. Now, as the season of floods and cyclones approaches, the victims of the January earthquake, their basic needs still not met, can only wait and hope.

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