By now, I’m sure you’ve seen and heard enough about the destruction to life and property in Gujarat. I don’t want to tell you about it all over again; for various reasons, I think that is a futile exercise. But I know that what happened there is on a lot of minds: I just read some news about plans for a rally in Washington D.C. to urge the U.S. to release $100 million in emergency aid for quake victims. So what I would like to do is tell you some of what I saw during a week in quake-hit Kutch, and then some thoughts about the way we respond to calamities.

First, banners are everywhere. Every truck carrying relief material also sported a banner identifying the organization responsible; so did every camp of volunteers. On some crumpled building walls in Samkhiali, we read signs saying Zee Network had “adopted” the town for “complete rehabilitation.” Naturally, the signs had been painted only on the side that faced the highway. The banners told an inspiring story of the wide cross section of India that had come to help Gujarat. They also told me that some of the most industrious people in India after the quake were the painters of signs.

Second, the way some relief material is being distributed. In Shikarpur, a Delhi team was simply tossing old clothes off a truck into a pathetic sea of reaching hands. In Bhachau, another truck drove down the highway tossing biscuit packets off, as people raced behind reaching for the packets, fighting over them. Must we treat people, even earthquake victims, this way?

Third, even well-meaning people were sometimes unaware of the magnitude of the task they had undertaken. Some traders from Delhi came to Toraniya, where we had camped, to feed the villagers free meals for a week. To start with, it wasn’t even clear that the villagers needed, or wanted, free food. Still, the traders got going with much enthusiasm. After two meals—lunch and dinner, that first day—they had run out of steam. The next morning, they lined up the villagers, distributed their vegetables and oil and vessels, got into their Toyota Qualis, and left. I couldn’t help wondering, even while appreciating their spirit, what good they had done.

Fourth, a lot of teams wander aimlessly, looking for somewhere to unload their material. They have no idea who, in which village, needs what kind of material. When you enter Samkhiali, you must stop at a Gujarat Government post to give the officials your truck number, your organization and the material you have brought. It would be logical for them to then direct you to where your material is most needed. Instead, you are on your own, left to wander where you will. The post did not even have maps. No wonder villages near the main roads get an abundance of help. No wonder remote ones are neglected. No wonder teams wander aimlessly.

Fifth, the kind of material that comes as relief. Old clothes arrive in truckloads, but are flung aside all over the area. For whatever reason, few people seem to want them. One team had brought a truck full ofshankarpale, a popular snack. Nobody seemed to want that either, so they dumped half their load on us. Why do people send this stuff?

Sixth, the attitude of “helping” the victims, as opposed to getting them to help themselves. In one village, a holy man’s followers were erecting tents for the villagers, but refused to let the villagers help. Kindly but firmly, they were telling those who offered: We have come to serve you, so please just sit while we work for you. Is it right to help in this way?

Seeing all this, I began to wonder what this business of relief is all about. Should it be so haphazard? So patronizing? So inappropriate? So thoughtless? And yet, I ask these questions very hesitantly—because so many people do so much out of the goodness of their hearts, the sheer desire to help. I don’t mean to scorn that at all. But with that desire, perhaps we should ask how we can best help. Is it via what we conventionally perceive as relief? Is this attitude of relief really helping the victims?

When I think along these lines, I remember a remarkable Texan called Fred Cuny. A sort of self-made disaster-relief expert, Cuny would have resisted that description itself. Relief, at least as he saw it happen after disasters in Turkey, Bosnia, Guatemala, and elsewhere, disgusted him. In his experience, rushing in material and personnel only created more problems in the disaster area: inappropriate material, logistical nightmares and a population that grows to depend on handouts.

All of which, in one form or another, is on display in Gujarat. And for that matter, in Orissa after the 1999 cyclone.

Cuny was killed in 1995 while on a mission in the vicious Chechnya war. I’d like to offer just a flavor of his thinking here, in memory of a truly original thinker.

Cuny once wrote: “For the survivors of a natural disaster, a second disaster may also be looming.” He meant relief. After a 1976 quake in Guatemala, blankets began arriving by the planeload. But in a country where blanket making is a major part of the economy, the shipments immediately bankrupted many weavers. In another case, a shipment of instant mashed potatoes left locals bewildered. They used it as detergent. Food shipments often worked only to impoverish farmers in neighboring areas. But take Sarajevo in the early ’90s: with food supplies vulnerable to a Serb blockade, Cuny started a seed-distribution program. Desperate and hungry residents could then grow vegetables and fruits in their backyards or terraces. Cuny also fumed over how operations died out after a few weeks, often leaving victims worse off than if there had been no relief.

The point is, you have to understand local conditions after a disaster, for that will direct how relief proceeds. And you have to be prepared for the long term.

And I believe his most important insight was about the entire attitude of relief, of responding to tragedy. In fact, Cuny thought disasters must not be viewed as tragedies, for that helps no one. Far better to just get on with the job, to see them as opportunities. And the opportunities are everywhere: in rebuilding homes, in fixing water sources, in giving the most deprived people—always the worst hit—new voice and strength. The opportunity is in how you can mould a society anew.

Far more than $100 million from the U.S., far more than material, I believe Gujarat needs this sort of thinking. I am even more convinced of it after my return from there. Whether it is getting such thinking, I don’t know.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Mumbri. His main interests are social and political issues in India.


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