It has been four days since the earth shook in Gujarat, changing forever the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Dr. Sowmya and I are on our way to Ahmedabad to find out how we can help. Other volunteers keep vigil in Chennai, awaiting our report. Two days of frantic phone calls have lead us to Janpath Citizens Initiative, a coalition of 200 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which is the focal point of all relief operations. On the plane, we read headlines about how the state administration is in complete chaos and how relief is not reaching interior villages. There are numerous stories about aid pouring in, rescue teams, and the RSS, but no mention of NGOs.

It is late evening when we arrive at the control room (normally the offices of Janvikas, the largest member of Janpath), which is surprisingly quiet. For a moment, we think that everyone has gone home after another exhausting day of reacting to the still-unfolding tragedy. Manjula and Nupur, who are handling the phones, assure us that everyone will be back. (Manjula works for Navsarjan Trust,whose focus is empowerment of dalits. She tells us how even lawyers working for their cause aren’t beyond prejudice, leading to a rule that any one wishing to help them must drink a glass of water in their office.)

It is well past midnight when the office comes alive with people: “Anyone hear from Sushma?” “Are the HAM people here?” “How many trucks left for Bhuj today?” One group is discussing the Defense Minister’s statement about the number of deaths, while another is worried about the shortage of tents. “Gagan bhai, there is no money in the bank,” someone interrupts anxiously. “The Ford proposal has to go out tonight.”

The HAM people from Bangalore go into a huddle. They decide to install one radio at the Control Room and another at Abhiyan’scampus in Bhuj. (Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan is a coalition of 14 grassroots NGOs, formed by Sushma and Sandeep, in the wake of the devastating cyclone in 1998. Until two days after the quake, no one knew if this husband and wife team was alive.) Work begins in the wee hours of the morning. Next day, Dr. Sowmya witnesses several volunteers burst into tears at the first live conversation with Sushma.

Finally, it’s our turn with Martin bhai. We explain that we are acting as an advance team for Apollo Hospital, Chennai. (How we got into this self-appointed role is another story.) A call on his mobile, and I am talking to Dr. Barghav, who has just returned from a 48-hour tour of the affected areas. He tells us that emergency care, for the most part, has been given. “We can definitely expect post-surgery infections. But, Doctor [sic] Rajagopal, please don’t expect patients to line up. You need to go looking for them.”

It is 2 a.m. when we reach the guesthouse provided to us by a local company. As we enter the compound, we see everyone sleeping in the open, or in car parks where large cracks are visible. Sunil and Ramesh have been expecting us on the third floor—it seems that we are the only ones foolish enough to retire on an upper floor tonight. Ramesh describes how people had just started to move back into the building the previous day, when another major tremor triggered a stampede down the stairs. Sunil hints that he would rather be with his family tonight, in his village in Rajasthan.

Next morning, the neighborhood looks deceptively normal, with men emerging from their homes in silk dhotis and bare feet, on their way to temples. We stop by at Gantar (also a member of Janpath) which normally focuses on children’s issues, and is now active in providing relief. Dr. Barghav meets us there to decide where to send the Apollo doctors. We settle on the town of Morvi–far enough from the devastation to find a decent building, and yet close enough to transport patients from Kutch. Now it is up to us to convince “our” doctors from Chennai, whom we have never met!

Back at the Control Room, we walk into the daily morning coordination meeting, attended by several NGOs, IIM, Tata Institute, School of Social Work and so on. But no religious groups, and no government. To our surprise, someone is already announcing that the “Chennai Team” is going to Morvi. Volunteers are asked to spread the word.

As we watch the operations, we see little yellow signs with key contacts, locations and numbers adorning the notice boards. Soon, our names too go up there. There is a spreadsheet of supply needs, quantities promised and received. Volunteers are working several telephones around a small desk, often struggling to hear. The whole world seems to have decided to call in this morning. Several foreign agencies wait their turn to meet one of the “bhais.” Trucks are busy disgorging supplies on one side, while other trucks are busy loading supplies for Bhuj and other places. We see crutches, crates of mineral water, bamboo poles, tarps, medical supplies, and so on, lying in the yard. Old clothes are piled up in a corner. (In spite of numerous appeals, India is still collecting old clothes and the West is still sending denims and dresses for women who wear sarees and gagra/cholis. One need that no one remembers is fresh underclothes!)

As volunteers struggle to inventory mountains of gunny bags with no labels on them except the scribble “Gujarat Earthquake Relief,” we wonder how many precious hours might have been saved if only people had bothered to write the contents on their packages. We are told that the need of the hour in Bhuj is inventory management–no one knows precisely what is inside the mountain of boxes there.

I am off to the historic city of Morvi, the birthplace of Dayananda Saraswathi, founder of Arya Samaj. As I near the outskirts of the city, I begin to see the destruction, with crowds still loitering around collapsed buildings. (Contrary to earlier reports, a majority of the town is still intact.) To my surprise, dozens of chimneys thrusting into the sky from ceramic factories, appear unscathed. We see lines of “phut-phutties” headed in the opposite direction–an exodus is underway from Kutch. We are now on the bridge over river Manchhu. One lane of the bridge has simply peeled off into the river, while life goes on in the other lane—it is the only direct route from the south to Kutch. We then pass Darbargarh Palace, an ornately carved large red structure, built by the Maharaja of Morvi in the 1880’s. Demolition equipment hover ominously near this badly wounded monument.

As I near the city center, I ask myself what I am doing in the midst of a disaster, searching for an intact hospital! I strike out at my first stop, the Civil Hospital. This hospital has broken in three, and all the patients and doctors are out in the yard. No one injured, I am told, as everyone was celebrating Republic Day outside. I inform Dr. Acharya of my mission. “There is no need for any more doctors here,” he quickly retorts. He goes on to proudly describe their work in the previous 72 hours: 180 bodies processed, 500 patients treated, and 200 discharged. “See my discharge records? The number of patients is going down.”

I am truly impressed, but disappointed all the same. (Shouldn’t I be happy that the situation is better than I thought?) I then walk down to a small private hospital nearby, a nice one-story building with no signs of damage. Mission explained, the trustees respond enthusiastically: “The Apollo team is more than welcome here.” (Days later, Apollo doctors report that they have successfully performed numerous surgeries at Morvi, and are returning to Chennai after passing the baton to another medical team. Janpath’s decision with regard to the Apollo team had been right on. Whoever said there was lack of coordination in the field?)

Next evening, there is a remarkable meeting. A week after the disaster, the Government of Gujarat has finally discovered the exemplary work of Janpath, and has sent its emissary, the Secretary of Education, to “coordinate” with them. Volunteers politely summarize their areas of concern and how the government can help. “We need a quick survey of each district,” Dr. Iyengar of the Gujarat Institute for Developmental Research pleads. “We know what we are doing, but we have no idea what the government and international agencies are doing.” Another volunteer cites the example of a recent government health survey, which was being kept confidential. The Secretary does not directly respond to the concerns expressed, but instead lectures on how things ought to be done. And, could the NGOs please keep the government informed about what they are doing so “we can coordinate better?”

(Mercifully, I get a vastly different picture of government interaction with NGOs in Bhuj. Mr. Anil Mukim, the new Collector of Kutch, is at the daily Abhiyan coordination meetings, also attended by other donor agencies, and even some religious groups. We are told that he is a good listener and takes recommendations seriously.)

As the nation continues to ship lots of cooked food to Gujarat (one lakh chappathis from Tiruchi, 5,000 puris from Bangalore, and so on), Martin bhai is working on a bold new initiative. What people want most of all is to get back to some semblance of normality, so they can begin to think of their future. Why not give each family enough rations to last a whole month? Soon, the Ration Kit Initiative is broadcast to the whole world via e-mail. Organizations respond quickly to the initiative, and 40,000 ration kits are delivered to needy families within a week, at a cost of roughly Rs. 2.2 crores. Chennai comes through with 1,000 kits. (As I write, we are beginning to get return post cards from families who actually received these rations kits!)

Amidst all the jokes and smiles, we can sense crisis after crisis brewing in the Control Room. Only two of ten trucks dispatched the previous day have managed to reach Bhuj. This, on a day when rumors are rife about certain groups hijacking supply trucks to their own camps. Then there are exorbitant demands by truck owners, and the underlying fear that drivers might offload supplies along the highway and run.

During a break, I ask some of the NGOs how the relief operations have gone so far, and how NRIs can constructively help in long term rehabilitation efforts.

Martin bhai carefully separates “political” relief from “real” relief. The former’s limited objective is to give a good name for politicians, with suitable headlines. The real relief, in his opinion, has only just begun. NRIs, he feels, they have the clout to bring pressure on the government to account for the huge amounts of aid that has been received. As for lessons learned, this disaster has confirmed in his mind once and for all that India is not a poor country.

Binoy Acharya of UNNATI, which normally focuses on education and research, talks passionately against hasty decisions to relocate villages. He cites his recent encounter with an orphaned child pleading to be left in his own village. He also decries the rush to “adopt” villages, which to him is at worst a headline grabbing exercise, or at best well-intentioned idea condescending to the villagers. “We need to rebuild communities, not buildings,” he says. (Abhiyan’s shelter policy recommendation submitted to the Collector pleads for long-term partnerships with local NGOs, “who can play a facilitative role in setting up village committees who would become vehicles for community participation in the planning, design and re-construction.”)

February 16th. Geetha and I are finally in Bhuj. We drive past heart-wrenching scenes of devastation shown over and over in television reports. Yet, seeing it in person, and wondering if there are still people under all that rubble, is emotionally draining. As we drive into theAbhiyan campus, I am disappointed at first—old tents and tarpaulins hastily put together inside a dusty, basketball-sized park. Toilets are simply one corner of the park, set off by cloth screens–no pits, no chemical toilets, and no water. “Where are all those sophisticated shelters donated by international agencies?” I ask myself. The answer comes soon enough, as we absorb the scene: it is not how things look, but the spirit of the volunteers here, many of whom have lost their friends or relatives in the quake, and yet have been attending to the survivors day after day. The look of their campus has not been their highest priority.

As we wait for Sushma, we talk to Krishna, who was near Bhuj on January 26th training people on earthquake resistant dwellings! Fortunately, he was outside when the quake hit. Krishna is now back in Bhuj working on Abhiyan’s shelter policy, calling for simple earthquake resistant homes, which the villagers can build with local material and labor. Keeping local labor employed in this disaster-prone area is a very high priority.

Gagan bhai bemoans all the wastage involved in relief operations. Perhaps unavoidable, he admits. How else do you strike a balance between the massive expression of love and care by Indians everywhere, versus a clinical way of managing disasters, like cordoning of the entire area? As for NRIs’ role, he counsels patience: “The Hindu tradition calls for the fire to be lit on the 12th day of mourning, to allow the family to get back to normal. Let us allow some time for the people of Gujarat to pick up where they left off. Please don’t bury them with your showers of love and care too soon.”

Finally, we get to meet the lady with the aura–Sushma Iyengar. “One way or another, government agencies will come through with reconstruction aid,” she says. “But reestablishing livelihood security is another matter.” She feels that the NRI community can make a huge impact by supporting village level rehabilitation funds. She also feels that we can play a catalytic role in the creation of a national disaster management network of NGOs and other institutions. (“Let us not wait for the government to take the lead,” she says.)

On our way back from Bhuj we talk to SEWA (Self-employed Women’s Association) in Ahmedabad. Mirai Chatterjee explains that they are not an NGO in the traditional sense, but a membership organization, serving 60,000 women in Surendranagar, Kutch and Banaskantha. Their members are typically artisans, salt pan workers and laborers. Even though fatalities among their members were minimal, loss of property and livelihood has been devastating. Artisans have lost their material and tools…and the market. Salt workers have lost their pans.

SEWA

What a remarkable three-weeks this has been! As we travel back to California, all we think of are the heroes of Gujarat.

We think of the elderly man buried up to his neck in a collapsed apartment building in Ahmedabad. As neighbors rushed to dig out him out with their bare hands, he refused help, asking them to go save people younger than himself.

We think of the man in his

lungie in Pugalur, Tamilnadu, who saw a company bus collecting supplies for Gujarat. He not only offered them the sack of coins he had saved but also offered the bag of rice in his hut. This old man reportedly even carried the bag of rice to the bus.

We think of Raju bhai, who made banners for our relief trucks. A B.Com. graduate, he had moved into painting signs, an art he enjoyed. “How much per banner?” I had asked. “For this holy cause uncle, jo marzi.” When I gave his full fee he flatly refused, returning a hundred rupee note! Raju bhai was on a sixth floor apartment when the quake hit. His first thought was to run up to the roof so “I would fall on top of the building, unhurt.” His next thought was to jump out of the window as far as possible so he would not be in the way of the falling building. “What did you finally do?” I had asked. “I ran down the stairs, like everyone else.” Thanks to his presence of mind, he was still around to paint my banners.

And, finally, we think of all the wonderful and dedicated volunteers who have been working non-stop since the quake to help the survivors with no personal expectations whatsoever. These NGOs were there in Gujarat long before this disaster. They were there for the victims in the immediate aftermath. And they will be there years from now helping rebuild damaged communities. The question for the rest of us is: “Will we be there for them?”

Raju Rajagopal is an executive member of the Indians For Collective Action, a Bay Area non-profit organization dedicated to supporting grass roots development projects in India.

has already moved from a relief phase to a rehabilitation phase by giving free supply of craft material to its members. They are now focusing on getting classes restarted in tents for 2,000 children, “who are playing on mountains of debris, with no direction whatsoever.” She feels that NRIs can help in marketing their handicrafts on an emergency basis, or by supporting salt workers who need loans of up to Rs. 30,000 per pan to rebuild. She concludes with a moving story of how women in their villages received them with tears of joy that city people were OK. Having seen TV footage of high-rise building collapsing in Ahmedabad, their own loss of property seemed less important to them than the welfare of their friends.

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