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They fell dead celebrating...
By Syed Iftikhar Ahmed

In the event of a natural disaster like the earthquake, rescue, relief and rehabilitation works are to be carried out instantaneously, without delay. The Gujarat government – there is ample testimony to it, has failed on all the three R’s even after a month of the gigantic tragedy that hit the state on the Republic Day.

Could you count the numbers trapped under the tonnes of rubble, who could not be saved in time, not because it was too late for the trapped but too late for the decrepit administration to come out of passivity. Even as equivalent of tonnes of H-bomb energy was released it failed to activate these somnolent bureaucrats.

There are any number of stories telling how after hours, nay days of being trapped under the heaps of mingled concrete, twisted steel bars and fallen masonry precious lives of selected few were saved by foreign rescue teams. They were delayed for as many as 36 hours at Ahmedabad. Much more lives could have been saved had the local administration risen to the occasion is anybody’s guess.

As one enters the vicinity of Bhuj, 25 Kms away from the epicenter at Lodai village, a flourishing city, stench from the decomposed body indicates that once a civilization was well alive there, engaged in making and shaping their destinies and of their off-springs. Today thousands of them lay still buried under the rubble, their dreams wiped out along with their bodies.

Not all the buildings have collapsed but not a single building is intact. The beautiful exteriors of ornamented buildings lined in rows and rows simply scare away their inhabitants those who built them for their own protection.

While Bhuj is the main attraction for the visitors to the Kutch region, there are villages remote and far away whose people had not seen a single government official to inquire of their agonies, tell the villagers, whose shelters have simply been destroyed, rendering them homeless and compelling them to brave the shivering cold.

Chipdakh is such a village where six people died and all the dwellings flattened. Five more villages fell under the Gram Panchayat of Chipdakh, others include Pakhwara, Gader, Saeedpur and Wawdi all of them meeting the similar fate, explains Majeed Bhai our escort in our unforgettable sojourn. Inhabitants here, are farm labourers, all of them having no land of their own. Always hand to mouth they had nothing to eat and feed their babes and no relief from the government has reached them. None is sure whether they will ever arrive.

Our team is led by Begum Rehana Undre an eminent social worker from Mumbai. Naseema Don a Mumbai based solicitor and a member of the entourage communicates in the local dialect as she belongs to these parts, even though born and brought up in Mumbai.

Anjar, a township till recently humming with business activity, is completely flattened with thousands of tonnes of debris still lay unattended. We walked through the narrow bi-lane where 400 students died while celebrating the Republic day. How many people perished? We ask one of the survivors. He could only guess so much and so much thousands but the figure furnished by such people is hard to fathom. The number swells to unbelievably high according to his own estimate. What is true is that Anjar is no more; so is Bachau, Rapar, Ratnal, Bharapur and of course Bhuj in terms of property and the list is endless. The whole of Kutch is devastated by the fury of killer quake. Not a single house is intact hence fit for rehabilitation. What else could the families do in such circumstance but to flee their houses.

As the darkness descends we reenter the Bhuj township only to witness flocks of scavenging dogs and pigs. People want to leave the township at the earliest. Everyone tries to move away to any direction lest the dead would hound, although no one would dare to face their dreary looks and staring eyes which they seemed to be afraid of.

We pass through multi storied buildings with not a single bulb lit in them. Thousands of lives were still buried under them, which could never be dug out. For a lethargic and indifferent state administration, it is simply impossible. It is only 7 in the evening, the entire city is deserted, one or two people - here and there, passing vehicles breaking the silence now and then. Some army Jawans still on rescue duty searching for life out of death or digging corpses out of debris. A fuel station, scarcely lit, is the only remnant of human activity, reminiscent of yesterdays.

Adipur, on the way, a small but flourishing town suffered the fury. Still most of the buildings remain intact. However no one of them fit to provide protection for which they were meant. We stop for a short while. Someone tells us there were not many deaths but a tragic story. No one visited this village till four days after the tragedy and that how four kids between 7-12 carried the body of their mother mounted on a cart as there was no one there to help them. The scene is horrifying even when narrated let alone witnessing with your eyes.

Another team led by Yusuf Nagani, a businessman from Mumbai having his roots in the Kutch region joins us along with Maulana Rafeeque, from Vadodra and 3-4 other persons. We decide to go to Taluk mamledars office to inquire things for ourselves apparently moved by the unparalleled devastation. The "Shasan" was sitting in their cushioned chairs with no signs of movement or aroused sentiments, gossiping and laughing over one point or the other. We are greeted with wrinkled face of the civil supplies official P.A. Maheshwari. How many villages affected? 59 out of 61. Have you visited any? None. Why? I am supposed to monitor the supplies. Have you released any kind of relief? Survey hasn’t been undertaken yet. What about stocks? 769 quintals of rice and as much pulses but no kerosene. When do you intend to? Through fair price shops on producing the ration cards. Do you suppose survivors would have been clinging to their ration cards for support while earth below them was shaking violently? Ask the block development officer next door. Upon this pandemonium prevails in his cabin. Everyone shouting at everyone else; no one is listening to anyone. The only unshakable existence was that of an officer on duty as though carved out of stone. J.J. Kataria, block development officer, sitting indifferently in his chair, tells us 55 people died, 9-10 villages affected. For 70-80 percent damage no FIRs are registered as yet. Mind you 15 days have passed. Government relief has not yet reached. NGOs doing the job. Compensation is not paid. Why? We have our own priorities. The worst affected areas are given top priority. We have not received any government orders to provide relief in this Tehsil. We have not communicated the plight of the villagers. Our phone is not working but on physical verification by an angry Yusuf Nagani Kataria's claim proved to be false. Phone was working both ways. Once again angry protests. Questions flow thick and fast. All of them are shouting and the official keeping mum. Then to the Chairman of the Panchayat Samiti, a public servant elected by the villagers Deepak Chothane. His only job was to evade all the questions. Non-committal on all the issues raised. He says 500 tents have been distributed. To whom? BJP workers. Are you discriminating on religious grounds? Shouts Begum Rehana Undre. Please have sympathy for everybody and don’t think about religion in these times of distress, pleads Naseema Don, the solicitor, only to fall on deaf ears. Once again pandemonium. The cabin is filled to the capacity. A BJP activist Thakker shouts at Chothane taking our side. Government has instructed to pay a lumps sum compensation to each family to the tune of Rs 2400 with a family of 3 and above. Not a single family has been paid, at least Muslims belonging to Mundra Taluqa, alleges the representatives of community. When are you going to compensate, demands Yusuf Nagani? We are having regular meetings, everything will be discussed replied the chairman – meeting, eating, disbursing. Later it transpired that Chothane belonged to the Congress Party while ZP member Mahesh Thakkar belonged to the BJP. He also informed us that community kitchens are started in Hindu localities. These localities are also provided with tents, all according to instructions from the government. He further claimed that two truck-loads of relief material arrived but the adamant Panchayat chief kept on denying. But in the face of angry protests and furnishing proofs by the local workers he admitted the fact, informing that 5000 kilos of wheat and pulses are stocked in the godowns. Even though schools have been closed till April 21 the Panchayat chief tells that school acharyas were provided with the tents for classes. Why then there are no schools? Mr Chothane remained tight-lipped.

While big towns and cities attracted all the visitors, NGOs and even government agencies, our emphasis was to highlight the plight of small villages and hamlets which for obvious reasons were ignored. Jadura is such a remote village situated far away from the main thoroughfares. This village is divided into two hamlets, one on each side of the road. Our escort Majeed Bhai explains that the entire village folk belong to Thiba clan; a non-Thiba cannot even think of teaching the village-folks, let alone settle there. 15 days have passed, neither any official visited this place nor any NGO passed by to inquire the woes of 600-strong inhabitants. They were fortunate enough not to witness loss of life, though property was all destroyed.

Relief operation from the government agencies is not visible anywhere. Had there been no NGOs and corporate houses, those who survived might as well have succumbed to injuries. This shows that in future NGOs might look after the welfare of public, while the government will confine itself to the Babus and politicians interests.

Royal Educational Society Borli Panchattan (Raigarh) under the leadership of its Chairperson Begum Rehana Undre is one such organization, which, without losing much time, went about to rescue the affected people. She coordinated the joint efforts of Human Relief International, UK Muslim Aid UK. Dr Jafar Qureshi of UK and Dr Shahid Siddique of California provided all the assistance required. In the crucial period she sent a team of doctors along with truckloads of medicine, blankets, food items and much more. Saleem Dawawala and Haneef Lakdawala helped her in mobilizing resources. She is personally supervising the relief operations alongwith her son Adil Parker, and Naseema Don who is helping her manage from the latter’s ancestral house at Mundra. Abu Asim Azmi of the Samajwadi Party was all praise for her strenuous efforts in providing relief. 

The author is a Mumbai-based
journalist and edits the Marathi-weekly Shodhan.

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