Gujarat tides over quake trauma, but preparedness holds the key

BHUJ: | Updated: Jan 22 2002, 05:30am hrs
It’s almost a year since one of the worst earthquakes hit Gujarat on January 26 leaving behind a trail of disaster and destruction. One can still witness heaps of rubble lying in urban and rural areas of Rajkot and Bhuj which bear testimony to the macabre dance of death and destruction in which thousands perished and many more lost their houses and livelihood. Yet, there is a hope. Rehabilitation and reconstruction will surely improve the lives of the people and ensure safer surroundings for those who saw their houses flattened by the unprecedented fury of nature.

About 7,40,000 houses
have been repaired
(7,07,800-73%) and
reconstructed (32,300-14%)
Training: Engineers 5,000,
Masons 24,000
Reconstruction of primary
schools is in progress
(1,400 classrooms co-
mpleted by NGOs and
1,000 class rooms are in
Repairs of about 7,000
buildings completed
The World Bank has estimated that cost of direct damage and reconstruction at Rs 8,389 crore. The housing sector alone would need Rs 2,534 crore and if one includes health and education, the cost goes up to Rs 3,652 crore. The requirement of the infrastructure sector was pegged at Rs 2,731 crore. The damage to industry and agriculture was estimated at Rs 1,299 crore. Environment and support structure would need more than Rs 700 crore.

These are, however, statistics which do not concern the villager who has lost is house. All he is interested in is financial support so that he can construct a new house, if possible a safer house that can withstand an earthquake of the intensity witnessed on the morning of January 26, 2001. The World Bank, which along with other multilateral agencies is pumping funds, has prompted the government of Gujarat to adopt an owner-driven approach to help villagers. As part of the scheme, the villages are given money for building new houses. Funds are released to individuals in three installments of 40 per cent, 40 per cent and 20 per cent. In addition, a host of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are working in Gujarat to ensure that villagers get their due as also technical assistance.

Identifying beneficiaries is not easy job. There are grievances, some genuine, and some not so genuine. According to M Sahu, additional chief executive officer of the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (GSDMA), nearly 75,000 people have some problem or the other with the state authorities. These pertain to cash doles, assessment of damage to houses, family disputes spilling over to claims for compensation etc.

Agreeing that it is difficult to satisfy everyone, Mr Sahu said that the government had set up a machinery to settle claim disputes. He said people could approach the Special Earthquake Cell of various district legal services authorities for redressal of their complaints. There are 22 such cells working in the quake-affected districts. Till January 1, 2002, these cells had received 39,236 complaints. Out of these, 36,590 applications have been disposed of.

Although the programme coordinator of Area Networking and Development Initiative (Anandi), Jahnvi Andharia, feels that the system of setting up a network of Special Earthquake Cell for redressal of grievances had not been very helpful to villagers in far-flung areas, there does not seem to an alternative to the grievance settlement machinery set up by the Gujarat government. The NGOs, on their part, are helping the villagers by acting as a bridge between the affected families and the government.

The act of giving doles are often accompanied by stories of corruption, and Gujarat is no exception. To some extent, the people are also to be blamed for trying to extract as much as possible from the government. A young mason, Okhabhai Devabhai Bhajania, who is in great demand in Zainabad Taluka of Surendranagar district, is earning Rs 200 per day against Rs 150 per day before the quake. Ironically, he has not yet repaired his own house which was slightly damaged during the quake. When asked why he had not repaired his house, the mason said: “I have applied for compensation and if I repair my house I will not get that.”

He is not the only one who is waiting for the government to clear the compensation claim. There are a whole lot of people in the queue wanting the government officials to assess the damage to their houses “generously” in the hope of getting a decent compensation. Also, there are others like Suabhai Benabhai, former Sarpanch of a relatively prosperous village of Khengapur, who complains of the government not releasing funds in time resulting in delay of completion of houses under construction. This remote village in Kutch is serviced by the Kutch Gramin Bank which has a staff of two. As the two-member branch has to service 14 villages like Khengapur, there is always a gap between the receipt of grants and disbursement of funds.

Construction of houses is not the only priority. The main thing, according to Rajendra Desai, from an NGO associated with National Centre for Peoples’ Action in Disaster Preparedness, is construction safe houses. The other priority is to retrofit the existing structures to make them safe. In addition, the biggest challenge was to prepare the community to face disasters, Mr Desai said. He said he was also trying to set up a disaster preparedness brigade for the purpose.

Although the houses being build by assistance from World Bank and other aid agencies will be completed in few months and people will move into their new dwellings, the critical task of weaving far-flung villages into a credible information network will continue. Setu, which means bridge, is being build with software from Tata Consultancy Services, to act as interface between the villages, NGOs and the state government. According to the UN Development Programme project officer, Rahul Sengupta, there will be 22 Setus covering 400 villages in quake-prone areas. The long-term development of the region and preparedness of the Gujarat government to deal with calamities like earthquake and cyclones will critically depend upon the effectiveness of these information Setus.

With life fast returning to normalcy, the only thing that the people and government of Gujarat have to guard against is complacency. This is necessary, as Mr Desai puts it, to preserve the lessons of Latur and Chamoli and contain the damage to life and property in case of an eventuality that strikes without notice.

(The travel for this story was sponsored by World Bank)