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February 5, 2001
T V R Shenoy
It's sloth once again
There is a new industry in Gujarat, a quip I heard recently goes, and it is called 'earthquake tourism.' Like most sardonic remarks, there is just enough truth in this to bite. But how true is it of the big picture?
First, what exactly is 'earthquake tourism?' I am sure you have seen it all -- the helicopters descending from the skies bearing VIPs, the vans with colourful banners reading 'Earthquake Relief,' and all the rest. They flit into Gujarat just long enough to be caught for the cameras, and then move off again.
So yes, the 'tourists' aren't of much use. That said, are they really the problem that they are made out to be? Don't the authorities have other things on their minds just now? In fact, some unkind souls may even suggest that talking of 'earthquake tourism' is a red herring.
The truth is that the media has been amazingly ungrudging in its coverage of the cataclysm that hit Gujarat. Every journalist has praised the fortitude of the victims and the generosity with which luckier Gujaratis responded. They have remarked on the speed with which Gujaratis have rebounded from the cataclysm, comparing it to the passivity of victims elsewhere, as for instance in the aftermath of the super-cyclone in Orissa. (The Ahmedabad Stock Exchange was functioning almost as soon as the usual weekend break was over!)
The media was also more than fair about the manner in which several non-governmental organisations responded. Even the rabidly 'secular' elements handsomely admitted that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were among the first on the spot in the most ravaged areas of Kutch. In many spots, they had a well-oiled relief machinery in place long before the officials could react.
Praise has also been given in ample measure to the federal agencies -- the railways, the communications agencies, and, above all, to the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. It should not be forgotten, by the way, that they shared the tragedy in more ways than one; at least 125 airmen and their family members, died in the earthquake when it struck Bhuj.
Finally, corporate India too responded magnificently. Gujarat is the second most industrialised state in India, home to several firms. All of them -- from giants such as Reliance, Essar, and Nirma to the individual diamond merchants of Surat -- came up to scratch. Between them, they have already begun the long process of setting their fellow Gujaratis back on their feet.
But there are two elements who have been universally panned for their relative sloth and inefficiency. The first group is the administrative machinery in Gujarat, and the second is the builders' lobby.
The anger at the builders is self-explanatory. They ignored building codes that went back almost thirty years. It is an absurdity to say that buildings cannot withstand a quake of the magnitude that hit Gujarat. Old buildings, constructed in the traditional manner, survived perfectly well.
The Sidi Sayid Mosque in Ahmedabad is famous for its 'Shaking Towers', minarets so finely built that a single man can make them reverberate; but even the quake could not bring them down. Mahatma Gandhi's birthplace in Porbandar is at least a 130 years old; yet it escaped with a few cracks. The factories of the firms mentioned above got off unscathed, or nearly so. Why then did so many apartment complexes come tumbling down?
Sadly, I do not think anyone shall be brought to book for what happened. To take a somewhat parallel case, over fifty people died in a devastating fire in a cinema theatre in Delhi five years ago. To date, not a single person has been sentenced for the Uphaar tragedy. If that can happen in the capital of the country, who shall hunt down people for violating building codes across the length and breadth of Gujarat. (I should point out that the state is about the size of Switzerland, slightly larger I believe.)
If that is what happens -- and I am fairly sure that it shall be so -- put it down as yet another instance of an administrative malaise that appears to have affected Gujarat. Every independent observer who has visited Gujarat has commented on the slowness with which the official machinery reacted.
Officials were unacceptably slow, especially those in the badly affected districts. I find it hard to believe, but it seems that it took all of seventeen hours for Gandhinagar and Bhuj to establish contact. (May I point out that it took a quarter of that time for Tokyo to ascertain what had happened in Hiroshima!)
It is particularly unacceptable given that Gujarat is the one state that should have been on its toes when handling an unexpected natural calamity. Why? Because in the last three or four years, it has had more than its fair share -- the storm that hit Kandla, the floods in Ahmedabad, and so on. State authorities say that there is no more money for relief measures because everything was used in the drought that hit the state last year. Fine, but surely that does not explain why, for instance, the special satellite phones' batteries were not charged regularly!
There is only so much that other organisations, even the Indian Army, can do on their own. Where, for instance, would a non-governmental organisation find cranes and earth-moving equipment? Yes, there were some at Kandla, but commandeering them and taking them to the hinterland were the bureaucracy's responsibility.
Given the magnitude of the earthquake and the shoddy construction methods used in many places, it was inevitable the death-toll would be in the thousands. But the uneasy thought exists that at least some lives could have been saved had the official machinery been a little more efficient.
"Earthquake tourists?" Yes, there are many. But be careful, gentlemen, that angry survivors don't throw the same phrase in your face.
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