February 13, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Lavendru Mansingh, chief co-ordinator, relief work, Kutch

'The vision of Kutchis will recreate Kutch'

Lavendru Mansingh, 54, is unassuming, unlike many IAS officers in Gujarat. He is less wellknown than S Jagdeeshan -- Bhuj's relief commissioner -- who has a huge following in the state. He is also not half as flamboyant as elder brother, Foreign Secretary and India's ambassador to the US-designate, Lalit Mansingh.

A civil servant of the 1970 batch, Mansingh is chief co-ordinator of relief work in earthquake-ravaged Kutch. He is also known to be close to former BJP chief minister Suresh Mehta, currently the state industry minister and the MLA from Mandvi, Kutch.

In an interview with Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt --conducted in the badly damaged room of the collector's office -- he aggressively defended the state government's post-quake relief effort.

How did you begin this enormous task?

On the night of January 29, I was asked by the chief minister to rush to Bhuj and take over the entire relief and rehabilitation work. I said to myself, 'Oh, my God!' But then I thought this is the kind of work one is offered only once in a lifetime. If the state government is putting so much trust in me, I should take up the challenge. The trust is frightening. I had read the news reports narrating the extent of the damage. On the 30th morning, I went to Bhachau, I saw the town from a helicopter.
As the pilot took a circle, my heart sank. For a second, I asked what have I landed in? I was seeing virtually everything from above. I didn't know how to react. In the rural areas, you could see one or two structures, but nothing in Bhachau.

By the 30th, some makeshift arrangements were made for shelter. At that moment of time a young man from Bhachau gave me confidence. He had lost his father and wanted our help to rescue his father's body from the debris. He was not complaining. In spite of such a big personal loss he was talking to me without getting angry. That gave me hope.

Since that moment I haven't looked back. Now I don't have a minute to spare.

How big is your operation?

This is the biggest mobilisation of the army to aid civilians. The hero of Kargil, General Badhwar, is here. Massive deployment of para-military forces has taken place.
Right now the army has 20,000 personnel here. Another 15,000 are from the Central Industrial Security Force, the Rapid Action Force and other such agencies. The army's best medical men and engineers are here. They have specialised experts who know about debris removal. They came with their equipment. They wanted support. All the heavy equipment has been withdrawn from the major sites of India. Equipment worth Rs 250 crores is in Kutch.

It is massive mobilisation on a war scale. This is unprecedented. We have the help of the army, paramilitary forces, public works department, Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation, irrigation department, Gujarat road building and land developer department only to remove the debris.

More than 500 officers of the Baroda, Surat and Pune corporation work round the clock. Big contractors are here with heavy equipment. People who are building the Narmada dam are present in full strength.

We have cleaned up the roads. People can now reach their homes. We have cleared the access roads. The debris of multi-storeyed buildings is not cleared yet. All the dead bodies have not been taken out. Those narrow lanes, in which heavy equipment could not be taken, might have dead bodies.

We have decentralised work. Senior IAS officers are in charge of the cities. They directly report to me. We have detailed discussions twice a day. There are two things that are in great demand -- heavy equipment and tents.
I am here to strengthen the system which had collapsed. My focus was clear. I wanted the system to function. What we did was to put all the (government) departments on track. Things were, of course, chaotic, we took the help of anybody and everybody who could be of any help. We felt confident on the sixth day, when civil supplies started reaching the villages.

Let me assure you I have a daily briefing from the police chief. We have investigated each and every rumour. There was no major law and order problem. The looting of relief supplies has been blown up (out of proportion).

People complained about incidents of looting in Bhuj. Some stuff got stolen in the first three days, but that was from broken godowns. Sugar and rice. We have already taken action against them.

These allegations hurt us. In Bhachau a police officer was with me, his own home collapsed. Still he was on duty. He had been on duty for 36 hours. His family was shivering in the cold.

In another case I was informed about a policeman who had worked for more than 40 hours without any break. His story is interesting. On January 26, this guy, on top of the hill near Bhuj, handled the only police phone that was working. From the top he could see his city in shambles, but he didn't rush down to check his family's whereabouts.

Does the media care to report about him? Had he deserted his duty, imagine the chaos? Only one FIR has been registered -- the looting of a jewellery shop, that too against the neighbour.

Bhuj airport is manned by the air force. It is not equipped to handle such heavy traffic. Even in a major war you don't mobilise in such proportions. Every day 50 to 100 aircraft landed here. Logistics were a problem in the beginning. Many NGOs took away lots of material because it came for them. Lots of other stuff was taken away in a private truck. I stopped that. Now, it is going through proper channels.

Is it true that government employees and troops took away relief material?

Even now, lots of government employees are without tents. Tell me which other country will ignore the demands of its workforce? Let us take a round of the city, I will show you many policemen and revenue staffers sleeping in the open.

What have been your priorities?

They are changing. First, we wanted to save people. Then, remove the debris to pull out dead bodies. Then clearing the roads so that people could reach their homes to save whatever little was left.

Our co-ordination with the army is excellent. They have helped people in various ways. They ran kitchens, developed a rapport with the villagers, distributed relief material, helped in setting up tents. Lots of things came from the army headquarters in Jodhpur. They were working in the dust, under slabs and fallen walls. Quite dangerous conditions.

I asked an army engineer, Brigadier Krishna, about their task. He took me around Bhuj and said, "It's shocking. I have never seen anything like this." And he has fought in the 1971 war, also served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka.

There is debris everywhere. In spite of the bad press coverage, we have restored civil supplies, water, electricity and phones. There is a strict vigil on health conditions. No epidemic has been reported. That is a major achievement.

You should know that 4,000 people were flown out of Kutch. The army did a great job. We are on the top of the situation, but as we cross one challenge, the next challenge looks bigger than the last one. The rescue and immediate relief work is over. But now our assets -- banks, hospitals, schools and post offices -- have to be in place. When the paan shops open here, that will give us strength!

What is your daily schedule like?

Oh, this room is dangerous... it can collapse anytime. It's a border district. I receive calls endlessly -- from the Prime Minister's Office, the Cabinet secretary, ministers, state chief secretary. There are video conferences every day. I have a hotline with the state control room. If I want something I just pick up a phone and ask for it. I have powers (equivalent) to a cabinet minister. I can order goods worth Rs 100 crores in a day.

When I came here I didn't get a piece of paper to write down my list. But now the computers are working and money is not a problem. People think politicians or bureaucrats don't have a vision to recreate Kutch. It's not my vision that's required, I am a professional working here. It is the vision of the Kutchis and their enterprise that will recreate Kutch.

I have a mandate to co-ordinate the relief work. I don't know whether I'll be here at the time of rehabilitation. I have to shape people's vision of their homeland. I can deliver. Gujarat is, after all, the post-globalisation face of India.

What do you want from people who are ready to assist?

Right now we need tents. We need 1.5 lakh tents and only 40,000 have been distributed. Later, we need technology. Help in town planning and building technology.

Isn't this giant exercise scary?

I can't afford that luxury at this point of time. My nature is such, I am always positive. Today, have you seen people crying on the street? Kutchis are different -- they do not give up easily. Chai-paan, beedi shops are opening, that's a sure sign of normalcy.

Design: Lynette Menezes

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