February 16, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel

The Rediff Interview/Gujarat Chief
Minister Keshubhai Patel
'We swung into action on the first day of the quake'

Life just cannot be easy for Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel. One look at the slightly red-rimmed eyes coupled with a patina of fatigue smothered all over his face and you know the man is under acute pressure.

Hounded by allegations (even from the BJP, his own party) that his government has failed in effectively disbursing relief supplies that have poured in, he is in a in a hurry to defend his administration. Patel contends, he stayed for a couple of minutes during the flag-hoisting ceremony on Republic Day in Gandhinagar but thereafter rushed to ensure that his officials were helping out in the affected areas.

After a press conference in New Delhi, to give his side of the story, Patel briefly spoke to Special Correspondent Tara Shankar Sahay on why the state government should not be singled out as the villain.

Why are so many allegations being levelled against you and the state government for making a hash of distributing relief supplies?

I am wondering at the injustice of it all. As I have told Prime Minister Vajpayeeji and other central leaders that my government swung into action on the first day itself (the morning of January 26). Epicentre ka pata lagte he maine yudh star pe rahat ka kaam shuru kar diya (I began relief work on a war-footing soon after I came to know where the epicentre was).

I appealed to the people to stay calm and help the state authorities. Mind you, we began our relief measures despite the total snap-down of all communication links.

On the first day itself, the state administration gave a food kit comprising 50 kg of flour, three kg potatoes, two kg onions and salt to each family in Gandhinagar and Bhuj. Potable water pipelines were repaired within four days. I sent the additional chief secretary of the state to Bhuj by helicopter to supervise the relief measures.

Do you know that Kutch district is larger than Haryana or even Kerala? Yet my state government officials worked round the clock despite the magnitude of the disaster.

There was dearth of heavy machinery in Kutch, but I mobilised resources and sent Rs 240 crores worth of cranes, earthmoving equipment, bulldozers, dumpers and the like to Kutch. By the seventh day, electricity had been restored in 850 of the 924 villages there. In eight days, 43,000 operations were carried out in makeshift tents and 1.55 lakh people were treated by doctors.

Within 15 days, the state government had submitted a four-package relief and reconstruction scheme to the central government. Therefore, I have faced criticism not because of lack of any effort on my or my government's part but because of a wide gap between perception and ground reality.

Why then hasn't your government initiated action against the builders (of new buildings which collapsed) when older buildings remained intact?

Your assumption is misplaced. We have already registered FIRs against 59 builders while six of them have been arrested. I have told the people of my state that the guilty will not be spared. However, in a democracy like ours, we have to exercise caution that innocent people do not get victimised just because unsubstantiated canards are being spread against them.

How many people have migrated from Gujarat in the wake of the earthquake?

There has been no migration from my state in the wake of the quake. Some people who left soon after January 26 have already returned. Agreed that such natural disasters leave the people traumatised, that is natural. But natural disasters come and go. Why should my people not return?

You have met the prime minister, the Union home minister and their senior Cabinet colleagues regarding central monetary aid. What has been their response?

They have all understood the magnitude of the Bhuj earthquake. Of course, they are sympathetic. Talks are still continuing between the Gujarat and central government officials to determine how much money is required to meet the situation. I must also add that the central crisis management group is aware of the situation. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj has also emphasised that after her tour of my state she is satisfied with our relief and rehabilitation measures.

Are the relief and rescue teams from foreign countries satisfied with the state government's efforts?

I think that the devastating Bhuj earthquake -- in seismic-prone zone four and five -- is now known to most people, including foreigners, to be the worst in Independent India. My state government, under the circumstances, has done its best and continues to do so.

I am happy to say that the quake-affected people have carried on with high spirits that can only be understood by those who have experienced such natural calamities. The 'Rebuild Gujarat' campaign by my government will be accomplished -- with determination, in a time-bound manner.

You still haven't clarified how new buildings in Gandhinagar and Bhuj collapsed like a pack of cards when the old building remained intact?

You should know that many of these buildings were constructed before my government assumed office. But as I have stressed, those found guilty cannot escape punishment.

Are you saying that your government was in no way involved in the construction of the buildings which collapsed?

Yes, these buildings were constructed before I assumed office as chief minister.

Could you name some of the measures initiated by your government to provide succour to the quake-hit people?

There are many. For instance, there is a package of cash doles for the people injured and for those who had undergone operations in the wake of the quake. There is special assistance of Rs 50,000 or more to children who participated in the Republic Day Parade and died.

There is special assistance of Rs 50,000 or more for government employees who were on duty on January 26 and died. There are food kits and immediate issue of ration cards to the families in affected areas. There is an assistance cell for the rehabilitation of orphans and disabled persons. These are supplemented by my government's austerity measures like no celebration or ostentation throughout Gujarat till February 28.

What about the other agencies that assisted your state government in tackling relief and rehabilitation measures?

f course, the army and voluntary agencies have been of immense help. I thank them profusely. I thank everybody who has lent a helping hand including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the teams from foreign countries. I am grateful to all of them.


'Bhuj has become a ghost town'
The Complete Coverage | List of earthquake sites

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