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February 26, 2001
Quake Diary III: What I Thought
One sunny afternoon in Toraniya, we fill our bottles of water, stick hats on our heads, and join Lirabhai on a brisk walk through the fields east of the village. He has a pet idea he is trying to get his fellow-villagers interested in, and is longing to discuss with us: Lirabhai wants to create a talao, a pond, that will be a year-round source of water to the village.
About a mile east of the village, there is a stream. Dry now, it has plenty of water during the monsoon. Lirabhai thinks a small dam can be built across it to make his talao. "It will submerge some public land, some belonging to five other families in the village, and some of my land," he tell us. "But it will help the village, and it will help me, so I don't mind giving up my land. The other people have agreed to give theirs up too." So we stand on this gentle rise above the bone-dry bed of the stream, wiping our brows of sweat, trying to visualise a large body of water where we see only scrubby bushes, sandy soil and many rocks.
It's hard, but it's just as hard to ignore Lirabhai's enthusiasm and optimism.
And I believe it strikes me at that precise moment: quake or no quake, and once the immediate task of rescuing people and treating injuries is done, there is a return to what must be an old preoccupation in Kutch. Water. It also strikes me that much of my time here has been spent learning, wittingly or not, about this preoccupation.
And that is why it is so interesting to go to the quake-torn parts of Kutch with Medha Patkar and a team from the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Take the sheer irony of it. In this Kutch village, their lives turned upside-down by a quake, are some of the very people who have been persuaded over the years that a huge dam on the Narmada will bring them water. People in whose name (the "lifeline of Kutch", ever heard that before?) that dam has been conceived and is being built. And come to camp in this Kutch village after the quake is this NBA team largely made up of farmers from the very area -- Nimad in Madhya Pradesh -- that will be seriously affected by that same dam on the Narmada. Farmers who will lose their land and homes to the reservoir behind the dam.
Because they wanted to do their bit to help these families hit by the quake, these Nimad farmers collected several dozen large sacks of grain and a few hundred sheets of plastic tarpaulins, gathered many unwieldy bundles of clothes and quilts and steel tumblers and utensils and candles and the like, hired three trucks and a jeep, piled everything into the vehicles, secured it all with strong ropes, climbed on top themselves, drove for over 48 hours -- two fiercely sunny days and three chilling nights -- to reach here: Toraniya, where nearly every house is rubble.
Yes, think for just a moment about a certain quake-wrought Toraniya irony: farmers facing the prospect of homes lost to a Narmada dam bring succour voluntarily to farmers told interminably that that dam will one day deliver precious water to them.
The team keeps a deliberately low profile. It's the only one I see in the area that does not have banners announcing its identity, on either the trucks or on the Toraniya tent. We do not bring up the dam, because we are here to concentrate on what we can do in the wake of this quake. Nevertheless, word gets around quickly that Medha Patkar and the NBA are here, and the reactions astonish me.
Naively, I had expected hostility. Instead, in every village we find people gathering to meet us, to speak, to listen, to discuss. Old women come up and embrace Medha. Other teams seek us out and want to meet her, be photographed with her, exchange notes with her.
It's only in one village that we run into a clearly hostile sarpanch. When Medha stops to speak to him, he just nods his head in a "yeah, yeah, say whatever you want and get out of here" kind of way. When we press on, he turns to talk animatedly to his fellow villagers, accusatory finger pointing in the direction of our departing truck. But apart from him, the reception we get is always warm and welcoming. In his own village, Kanthkot, a small band of teachers, who watched their anthem-singing schoolkids crushed under rubble that Republic Day morning, wait patiently across the road from him. They have heard of her only as someone who wants to take away "our water", but they wait with a barely suppressed excitement to meet and talk to Medha.
That time and several other times, I stand in the back of our truck and watch bemusedly as this lady, so long vilified in this state, is thronged by ordinary victims of Gujarat's murderous quake.
In Toraniya, the villagers seem grateful that we have not just driven in, flung some clothes or biscuits from atop our trucks, and driven on. We spend some days here, build friendships with several of them, Lirabhai included. After some time trying to understand village dynamics, we buckle down to work where it is most needed. The school is shattered; so with material left behind by a team from Delhi, the Nimad farmers erect a large tent in its compound. The schoolkids gather again that very evening; classes resume the next morning.
Outside, the panchayat office is also shattered. Another tent goes up there, and village meetings resume too. In teams of two or three, we fan out across the village, helping shelterless families put up tents with the large plastic sheets they have received. I tag along with Jitendra, a strong young farmer's son from Nimad. But his efficiency and good cheer as he swiftly erects a tent for Chhaganbhai's family make me feel clumsy, even redundant.
And through it all, and reminding me always of irony, water remains the preoccupation. Most houses here have pipes and taps that bring them water from a bore well near where we are camped. But electricity has gone since the quake, so the pump cannot be operated, so there's no way of telling if the well is damaged until the electricity returns. Luckily, it isn't damaged. But even so, what about the pipes and taps? Are they OK?
While waiting for electricity, people here have two main sources of water -- water tankers that come once a day, and a well outside the village from where water must be drawn by hand. So with a couple of villagers, some of our team members go into Bhachau to arrange with the authorities for a large plastic tank. It's astonishing again, but when these bureaucrats of Gujarat meet Medha and the NBA, they are appreciative of the team's efforts and immediately sanction a tank. It arrives in Toraniya at 2 in the morning.
Much old-fashioned Nimadi and Kutchi ingenuity is needed to fit different bits of pipe together so the tank can be filled from the bore well. But I am there when the pump is switched on, when water begins to flow into the tank, when the line of taps it feeds is turned on and people race from all over the village to fill their pots. The relief and joy are palpable, and we outsiders cannot resist whoops and cheers either.
So after a while in Toraniya, we understand Lirabhai's dream, we understand what a large talao like that would mean to this village. And right now, it's more than just water: if someone could get going on damming that stream, it would also mean work for many villagers whose jobs in these dry months have disappeared in the quake-generated rubble that litters the district.
The same applies to an earthen dam near Jadsa village that we visit to check for quake damage. It has several long and deep cracks across its face. If the dam is not repaired by the time the rains come, what will happen to it as the water level rises? Again, such a repair job would give many villagers what they need urgently -- work.
As I clamber up the face of the Jadsa dam, I remember Lirabhai again. He firmly believes the dam on the Narmada will send water to these parts. But that hasn't stopped him from welcoming Medha Patkar and the other NBA people to his village. He believes in that dam, but he knows nevertheless that it will deliver water here only decades from today. In the meantime, he and his mates must find solutions to their water needs now.
And that's why Lirabhai takes us to see the lay of the land he has in mind, explains his thoughts about his talao idea. That's why he appeals to these farmers from the "other side" -- in every sense of the term -- of the Narmada dam. He knows that they, and the NBA, are just as concerned about water as he is. And another irony is that it had to take an earthquake to bring these people from these two "sides" together.
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