January 27, 2001


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'We have barely any food left'

Sheela Bhatt in Kutch

'Tropic of Cancer passes here' declares the signboard, even as it marks the beginning of Kutch to the weary traveller. At the moment, though, as we witness the devastation caused by the earthquake that struck Gujarat and other parts of India on Friday morning, this bit of information seems rather irrelevant.

Our destination is still 38 kilometres away -- we are making our way towards Rapar, where the taluka headquarters of Kutch is located. Kutch is the largest district in Gujarat.

We have heard that Rapar, 148 kilometres away from Bhuj, is in shambles. It is early morning when we enter Rapar. It looks like a deserted town, which even History has abandoned. Its lanes and by-lanes are blocked with heavy stones and the debris of collapsed buildings.

Suddenly, a man appears before our jeep. He looks dazed and refuses to let us move ahead. "I am Babulal Soni," he screams angrily. "My senses fail to understand this," he gestures despairingly at the devastation around him. "Why did this happen? What went wrong?

"Our town is finished," he is almost in tears. "We have fallen back by 20 years at least. Tabahi, tabahi, sister, tabahi (devastation)! It is total destruction. Please tell someone that Vaghela Vas, Ghedya Vas, Ulet Vas and Derasar Vas (each colony houses people of particular community) are completely destroyed. Nothing has been saved. It will take at least two months for the debris to be cleared. What has happened to us? What is this thing? It is beyond me."

Leaving a weeping Soni behind, we go to the police station; only, it too has collapsed in a heap of debris. In the open area facing the police station, we spot a few people resting in a refugee-like manner. These are the families of the men working in Rapar's police force.

Ganubhai Jadeja, Rapar's head constable, says, "Fifty-five people have died in this town so far. And some 185 people have died in the 100 villages that fall in our taluka. The earthquake destroyed everything. What you see around you is what remains now." He shows us where, till the day before yesterday, the records office, the revenue office and police lock-up were located.

"Two prisoners ran away when the earth shook," he says, "one prisoner died when the lock-up collapsed on his head! But Dabhu Koli, who has been accused of murder, came back after rescuing his children!"

The entire police housing colony has also succumbed to the earthquake. Jadeja cannot control himself when he shows us where his home was once located. "Not a single person has come here from the bahari duniya (outside world)," he weeps. "We have been left to ourselves."

"It was as if some engine was passing under the surface of the earth," adds his subordinate. "First, the tremors came. Then, within a few seconds, the walls, buildings and the old fort collapsed. The sound was unbearable. And it became dark. We could not see a thing because the town was engulfed by dust.

"We don't know what to do. The government hospitals and schools have collapsed. Our wireless system is smashed to bits. We don't have enough water. All the electric poles have been damaged. We cannot begin the electric supply until we clear all this debris. It could create a short circuit and start a fire! That would only add to our problems.

"At the same time, we are grateful to God for the timing and the date of this terrible earthquake. In many parts of Gujarat, the lives of children were saved because they had assembled in open grounds to celebrate Republic Day. Most of Rapar's 4,000 children were in open as they were participating in the flag-hoisting ceremony."

Yet, not all children were so lucky. Some 40 children who had gone to a Swaminarayan school in Ahmedabad for a science practical were trapped in the debris. And in Anjar town, near Bhuj, about 400 schoolchildren and 50 teachers taking out a Republic Day procession were buried when buildings on both sides of a narrow lane through which they were passing collapsed in a heap on them.

So many people have died in such a short time that the police have abandoned the mandatory post-mortem reports and are allowing the bodies to be cremated. The death certificates show the cause of death to be an accident.

The scarcity of rain -- rainfall in this area is less than eight inches a year, say its residents -- has only added to Rapar's woes. "We are facing a severe drinking water crisis," says Navinbhai Morbiya, president of the Jain Society. "At present, we are drinking 1700 TDS water, which is unhealthy. The level of salt in this kind of water is too high. Because of the poor rains in this area, some of our wells have been deepened by 500 feet and more. This earthquake has contaminated the wells of some of the neighbouring villages with salt water."

No kind of help -- official or otherwise -- has reached this town. Besides food, water and warmth, they desperately need medical support and pick-up vans to help the injured. In fact, most people here were overwhelmed to see an outsider. Achal Bariya, the executive magistrate of the town, was still dressed in a safari suit stained with blood. He had not slept the last 24 hours.

"Two hundred and fifty people are dead. An innumerable number of people are injured. And this is just in the villages I am responsible for." There is a catch in Bariya's voice; he can barely control his tears. "Suvai village has been wiped of the map of Gujarat in one stroke. In just this one village in my taluka, 105 people have died. Salati village has reported 22 deaths. And, most tragic of all," by now the tears are flowing non-stop, "is the death of the three young girls."

Gujarat has been a fore-runner in the tradition of prabhat pheris -- where early morning processions are taken around the town/city as the participants sing patriotic songs. It is a tradition they have maintained since the days of Mahatma Gandhi.

"Our girls were walking around the town doing the prabhat pheri," Bariya recalls tearfully. "They were just about to reach the open ground when the earthquake struck. Huge, heavy pieces of debris fell on them; there was no way they could escape. Even our main market collapsed like a pack of cards. We have not gone there as yet; we fear many more dead bodies will be lying under the debris there."

The three children -- Hetal Ambali, 11, Vanita Kalotara, 13, and Indu Gothi, 13 -- were staying in the girls's hostel in Rapar; they were students at the local school. Their teacher, Vijayaben Patel, cannot stop crying -- she cannot forget the fact that the girls were sent alone on the prabhat pheri; they were not accompanied by any elders.

"The hard work that we have put in for the last 20 years has been in vain," she mourns. "Both the school and the hostel are now in ruins. Every room was built after so much struggle; now, we are back on the roads. Every home in this town has suffered. We are at the mercy of Nature."

Shantaben Mah is another survivor, but one who witnessed death at close quarters. She and her neighbour, Maniben. were cooking a meal at someone's place. When the tremors started, Shantaben ran out immediately. Maniben went to put off the stove before following her. In those few seconds, the ceiling fell on her head. She died on the spot. Shantaben says, "It was so sudden, so sudden. This is all kudrat (Nature)."

Another resident of the town was grateful, "Thank God the earth did not break up. We would have been buried alive."

Vijayaben is not. She has only one plea, "Please do not talk what happened to us. Please talk about bulldozers, medicines, wheat and rice. We need these things to survive. We have barely any food left."

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