In Anjaar, money overpowers memories
Nearly a decade after Kutch faced its worst-ever earthquake, rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt travelled to Anjaar town to assess the public sentiment over the tragedy that robbed the lives of 183 children.
"Go straight! You will find 1,000 square metres of forlorn area with a neem tree and a few stray dogs. That's the memorial of our 183 children, who died on January 26 (2001)," said an old man when asked for directions.
The repugnance in his voice was evident as he sipped tea at a stall near the entrance to Anjaar town in Kutch, Gujarat.
Nine years ago, on this day, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale ripped through the town. That day, over 400 children, teachers and policemen had gathered in the old city area to participate in the Republic Day parade.
The chief guest, Municipality chairman Mridila Pande, arrived almost 80 minutes late. The students' parade could start only at 8.40 am.
As the parade entered a narrow lane to take a deep turn, the quake struck and buildings on both sides collapsed. Debris comprising concrete beams and boulders instantly killed the children. More children, aged between 10 and 13 years, were crushed to death as they ran from the narrow lane into a bazaar area known as Khatri Chowk.
That day, 183 children, 21 teachers, one government servant and two police constables lost their lives to Anjaar's narrow lanes and cheap building material.
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Image: File photo of a child buried in the debris
Photographs: Dax Pandhi
'Even if you pay money, people don't come on time'
The event stunned the world. The loss of over 180 lives in less than five minutes was unimaginable. It took almost six months to clear the debris along the kilometre-long stretch.
Bharat Soni, a bullion dealer and local resident, says, "Locals are trying to obliterate memories of that unforgettable day as fast as possible."
We reach the so-called memorial park of Anjaar in the old city area. We spot the neem tree, a stray dog and Soni, looking completely lost.
Soni complains, "Even if you pay money, people don't come on time."
It was almost 8.10 am. Sound recorders, microphones, flowers and musicians had still not turned up.
The calamity had struck at 8.46 am. Soni, a simple and sober businessman, wants to hold a prayer around that time in memory of the loved ones. However, the first signs of movement occur only after 9 am at this venue called 'memorial park'.
Says Soni, "I want to leave Anjaar. I will migrate to Bhuj. The locals are not interested in mourning the children of their own town. I am doing just a little in memory of the children of my town, but in the last nine years, no politician or local legislator or municipality chief has ever attended these prayers."
Image: All alone: Bharat Soni, the neem tree and a stray dog at the 'memorial park'
'Why forget or bury the memory our own children?'
Suddenly, it strikes Soni that today also happens to be the 60th Republic Day. He sends a boy to the nearby Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh office to get the picture of 'Bharat Mata'.
The picture of the 'goddess' of India arrives soon. Alongside, a huge collage featuring over hundred children was put up. Soni showed us the picture of his nephew Chintan Soni, who had died on that fateful day.
He says, "We must get on with life, but why forget or bury the memory of our own children?"
As time passes by and hopes of people coming to pay their respects grow dimmer, Soni feels more miserable. He says with sadness, "I hope the 25 sets of parents (of children who have died) will come. I have sent invitations to the entire town."
Then, he murmurs, "This is the last time I am arranging the prayer meeting."
Image: A collage of victims of the quake on display
'If we were not given the money, we might have remembered our dead'
At approximately 10 am, a local journalist cum advertising agent arrives like a VVIP with nothing else but a camcorder. We ask him, "Any idea why people don't turn up to pay homage to the children? Why can't politicians or Kutchi legislator Neema Acharya give ten minutes of their time?"
He says he has tried in vain to help the organisers of the event.
The grieving parents of the unfortunate children of Anjaar have formed an association, but have been unable to build a decent memorial for them.
"Anjaar man koi ne amara balko ni yaad ni padi nathi (Nobody cares for the memories of our children in Anjaar)," Soni says with regret.
"The parents received Rs 1.1 lakh from the government. Believe me, most of them had never seen so much money," he says, adding after a pause, "Maybe if we were not given the money, we might have remembered our dead."
Image: Empty prayer hall at 08:46 am, the time when the quake struck 9 years ago
It's business as usual. Why shut down?
Anjaar is facing tragedy after tragedy. On the sombre occasion of the ninth anniversary of the death of 183 children, the great paradox of life is evident here.
Man's defeat at the hands of nature, the shattered hopes of parents and the untimely death of so many children -- none of these was a worthy enough reason for the business community here to keep the shutters of their shops shut today. They want to, rightfully, move on with life.
But Ashok Patadia, whose son Rajesh was among the children killed, says, "We expect people to close their shops voluntarily. But after the earthquake, we have not been the same. We are earning more money than ever before. Today, everybody has forgotten everybody else."
Land prices in Kutch have gone up by almost 20 times. And the entire social life and value system has gone topsy-turvy.
At approximately 10.15 am, Harilal Kapdi came with his children and relatives, carrying biscuit packets and national flags, meant to be distributed on the ground. His brother Bipin Kapdi was a teacher in the local school, who had died along with those children, while leading them.
Kapdi breaks down while talking about his struggle after his brother's death. He says, "I don't believe in lying. It's against nature. When my brother got crushed under the debris, we tried our best to excavate his body. We could never find his body."
"I sell vegetables in the local market. I took off for six months. Life was completely grounded because my sister-in-law Vinita was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, who will never get to see her father," he adds.
Image: Harilal Kapdi with his children at the prayer venue
They came, they saw and they left
He laments that for seven years, he fought in court to get compensation from the government. Since he could not obtain a death certificate, his family was not paid the Rs.1.3 lakh they were entitled to. He finally got the death certificate two years ago -- that too after spending Rs 25,000 in legal fees.
But his woes didn't end there. Since then, he has been running pillar to post (from Anjaar to the collector's office in Bhuj) in vain for the compensation amount. Nine years since the tragedy, his brother's family still awaits government help.
He says, "If I had lied like many others and gotten a written statement from our caste leader, saying we have cremated my brother's body, we would have recieved the money in less than nine weeks. But in matters of death, we don't lie."
"It's better to suffer hardships than lie in the court of mother nature," he adds.
Heena Thakkar, who came to the ground to mourn her 13-year-old daughter Shivani, told rediff.com: "The government should have built the memorial for our children. It could assuage our feelings. At least local leaders should have attended the mourning."
By this time, two local RSS supporters got active. Having overheard people's grievances about the government's apathy towards building a decent memorial, they started calling local leaders and advised them to rush to the ground.
Bharat Soni, Hasmukh Thakkar, Heena Thakkar and some 25 people, who were present on the ground, are literally shell-shocked when after 11 am local leaders, including Kutchi MLA Neema Acharya, come to take part in the prayer meeting.
However, they arrived and left without touching the grieving hearts.
Image: Harilal Kapdi distributes flags and biscuits to children
'In 9 years, the price of this so-called memorial park has gone up 10 times'
When rediff.com asked Raju Kodrani, municipal councillor of Anjaar since the last 25 years, as to why a memorial for 183 children had not been built in the last nine years, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader got agitated.
"The government had formed a committee only comprising bureaucrats (which means that local leaders were not even asked) to decide about the memorial. They had recommended a budget of Rs one crore for the structure. But when Chief Minister Narendra Modi came to Anjaar in 2008, he said the place was too small. Two acres of land have been allotted in the outskirts to build a memorial for the children," he thunders.
Kodrani says the government wants a public-private partnership for the project under which the public should contribute Rs one crore while the rest will be shelled out by the state government.
Hasmukh Thakkar, chief of the parents' association, says: "Nothing is moving here. You know how the government works."
Local residents, however, also blame Neema Acharya, Kutchi legislator from the BJP, for this travesty.
Local resident Ishwar Das tells rediff.com, "The land mafia is eyeing this plot. They don't want the people to build a memorial on this plot. In nine years, the price of this so-called memorial park has gone up by 10 times."
Kodrani, when quizzed hard, confesses that the price of the land is the main issue. The land that was allotted for the memorial park could not be developed as per the plan because, "Someone is greedy for this piece of land. They want to use this land for commercial purposes."
Image: Raju Kodrani, municipal councillor of Anjaar
Government has succumbed to the pressure of land sharks
The government has succumbed to the pressure of land sharks and announced its plan to shift the memorial, completely ignoring the emotional attachment that parents of the deceased children have towards this piece of land.
Hasmukh Thakkar says, "Precisely this spot is important. We don't think a memorial can be built anywhere else."
The party that wants to build a Ram temple at the precise piece of land in Ayodhya because it is a question of faith has disregarded, so far, the emotional appeal of 183 families to build a memorial at the precise place where their faith belongs.
But what do the Congress leaders in Anjaar think about this?
Soni says, "Congress leaders are worse than BJP leaders, as they simply don't show their faces in any of the important meetings to discuss the building of the memorial."
With signs of resignation stark on his face, he asks, "If we have so much development all around, why couldn't we build one memorial for the 183 children of Anjaar in the last nine years?"
Image: A grieving Heena Thakkar at the prayer meet