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Sunday, July 29, 2001

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Gujarat -Rebuilding faith

Six months after the earthquake, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in Gujarat have focussed on helping the people deal with the situation with financial and technical support from a range of organisations. VIMALA RAMACHANDRAN on why her visit to Surendranagar has kept her faith in humanity alive.

I WENT back to Gujarat after four months, this time to Surendranagar - a district that was not in the limelight during the first few weeks of the earthquake. After a shaky start, Swati - one of the non governmental organisations (NGOs) that was a part of the Janpath Citizens' Initiative - plunged into relief and damage assessment and distributing relief material. Like Abhiyan in Kutch, it suspended emergency relief by the last week of February. While the official process of assessment and compensation was taking its own course, the NGOs in Surendranagar decided to go ahead with planning and building temporary shelters.

Let us take the case of Swati - a women's organisation. Moving around the villages, it was relieved to discover that loss of life and injuries was not on the scale of Kutch, but a large number of houses had collapsed. Given that the people in the area (Patdi, Dhranghdra and Halval Blocks) were very poor, their houses were made of limestone and mud mortar with clay tiled roofs. Therefore, even when houses collapsed, people were able to escape grave injuries and were also able to retrieve most of their household goods and building materials.

Like the Abhiyan temporary shelter strategy, Swati also decided to involve people in planning one-room temporary shelters where some of the retrieved rubble could be used alongside locally available material - thereby minimising cost and time. This one- room core shelter could be used as the first stage in construction of a permanent house. Between April and July, Swati was able to support people to construct approximately 1,700 temporary shelters, at the rate of Rs. 7,568 per shelter.

The process of reconstruction and rehabilitation was interesting. As a first step, it worked in collaboration with the Government and conducted masonry training programmes in nine centres of Dhranghdra and Patdi Taluk with the help of master masons. Of the 180 masons trained in the first round, 60 were women. Another 60 masons were trained in retrofitting techniques - enabling them to undertake repair work and earthquake proofing of damaged structures.

Swati's approach was to work as a "spinal cord" - that would help people stand on their own feet and help them deal with the situation with confidence and courage. While the masonry training was underway, it organised small meetings of village leaders, with equal participation of women in village level committees. These committees surveyed their own villages and classified houses on the extent of damage. A priority list of households for temporary shelter was drawn up and this was presented in the gram sabha. Once the list was approved, work started on the sites. Each family contributed materials from the retrieved rubble and their own labour. Others were employed as wage labour - the rates for which were also fixed.

What is interesting in this area is that these people did not confine their work to building shelters. Given the long spell of drought, which had depleted the survival resources of the poor, they were able to access resources for watershed (farm bunding) programmes that provided much needed wage labour. This livelihood support programme has so far covered about 100 hectares of land with another 600 hectares yet to be covered. This is expected to generate 35,000 man days of work. Greeting the early monsoon without seeds would have been tragic for poor families that had lost so much after the earthquake and almost three years of drought. All the members of the Mahila Vikas Sangh (a federation of rural women's group supported by Swati) were given seed support for cotton, pearl millet and sesame crops.

This small effort in about 130 villages may look like a speck in the vast expanse of damage and destruction that the January 26 earthquake left behind.

We were informed that a significant number of small and large NGOs followed similar approaches - with support from Janpath Citizens Initiative (a platform for NGOs working in Gujarat). Abhiyan (also a part of Janpath) provided a platform in Kutch district, but NGOs in neighbouring areas worked by themselves - with financial, technical and human power support from a wide range of organisations and people.

When I asked where Swati found engineers and masons to start their work, it said that many volunteers came and stayed on. Sushma Iyengar of Abhiyan confirmed this. It have had a steady stream of volunteers who have come and worked for long spells. Many of them, she said, continue to work as part of the 200 strong team engaged in earthquake rehabilitation.

Way back in February, I wrote in The Hindu about how the dedication and support of a large number of individuals and organisations restored faith in genuine voluntary support. This brief visit to Surendranagar has helped me keep faith in the people of Gujarat and the people of India.

The writer is with The Educational Resource Unit, New Delhi.

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