Living on the edge

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At a relief camp: The content and manner of aid was both instructive and sobering.
At a relief camp: The content and manner of aid was both instructive and sobering.


The devastating earthquake that hit Gujarat five years ago showed one the many dimensions of our innate, if imperfect, humanity.

January 26, 2001: THAT morning, out of boredom, I turned on the television and recalled the days when the only fare available was the parade on Janpath. But instead of watching folks twirling around in simulated rustic joie de vivre, I was transfixed in horror at the news. A devastating earthquake had hit Gujarat. Like many others I went to Gujarat. And in the two weeks I spent there, I got to see many dimensions of our innate, if imperfect, humanity. With the disaster of Godhra and its aftermath dominating our imagination of Gujarat today, it seems important to celebrate the basic human impulse I witnessed there five years ago. As our train trundled on in the pre-dawn darkness, I nervously gathered my thoughts and braced to catch my first glimpse of Kutch. Having watched some heart-rending scenes on television, I had constructed a surreal, deathly landscape in my mind. Instead, what I saw was rather listless and tame. Water, rather the lack of it, has always dominated Gujarati life. Sooner or later, conversation would turn to it. With dwindling supplies, attitudes have also hardened. Over the years I had heard of how the Narmada Bachao Andolan was depriving Gujarat of its rightful waters. I expected to hear more of this, for I was headed for a relief camp run by the Andolan in Balasar, right on the edge of that vast, inhospitable salt-pan called the Rann of Kutch.

Common cause

Our camp was fascinating. Men and women from many walks of life and various corners of the country, perfect strangers till yesterday, were now joined in a common task One group consisted of net-savvy engineering students from Chennai. They had brought along their laptops to leverage the Internet. But having arrived at this remote corner, they cheerfully hefted heavy sacks of atta, potatoes and jaggery. Another group was from Kanchipuram. Sixteen boys and girls had made a long journey, for most their first trip this far up north. Hardly comprehended anything other than Tamil, many of them felt a bit out of water. It was touching to watch them quietly contribute an immense amount of hard labour. In their normal lives, the wage workers and engineering students would belong to vastly different worlds. But for a few days, far away from home, this cleavage of caste and class was erased. In the chaotic early days, too many eager beavers had arrived to help and knew not what to do. Our camp came about since others had left out the area. Although Kutch is surprisingly well connected by roads, relief efforts had clustered around the centres of Bhuj, Bacchau and Rapar. So when our advance team had arrived with their supplies, a local Gandhian organisation had sensibly directed them to Balasar. Here was an interesting turn of events. The Andolan had been opposing Sardar Sarovar, the dam touted as the lifeline for the water-starved villages of Kutch. But their own perilous existence in the shadow of an ever-rising dam had sensitised people to the pain of others. From long years of dharnas, Nimadi farmers have honed their organisational skills and developed much ingenuity in running large operations with meagre resources. And now those who had fought the establishment in opposing the dam were running a relief camp right here in Kutch. Although this region was not in the Sardar Sarovar's command area, the pro-dam sentiment was strong. However, as the days passed one sensed the emergence of a friendship that transcended such divisive issues. A strange dimension of the relief effort was the `adoption' of villages. One got the impression that corporations were more interested in proclaiming their social responsibility than in providing actual relief. Every tent provided was emblazoned with corporate logos and in the towns of Kutch painters of signs found unexpected employment. Profiteering corporations were not the only ones fishing in these troubled waters; political parties and assorted babas were also in the fray. Rapar taluka had been `adopted' by the Government of Haryana and their much larger establishment was pitched a stone's throw from ours. Given its political backing, their camp was awash with relief material that continued to pour in and they needed our help in distributing these goods. All the folks in this camp were Government employees and, for most, this was akin to a punishment posting. But some were genuine exceptions. Two block development officers, unlike the others, had chosen to come here. These BDO's were friendly gentlemen, incongruous specimens amid a bunch of unfeeling clerks, tehsildars, and drivers. They worked hard and were driven by a real desire to help. Working alongside them I understood that it was men like these who redeemed our otherwise corrupt and unresponsive system of governance. In sharp contrast to the easy camaraderie of our voluntary camp, the acuteness of bureaucratic power here was very unsettling. However since then things worked out on an even keel and I even began to enjoy their robust Haryanvi humour. But their natural propensity for a good laugh was laced with contempt for the locals. For them, much used to Green Revolution lushness, the dust-lands of Kutch were worth nothing.

Harsh weather

Kutch is indeed a harsh place to live in. The summers are oppressively hot and winter nights are equally unforgiving. During our time there in February, the days were pleasant but by evening the mercury would steadily plummet and the nights were uncomfortably cold. Tents and blankets were desperately needed, especially since the major relief efforts never arrived here at the western edge of Kutch. While we had a tent, the villagers themselves had to make do as best as they could. With their houses in shambles, most had to sleep outdoors - in a tent if they managed one - and spend the miserably cold nights contemplating the uncertain morrow that was to come. Even those lucky ones whose homes had withstood the quake did not dare sleep indoors.The content and manner of aid was both instructive and sobering. Out of compassion, many had travelled for days to Kutch with their relief material. In quite a few cases, these were traders and petty shopkeepers from distant places like Delhi and Ropar. But having made the long, hard journey, they would be seized by an urgency to return home. Hence they tended to dump the goods at a convenient location and rush off, which resulted in grossly uneven distribution of relief material. The villages clustered around the arterial roads were flooded with goods whereas those in the interior were left out. The stuff that arrived was also very interesting. Goods like blankets, fuel and food were very welcome. But we had a real problem on our hands as huge volumes of used clothes poured in relentlessly. Perhaps their kindly contributors did not know that self-respecting people had no use for such clothes. But I also think that, at a stroke, many had cleansed both their closets and their conscience. In some villages, people refused to accept such junk leaving the beaming donors crushed and angered at such outright rejection. In one instance, traders from Ajmer found fiendish glee in chucking clothes out of their speeding truck at their supposed recipients. A self-respecting villager fumed at this spectacle and stood apart from the crowd. They are making beggars out of us, he said.The possibility that such an intervention could destroy a people's culture always exists. Decades ago, after the catastrophic Bihar earthquake, Gandhi had remarked, "The relief committees have the money, and either beggars or workers will take it. And I want no beggars. It would be deplorable if this earthquake turned us into mendicants." But Kutchis are a stoic people who have weathered severe problems with a remarkable regularity. Five years on, one hopes that as Randhir Khare suggested, in Kutch we can witness the "triumph of the spirit".

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