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Rebuilding Gujarat

A year after the earthquake that devastated Gujarat, local people still live in tents or temporary shelters. Today, the authorities are in a bind. They cannot permit reconstruction without first putting in place a proper plan and also establish building norms that incorporate earthquake-resistant features. KALPANA SHARMA on her travels around Gujarat.


Traditional `bunga' style houses being adapted for earthquake resistant housing in Kutch.

NINE-YEAR-OLD Jayesh is hearing impaired. When his teacher, at the special school in Bhuj started by a remarkable neo-natologist, Dr. Shantu Patel, asks him what is the festival on January 26, he shouts out enthusiastically, ``Bhukamp'' (earthquake).

That terrible day a year ago, when over 13,000 people died and vast areas of Kutch and Gujarat were laid waste, is still alive in the memory of children like Jayesh and thousands of men and women older than him. While some of the physical evidence of damage has been removed, the mental images and the pain continue to haunt people.

There are few broken houses visible from the road as you drive from Bhuj to Bhachau, one of the worst affected towns. Instead, you find row upon row of half built or completed concrete houses. The majority are unimaginative, mocking the beauty and diversity of the villages that they now seek to replace.

``Purity is Power'' shouts a hoarding as you approach Indraprastha, the dream township of the BJP's Sahib Singh Verma. Yet, the first sight that greets you when you enter the settlement is open drains.

With a deft bit of social engineering, his organisation Rashtriya Abhiyan has successfully moved the Dalits, Muslims and other lower castes from Dudhai village, which they had adopted, to a separate spot, more than a kilometre away. The original village now belongs entirely to the Patels, who had dominated the village by virtue of their caste status.

The ``purity'' of the caste divisions that marked the old village has been scrupulously followed in the new settlement. Thus, not only have the lower castes been moved out of Dudhai but even within Indraprastha, they have been placed in clearly marked sections. Ambedkar Nagar is home to Dalits, Zakir Nagar to Muslims and Nirankari Colony to the other castes.

The houses are basically a long narrow room sub-divided into three sections and built with hollow concrete blocks with an insulated tin roof. They were handed over to people in an unfinished state. The floor has not been cemented, there is no toilet, and the house resembles ``a railway dubba'', says a woman. The absence of a toilet is particularly stressful for the women. ``In the old village, there was tree cover and we could go in the fields. Here we have to wait until it is dark,'' says one of the women.

Indraprastha is typical of some of the new housing that is sprouting across Kutch where the local people have not been fully consulted. As a result, although they accept what they have been given as they have no choice, it is far from the dream township that they had been promised.


Nine-year-old Jayesh from Anjar holding a drawing of January 26, 2001.

In some instances, as in the houses built for the Dalits in Bhujpar village, contractors have taken short-cuts on earthquake resistant features. Here the nice looking houses have already developed cracks, within months of being completed. And as in Indraprastha, toilets have not been provided.

In contrast, places like Jawahar Nagar, off the same road to Bhachau, are better organised. Built by the Delhi government, the houses in this settlement have properly cemented floors, reasonably large and airy rooms and a separate toilet and bathroom.

Although the people of Jawahar Nagar generally appreciate what has been done for them, they are still not confident enough to sleep in their new houses. Families like those of Eljibhai Jadav continue to sleep in a tent in their compound. ``The children are still afraid,'' he says. ``Besides electricity costs money and we don't want to use lights at night,''

Some of the most innovative housing efforts have been those undertaken by the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, which has been working with women in Kutch for over a decade. They have adapted the traditional ``bunga'' or circular mud house found in the Banni grasslands and strengthened it by using compressed earth blocks or rammed earth. Both technologies use a small percentage of cement mixed with mud. Built on a solid concrete foundation, the house is bound together with vertical and horizontal steel rods.

While progress is evident in many rural areas, in the towns of Kutch, Chaoshuj, Bhachau, Anjar and Rapar — are the most stressed and the least resettled. Most of these towns grew without any plan, admit local officials. Bhuj and Anjar had the additional complication of old walled cities. The latter had already been destroyed in the 1956 earthquake. In the last four decades the population living in these walled cities had grown unchecked. The walled city of Bhuj, for instance, could have supported a population of 20,000. Instead close to 70,000 people lived in it and people had built extensions on their old and fragile structures. As a result, in both Anjar and Bhuj, the walled cities suffered extensive damage and heavy casualties.

Today, the planning authorities are in a bind. They cannot permit reconstruction without first putting in place a proper plan for these walled cities and for the rest of the towns. They also have to establish building norms that incorporate earthquake-resistant features. Further, new water and sewerage lines have to be laid before new constructions can come up.

As a result, in all the Kutch towns, people continue to live in tents or temporary shelters. Some people have patched up their homes and moved back. In the walled city of Bhuj, shopkeepers have started using spaces that were not completely destroyed. And in Bhachau, a shopping complex next to the bus-stop, which is visibly leaning dangerously to one side, has been propped up by temporary brick supports. Dozens of shops use the space. Says one of the shopkeepers, ``What can we do? We have to earn something. We cannot go on waiting forever.'' The spark points for future unrest will be these towns.

Of course, all villagers have not yet been resettled or compensated. Nathiben is an impressive-looking Rabari woman from Makhiyana village in Anjar Taluka. ``We did not get any money for our home,'' she says. ``For the last 12 months we have been going to the Taluka panchayat but the government does not answer our questions.'' She is one of several hundred people from 43 villages who have been on a relay hunger strike in front of the Anjal taluka office since January 10.

The people protesting include those who did not own houses and those who did but whose complaints on wrong assessments have not been dealt with. More serious is the uniform complaint of corruption. Deva Alu Koli comes from Hirapur, a village with 150 houses. ``Most people gave the Talati Rs. 5,000 and in return he gave them their compensation cheques. When he came to our settlement of 13 Koli houses, we could not pay as we had no money. So we got nothing,'' he says.

The hunger strike in Anjar opens a small window into some of the problems that have arisen since the earthquake. While the Gujarat government worked out categories and packages for compensation, the implementation has not been uniform and several people have fallen through the cracks. The stories of corruption are also repeated everywhere.

Another category of people who have been neglected are those who lived in rented property in the towns. As they do not own a house, officially they are not entitled to compensation. Worse still, many of them did not have formal rental agreements.

While these technical aspects might ultimately be sorted out, the people of Kutch will still have to carry the burden of the physical and mental wounds that the earthquake inflicted on them.

Akbar worked in a clothing shop in Mumbai. Last year, he travelled back to his village in Rapar Taluka for a vacation. On January 26, his house collapsed, and he was pinned down under a wall. Today, he is one of thousands of men and women who have become paraplegics, the consequence of spinal injury after the earthquake. But he is one of the lucky ones.

Non-governmental organisations like Oxfam India, the Blind People's Association, Spandan and Handicap International have focussed on the physically handicapped.

Oxfam India has been providing door-to-door extension services for the injured. In 250 villages, they have identified over 60 paraplegics and 50 amputees requiring assistance. Many need re-surgery as the initial treatment given to them in the chaotic conditions that prevailed after the earthquake has resulted in bones that are wrongly set. Oxfam teams have been able to identify such people and take them to hospitals for further treatment.

It will take many years for the real rehabilitation of the earthquake-affected to be completed. But where Kutch is more fortunate than most places similarly affected is that it has a strong base of civil society organisations that have been crucial in ensuring a certain minimum level of accountability and fairness in the system.

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