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India rises from rubble with old social divides

Frustrated with government response, Indians help themselves in relief effort.

By Scott Baldauf Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 2001



BHUJ, INDIA

In the historic center of Bhuj, 12 miles from the epicenter of Friday's earthquake, a dozen Muslim volunteers in rubber sandals are hard at work pulling out the body of a boy named Mustafa.

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Across town, Fenil Vora watches as workers prepare to cremate the body of a family friend named Dhirajlal at a Jain temple. The temple has incinerated 49 bodies, all members of the Jain faith.

With little unifying state or central government help, India's rescue and relief efforts are remarkably grass-roots in character, and notably stratified along traditional religion, caste, and income lines.

Much of the food and clothing for example, trickles through neighborhood clubs and societies, or through religious-based organizations like the controversial Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). At the L.G. Hospital, in Ahmedabad, for instance, members of the RSS have been distributing tea and food to the relatives of survivors and keeping the hallways clear for arriving patients.

But when Catholic workers from the St. Xavier's Social Services Society arrived at the hospital to provide some help as well, they were chased off with sticks, curses, and threats. "They were shouting at us, telling us literally to get out, says the Rev. Cedric Prakash, St. Xavier's director in Ahmedabad. "In a situation like this, anybody who wants to work and serve must be given the chance to do so. I don't think that any one group should be controlling it."

Shabbir Shabuledizahbi is leading a group of Muslims called the Shabab Volunteer Corps through the narrow, cluttered streets of Bhuj's historic center, on the way to pull bodies out of a collapsed home. He holds no grudges against other communities, he says, and not even against the government. But he wishes the state would provide as much aid to the Muslim part of town as it has been providing to the more prosperous Hindu and Jain part of town.

"What we are saying is treat everyone the same. We are the same color, we are from the same country," he says, climbing in rubber sandals over a pile of concrete and crushed masonry. "Here the RSS is coming," he says, referring to the Hindu nationalist volunteer group, "but they are helping not us, but their own people, their own caste."

The only thing that seems to unite the residents of Bhuj and surrounding villages is the view that their government could be doing much more to meet the needs of the living and the dead alike.

While no country, developed or not, could ever be fully prepared for a quake of the magnitude that struck Gujarat on Friday, the speed and effectiveness of a government's response to disaster is an important mark of competence for many citizens.

The response from New Delhi, the national capital, has certainly been vigorous, with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee calling on the country to go on a "war-footing" to provide disaster relief. But response from the state itself, which is responsible for managing this disaster, has been much less visible, leaving many citizens of Gujarat to ask if this is the way to win a war.

Some observers have also criticized the central government for waiting more than 24 hours to ask for help from foreign governments. Because of the delay, experts say, the casualty count was probably higher. The first 48 hours after a quake are the most crucial for pulling live survivors out of the rubble.

As a result, few citizens are waiting for government assistance. Rubble-clearing brigades are haphazard, formed by neighbors in search of missing family members. In other parts of the world, such as Turkey and Mexico, grass-roots citizen groups were born or revitalized following major quakes.

"They're talking about a war footing," says Fr. Prakash of the St. Xavier's Social Services Society, which is distributing food and providing shelter to refugees in the affected areas. If the country is on a war footing, he asks: Where is the military? Prakash says that the state is limiting the military's role because its participation underscores the state government's inability to help.