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Wake-up call for Indian readiness

After the earthquake, there's recognition that state and national disaster efforts need improvement.

By Scott Baldauf Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 2001


The quake had struck early Jan. 26, just as many Indians were settling down to watch the Republic Day parade in the capital on TV.

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But though the earthquake itself was swift and certain, the response of government officials at the state and national levels was much slower. By 11:30 a.m., they knew the quake's magnitude. By midnight, they had contacted most of the 800 villages in affected areas and learned how destructive the quake had been.

But even as foreign search-and-rescue teams started leaving for India, the Indian government hadn't put out a general call for help from international donors, or even Indian aid groups. One cabinet secretary in charge of disaster relief, Bhaskar Barua, told reporters, "We are a big country, we have enough resources."

The reasons for this slow-motion, confused call for help are rooted in a mixture of poor communications, stodgy decisionmaking, and post-colonial pride. But while there is debate as to whether any developed nation would have responded any faster to a quake that was 300 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, there is no question that valuable hours - and lives - were lost.

"Normally … we only accept foreign aid if a disaster is beyond our capacity to manage," says J.N. Dixit, former foreign secretary. No fan of the current government, Mr. Dixit says delays were understandable because communications lines were down for hours. "Once we knew it was a major thing, there was no reluctance. It had to sink in that this was some very major catastrophe."

Behind India's most powerful quake in 50 years, and possibly its deadliest in a century, have been stories not just of tragedy, but also of tremendous generosity and bravery. Residents and relief officials credit, in particular, the Indian armed forces. Soldiers have found some 419 live victims (compared with 23 live rescues by foreign rescue teams) and treated more than 13,500 at some seven mobile hospitals. In addition, volunteers and charitable souls have given money, food, and in some cases risked their lives to help out friends and strangers alike, regardless of religion or caste.

Yet, as rescue efforts give way to relief for those tens of thousands who are living in tents or under the open sky, Indian and foreign officials are calling on the country to drastically change the way it deals with disasters. Some observers, such as Dixit, call for a permanent agency to manage disaster relief. Others say Indian states should be quicker to give control to the Army.

Among the state government's miscues:

*Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf offered aid to his military rival India immediately after the quake, but says India refused it. Two planeloads of Pakistani blankets and supplies were sent to Ahmedabad, and a first-ever phone call Friday from General Musharraf to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee patched things up.

*The Aga Khan Foundation, a charitable group funded by a small Muslim sect, offered aid, but the Indian government initially put the offer on hold. "We are asking exactly what they want to give," one Indian official explained.

*Three relief workers for Catholic Relief Services from Nairobi, Kenya were held up for three days, awaiting visas allowing them into the country.