In rebuilding, India's needy become savvy aid consumers

Two years ago, an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 7.9 ripped through the state of Gujarat, leveling nearly every building in this village and forcing people into makeshift bamboo huts.

So when Jayendra Rathore told village elders here that his organization would rebuild shattered homes, he expected an enthusiastic response. But it took a full year of negotiations to convince Rapar's leaders to say yes.

Since the earthquake, more than 200 groups and millions of dollars have poured into the region, transforming desperate aid recipients into savvy customers of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). "A lot of resources have come in, and people can see that, so they want ... to find the best deal," says Mr. Rathore, a manager of CARE, an international relief agency that runs a rehabilitation project in Bhuj, western Gujarat. The project has built 5,000 houses and more than 60 community centers.

At the start of reconstruction, Rapar's village leaders talked to potential donors - the government, NGOs, and even a few corporations - pressing for big houses and a new community center. Ultimately, most of their requests were met. But residents are starting to ask for more - and the NGOs can't always deliver.

"We could really use some cupboards for our clothes and all our kitchen utensils," Chandraba Anopsi, a farm laborer, tells one of CARE's field officers in Rapar.

The new houses scattered across the state vary in their amenities. They all have a common earthquake-resistant design mandated by the government. Ms. Anopsi has a kitchen, an indoor toilet, and living space of several hundred square feet.

In Bakutra, 90 miles north of the commercial capital Ahmedabad, the nonprofit group SEWA is building homes with a more modest budget. But as people catch wind of what other villages are getting, they ask for more, according to Bakutra's representative for rehabilitation matters, Gauriben. "Initially people said they wanted a house only," says Gauriben, who has only one name. "Now they've started asking if there's more money for a better kitchen."

Requests are also coming in to provide roads, schools, water tanks, and even power. "We can't do all that. That's the government's responsibility. But the government takes time to reach these places, so they look to us," says Rathore.

Government officials argue that they are already involved, as any work done by NGOs is partially funded by the government. But, notes Arvind Joshi, NGO coordinator for the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority, "We tell the NGO they should only construct the amenities that existed before the earthquake. If they do more ... that shouldn't be an additional financial burden on state government."

The hamlet of Manaba isn't even officially a village. People moved there from a town just a mile down the road when the population overflowed. Now they're asking Habitat for Humanity - which is putting the finishing touches on a 40-house lot - for some of the government provisions they left behind in their old village, like a school and a water tank. "We wish we could do it, but we can't," says field worker Jackson Christian.

The presence of NGOs here is plainly visible. Sprawled out across this vast and arid terrain, every village is marked by a row of similar-looking structures, all built afresh by some organization within the past several months. There are so many reconstruction aid groups that they even have their own community newsletter, "Coming Together," published through an NGO network called Abhiyan.

The Gujarat disaster garnered so much attention in part because the earthquake's epicenter was the Kutch region, known for its affluent and active diaspora. Gujaratis all over the world pumped their own cash into the coffers of aid groups and organized massive fundraisers. "No other disaster in India has ever gotten this kind of response," says Samuel Peters, director of Habitat for Humanity's earthquake initiative.

To avoid overlapping work by NGOs, the state government allotted villages one by one to different organizations. Each village had to formally accept the help. Even before the earthquake, Gujarat was a hotbed of nonprofit activity, with homegrown groups working on everything from women's self-employment efforts to agricultural and microfinance projects.

But the earthquake attracted a whole range of especially high-profile international NGOs like the American Red Cross, CARE, and Save the Children. Some aid workers say these groups, while well intentioned, often brought with them an entirely different approach to aid delivery, offering free handouts while asking little of the local communities. Reema Nanawati, who runs SEWA's regional office in Gujarat, says her organization asks beneficiaries to contribute to the aid process, sometimes with manual labor, but that's more difficult now.

Sambhubhai Bhaghubhai, a cotton farmer in Kumariya village, says he turned down Habitat for Humanity's reconstruction offer because he was expected to work. Another organization arrived a few months later and met his demands.

Caste issues and local politics also complicate aid efforts. In many villages, people of higher castes expect their houses to be built first. And those who lived well before the earthquake are disappointed to find their new house resembles their neighbors'.

But Habitat's Samuel Peters points out that Mother Nature has dealt the people of this region a dreadful hand: droughts, scorching heat, and devastating earthquakes twice a century. Considering all that, their requests seem minor, he says, and the idea that they would look to NGOs for a little extra help seems natural.

"People here are remarkably resilient, considering what they've had to put up with," he says. "Yes, it's been more challenging than we imagined, but I don't blame them."

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