India Earthquake Strains Country's Relief Efforts

After daunting cleanup, scores of villages must be relocated, rebuilt

A 6.4-magnitude earthquake that hit the Indian state of Maharashtra Thurs day has again called India's disaster preparedness into question.

In the worst quake to hit the country since its independence in 1947, officials say 30,000 people are dead or missing. The Army and paramilitary groups digging through the rubble have given up hope of finding survivors and have begun using bulldozers to pull out bodies, an Army spokesman says.

Mass cremations are taking place in an effort to prevent the outbreak of epidemics, and the Army has asked all non-residents, including volunteers, to stay out of the area around the towns of Umgara and Killari until all the bodies have been removed. A wave of ``horror tourists'' had hindered relief efforts, Army officials say, by coming in to look at the devastation. Some among them are vandals scrounging for valuables in the rubble and ruin.

The damage was most severe in the heavily populated Latur and Osmanabad districts, but the effects of the quake were also felt in other parts of Maharashtra and bordering states. In neighboring Karnataka, houses collapsed and the Golgumbaz monument, an important Muslim shrine, cracked.

There have been persistent tremors in Latur for the past year, but despite requests from residents, the authorities did nothing to help them build quake-proof houses. Maharashtra Chief Minister Sharad Pawar, who is personally supervising the relief work puts the number of homeless at nearly 130,000. In some villages, as many as three quarters of the local people are unaccounted for.

For those who survived, life is an awesome challenge. Heavy rain, lightning, and mild aftershocks struck Latur again this weekend. The heavy showers in the last two days have hampered rescue work and made wood too damp to burn in funeral pyres.

But if the logistics of the first phase of the rescue operation - searching for survivors and recovering bodies - seems daunting, the second phase, removing the rubble and rebuilding people's lives, can only be termed Herculean.

The region, known as Marathawada, has little industry or infrastructure. Already, the state has spent more than $32 million on temporary shelter, medical care, and efforts to recover bodies, according to government officials.

``Resettlement will be a costly affair if we provide even the minimum facilities. Sixty-two villages have been razed.... In the short term, the survivors are being moved to improvised sheds. But in the long term they would have to be shifted to quake-resistant houses. We have not yet worked out the details, but grants and ... loans have to be provided to help build the houses,'' says Janardhan Damodar Jadhav, a Maharashtra government secretary who recently visited Latur.

Mr. Pawar says a plan to relocate the quake-ravaged villages will be ready in 15 days. But Revenue Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh appointed ``guardian'' of Latur, disagrees, saying such a proposal would take at least six months since it would mean identifying ``safe locations.''

``Vast tracts of land and crops have been damaged. Thousands of cattle are dead,'' says Mr. Jadhav, the Maharashtra state secretary. ``But we can't begin assessing the full extent of the losses and plan on what assistance to give to the farmers until the task of clearing the debris is completely over.''

International aid offers are pouring in, but the Indian government is careful about accepting external assistance. While money, tents, and specialized medial care have been welcomed, the government is hesitant about letting in foreign aid workers, who authorities say are unfamiliar with the terrain and language. The United States has reportedly sent $2 million in aid, which was expected to reach Bombay yesterday.

Non-resident Indians all over the world have been collecting money for the quake victims. The central government has committed $640,000 and set up a new earthquake relief fund. The people of Bombay, who lived through nationalist bombings last March, are coming forward to mobilize resources and manpower to help out the victims. Top Indian industrial houses are contributing in cash and kind. The national drugs and medicine manufacturers' association is providing medicines. Religious organizations and charitable foundations are sending clothes and food.

But the relief efforts have a long way to go.

Despite concerted efforts, there are widespread reports of relief not reaching all the survivors. Journalists visiting the quake-ravaged villages have come back with tales of a lack of coordination among the Army and the civilian agencies and mismanagement of funds - a familiar story to those who remember what happened during the last big earthquake in the Himalayan foothills in October 1991, when more than 1,500 people died.

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