India rises from rubble with old social divides

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

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.

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.

Prakash also says that politics governs who gets to help at the grass-roots level. "The government is saying yes, we'll take help, but we'll tell you when and how. They are just looking at vote banks," he says.

In an analysis of the cyclone that struck the eastern state of Orissa last year, killing some 10,000, former Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit criticized the "ineptitude" of the Vajpayee government for its slow response and lack of preparation. "The ultimate benchmark for security in any civil society in any state is human survival," he wrote in Calcutta's Telegraph newspaper. "The Orissa cyclone was such a crisis. And the manner in which we are coping with it leaves one numb with anxiety."

In Bhuj itself, under a patchwork tent of burlap bags, Aishabai Salim clutches her 5-year-old son Ibrahim, who is wrapped in bandages from his chest down to his right foot. Three of Ibrahim's older sisters perished, when the early morning quake destroyed the Salim's concrete home.

Fatima Khedi, a former schoolteacher from Bombay, is harshly critical of her government's response to this earthquake. "The government says we are coming, we are coming, but at present, they are not here," she says. "Why? Because they know this community will look after its own. It's not religious, they are just careless."

But some relief experts say it is too early to be criticizing the government. "This earthquake is unprecedented, and any other state or country would find it difficult to respond," says Mihir Bhatt, director of the Disaster Mitigation Institute in Ahmedabad.

"I was in Bhuj yesterday, and there are very heroic efforts by the administration. That said, it is a very typical Indian effort, a functional anarchy if you will. There are a diversity of initiatives out there from private grass-roots groups... and the question is how to make the best of this diversity."

Kevin Kelly, head of a search- and-rescue team from Britain, has been in Bhuj for only an hour and a half, but his team has already pulled out a body from a collapsed five-story apartment building. Comparing this earthquake with the 1999 quake in Turkey, to which his team was also sent, he says the Indian government has made the best of a very bad situation.

"We shouldn't really criticize the people on the ground, because the communication lines were gone," says Mr. Kelly. "The worse the picture is, the harder it is to get communications. And it's hard to get a sufficient picture [of how bad things are] without communications."

Amid the tragedy, there are striking examples of human charity. In the tiny town of Bhachau, for instance, the normal din of typical Indian life comes to a halt, as a Russian search-and-rescue team climbs into a teetering concrete hospital to pull out dozens of victims still thought to be under the rubble. Even traffic on the highway is brought to a halt. Conversations stop. Pedestrians are stopped and shushed.

The purpose for this silence is twofold: It helps the Russians hear the taps of survivors, and it holds down the vibrations that might bring the hospital down for good.

After a remarkable 10 minutes of un-Indian silence, the Russians come out to plan another route. Shailesh Gala, from Bombay, says he came to Bhachau because his cousin was in the hospital when the quake hit, and he plans to hold a vigil here until he is brought out.

"My cousin has been in there for four days, with his wife and two children," says Mr. Gala. Asked if he is hopeful, he says, "Somebody today was found. We try to find hope."

Ways to help

A partial list of the US agencies accepting cash donations

American Jewish World Service 800-889-7146

American Red Cross 800-HELP-NOW

CARE 800-521-CARE

Catholic Relief Services 800-736-3467

Christian Children's Fund 800-SPONSOR

Direct Relief International (805) 964-4767

Doctors Without Borders 888-392-0392

MAP International 800-225-8550

Oxfam America 800-776- 9326

Relief Fund of The First Church of Christ, Scientist 800-288-7155

Salvation Army World Service Office (703) 684-5528

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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