India's Private Helping Hands

Just a week before the massive earthquake in India's state of Gujarat, the nation's minister for rural development asked big companies to adopt villages and develop them, all but admitting government is failing the task. Two-thirds of rural villages remain without electricity, and one-third have no phones.

It turned out to be prescient advice.

After Friday's earthquake, which has taken thousands of lives, many companies rushed to adopt not just villages, but whole towns and cities in the hardest-hit areas.

The devastation in Gujarat, which is India's second-largest industrial region, has so overwhelmed civil authorities that private businesses were compelled to take a leading role. They have mobilized cranes, trucks, and employees to help rebuild.

Indeed, government was caught so flatfooted that volunteers took the lead on the first day of rescue operations. Since then, however, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has promised a national disaster-management agency would be set up in New Delhi to take care of natural calamities and their aftermath.

The earthquake's economic impact will be felt widely in India, and most financial assistance to pay for reconstruction will need to come from overseas and a tax surcharge. An initial estimate of the cost to fix buildings and installations is around $3.3 billion.

The damage has been so great that New Delhi even broke a longstanding political taboo by asking for outside assistance.

India's worst earthquake in five decades can serve as a wake-up call for more preparedness. Government, for instance, needs to have better enforcement of codes that call for quake-resistant construction.

Indian companies, meanwhile, have learned that adopting the poorest areas can help lift everyone, even without the shock of disaster.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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