Wake-up call for Indian readiness

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

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.

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.

Mr. Vajpayee admitted to reporters last Friday that state response was "slow to start," noting that this had been corrected within the first 24 hours. But in a possible signal that the central government would begin relieving the state of responsibility in the quake's aftermath, Vajpayee pulled together a committee of cabinet members to oversee the relief process.

"The present group of ministers is only to ensure that there is no gap in communications," says S.K. Swami, director of National Disaster Management, an agency within the Ministry of Agriculture. Noting that the magnitude of the quake - which has been revised to 7.7 - was known within four hours of the quake, he adds, "There was no delay in response.… By 6 p.m., state officials … were in Bhuj, 12 miles from the epicenter. The first search and rescue teams left that evening.… Flight takes time."

As for policy toward foreign aid, Mr. Swami adds, "If help is offered as solidarity, it is accepted gratefully."

But while the government may be grateful, there are still impediments for foreign and local relief groups. Until last week, for instance, the Indian government forbade local groups from receiving foreign aid directly. The rule was lifted, said Home Minister L.K. Advani, to allow expatriate Indians, especially Gujaratis, to contribute.

Some relief groups complain privately that they haven't been able to locate the local officials who could tell them what is needed in which locations. Some relief trucks have resorted to dumping supplies in the first village they find, and much aid is going to waste. With live rescues becoming less common - according to Reuters the most recent came Saturday, when a teenage boy was found in Sikaravadi - disaster teams are changing their focus to relief, including the task of feeding and housing hundreds of thousands of homeless.

Ambrose Pinto, director of the Indian Social Institute, a nongovernmental organization, says India's slow response in Gujarat is part of a larger pattern of negligence and mismanagement. But he says the problem was exacerbated by politics, including the unwillingness of the state Hindu-nationalist party leadership to give up control.

"The government of Gujarat says they are compassionate to people, but they don't want food for people as a whole; they want it for upper-caste Hindus only," he adds, noting that his organization will work to reach those left out, especially the so-called untouchables, tribal groups, and Muslims.

This criticism, while not uncommon among Indian-based relief groups, is not universal in the relief community. Harry Sethi, spokesman for CARE India, says, "We have been working here in India for 50 years, and when this quake occurred, we were the first organization called by the state to come and help them in this disaster."

"I think we should be less critical of the government," he adds. "An earthquake cannot be predicted like a cyclone or a famine. Any government would have been taken by surprise."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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