It is five days since an earthquake devastated large parts of Gujarat. I keep logging on to various Indian newspaper websites and news portals like Hamarashehar every two hours to get an update on the situation, latest death toll, relief efforts and the almost inevitable tales of both heroism and of the corruption, senseless red-tapism and bureaucratic bungling that accompany any disaster in India, natural or man-made.
This earthquake, as far as I can remember, is the biggest natural disaster to devastate India in my lifetime. The death toll can go up to a 1, 00, 000 says George Fernandes and some fear that he has not only spoken the truth but that he has also pointed out why the toll is so high: it is not just that India is over-populated and that many parts of Gujarat is crowded, but how we allow people to build shoddy structures and how corrupt engineers and city and municipal inspectors line their pockets as they allow such unsafe structures to go up. The Gujarat government today surmises that the toll could be 25, 000 but no one really knows how they came up with this figure. Is it because after five days the number of bodies recovered is about 12, 000 and that someone simply multiplied that figure by two and said here it is, our “official” estimate?
The Kutch Vikas Trust estimates that at least 1, 25, 000 people may have died in the Republic Day earthquake. According to the spokesperson of that trust, the total population of Kutch is 15 lakhs and there are five main towns -- Gandhidham, Bhuj, Anjaar, Mandavi and Mundir -- and some nine hundred odd villages in the area. They estimate that out of the 1, 25, 000 population of Bhuj, at least 30, 000 are dead, while Bachchau, with a population of 25, 000, has lost 20, 000 people. The death count in Anjaar is said to be 15, 000, while in Rapar it is said to be about 20, 000. Gandhidham, with a population of 1, 20, 000, may have lost 30, 000. And in the villages, casualties could vary anywhere from 15 to 3, 000. Life is both bountiful in India and cheap.
By the time this article is published, we will be past the initial shock and reaction and I hope this deep and terrible “trembler” will awake Indian politicians, bureaucrats, as well as the ordinary people from their “slumber” about the Indian response to civil and organised society, to life and death and to disaster and tragedy. We have for far too long been reacting and reacting lazily and fitfully not just to major disasters but also to ordinary and day-to-day life. Haven’t we all become used to shoddiness in all aspects of social, civil, political and public life in India? Look at the quality of our roads, our sanitation and sewage systems, our system of governance, our feudal response to fellow citizens, the corruption and sleaze that afflicts every office in the land, from the lowly tahsildar’s office to the highest and mightiest offices in the country….
But enough of complaining. We need to, in these troubled times, recognise the valiant and selfless efforts by individuals and organisations who are working round the clock to alleviate the suffering and the tragedy in Gujarat. Let us honour those people. Let us also thank all the nations of the world that have rushed in help: sniffer dog teams from Switzerland and Germany, experts from Turkey and England, supplies from countries as powerful as the US to as troubled as Algeria to even our unfriendly neighbour Pakistan. It is rather short-sighted to ignore the offer of help from foreign countries in times like these. It is also indicative of the contradiction in our public stance: we don’t want to take help from outside because we want to let the world know that we are self-reliant and self-sufficient, but at the same time we don’t want to acknowledge that we have NEVER responded well and in an organised and sustained way when such tragedy strikes, as it does consistently, year after year, in region after region.
There have been a number of reports in the media about the nature of earthquakes and how and where India lies among the fault zones of the earth. Experts are predicting and painting a variety of dire scenarios for the country and unless every state in the country and every district in every state get ready for emergencies such as these we may see a very quick and very terrible end to the economic upturn in the country.
The US has in place what they call the Federal Emergency Management Agency and this central agency does a wonderful job when disaster strikes – whether it is tornadoes devastating the state of Oklahoma, or hurricanes sweeping the coastal cities of Florida or South Carolina, or earthquakes rumbling through California, or floods wreaking havoc in Missouri or Illinois, within hours the FEMA swings into action. More than that, however, every small town and village, every major city and region has in place a whole host of rescue teams, experts and specialists ready to rush to an area of disaster. Look at the FEMA website and see how well the agency is organised and how it is prepared to do the work that the government and the people of the US have invested it with.
When I read the reports in the Indian press about the sheer inefficiency and the lackadaisical approach by Indian agencies and governments I wonder why we cannot seek the help of other countries and international organisations in setting up efficient systems of emergency response.
Response from the Indian Diaspora
There is a flurry of activity in the Indian-American communities all across the US. A number of relief agencies run by Indian Americans have been collecting money and sending it out to those agencies in Gujarat that are working round the clock to make a difference. The India Development and Relief Fund, for example, has been in the forefront of such relief efforts.
At Truman State University, where I teach, we have made our own small effort in raising money and in the 24 hours that our fund collection drive has been on we have been able to collect $1, 133 and send it to the IDRF. When one of my American colleagues gave me a cheque for $200, I was so overwhelmed that I had tears in my eyes. I have had colleagues write me wonderful messages of support and I have had Indian students step up to the task of organising such a fund drive. Our university student newspaper is publishing a report on the earthquake as well as on our attempts here to raise money. From ordinary students to the top administrators of the university people have responded and I believe in the next few days we will be able to collect more money to alleviate a little the enormous suffering of the people of Gujarat.
Fishing in troubled waters
That some can’t stop from pursuing their narrow and sectarian goals even in the midst of terrible tragedies is yet another indication of the messy mix of religion and politics in India. There have been some reports in the US press about Christian complaints of Hindu organisations pre-empting or even stopping Church organisations and Christian agencies of doing relief work in Gujarat. The Western press find such rare instances of alleged harassment and/or conflict newsworthy because any instance of conflict, especially religious conflict, feeds into their stereotypical and pre-determined views about the nature of Indian polity and about the “majority” Hindus.
What is troubling about such a report as the one that appeared in The Washington Times is that the one Christian priest who complained about harassment and whose complaint was not corroborated by any other, is known to be a rabble-rousing man and that he has had previous run-ins with the RSS and the VHP in the area before. What makes the report even more suspect is that the reporter is an Indian Christian herself.
Adding to some of the misguided Christian efforts at fishing for souls while “serving” the victims was the outrageous statement by the Karnataka minister for aviation, T. John who claimed that the Orissa cyclone last year and the earthquake in Gujarat this past week was God’s way of showing people in these two states that this is punishment for their alleged persecution of Christians! John is among some of the worst specimens of Indian Christians who put their religious zeal over and above any commitment to their country and to their fellow citizens. They bring a bad name to the Christian community and they serve to add fuel to the prevailing religious conflict around the world and especially in India. The comments of such demagogues are picked up and passed around some of the more rabid Christian groups in the world and especially in the US. You can imagine how such incidents and such words then get to be used for propaganda purposes.
Some of these rabid Christian groups in the US have boldly and explicitly claimed on their websites that this tragedy is an opportunity to spread the Christian gospel. Good and decent Christians have countered that, but unfortunately their voices don’t get heard as loudly and as clearly in all the noise that the purveyors of “cheap” Christianity create.
One Christian minister had this to say about the more rabid of his fellow Christians: “I know that there is much criticism about Christianity on this site. Much is rightly deserved when spoken in truth. But, as a Christian minister myself, such a statement made by John in the above observation not only stands in contradiction to Christian teaching, it is irresponsible and lacking in substance and truth. The majority of Christians throughout the world are in prayer for those whose lives have been devastated by the earthquake."
"To me and to other Christians - a majority of Christians - the disastrous earthquake is NOT punishment from God - it is a natural disaster that occurred according to physical laws that organise our universe. My congregation has held all those affected by the earthquake in our prayers. My own prayers go out for those affected by the quake throughout the day and night. The denomination in which I practice Christian ministry is already on the ground and helping relief efforts in a substantial way. The relief efforts by my denomination do not include proselytising or evangelising. Any evangelising that might occur should be in the virtues and goodness of the Christian's hearts and in the example of their lives."
"We, as Christians, can also be evangelised by other faith communities in the same way. We are there to live out our faith as Christ taught us to do. We give respect to the culture of the land and to all the various religions in the land. We are there to help all people, regardless of caste and creed -- after all, the same God created us all. So, as a Christian minister, please forgive those Christians who lack compassion and sensitivity."
"There are many in our faith whose thinking is wrong; this is true in any organised religion. We are not in competition with anyone. We are called to be servants, I hope we live out our servant in a faithful manner. May God's peace and renewal be with us all”.
Dawson was countering the message by “Food for the Hungry” organisation's Bard Letsinger who said this: “This is probably the most powerful earthquake to strike India in more than a half century. Current estimates we have right now have more than 20, 000 people dead, more than 30, 000 people injured and more than 125, 000 people missing or unaccounted for…. The people are very mad at the astrologers because they did not predict this earthquake. So, they’ve lost faith with these astrologers right now and this is a great opportunity for us to not only minister to them physically, but to share the Gospel with them as well”.
One only hopes that in all this confusion and amidst all these tragedies the good, the decent and the considerate will rise to the top and those with mischief and malice in their hearts and minds will suffer the consequences of their ill-will. Meanwhile, I hope each one who reads any report on the disaster will have it in his or her heart to reach into their pockets and give generously towards relief work. And one also hopes that the Indian government and public agencies will begin to learn and retain some lessons about efficient and quick responses to disasters.
Kutchi NGO estimates toll will exceed 1, 25, 000”, Josy Joseph, Rediff on the Net, January 31, 2000
The disaster management plan has no meaning”, Archana Masih, Rediff on the Net, January 31, 2001
Richard Dawson, Indic Traditions discussion list, January 31, 2001