Sucheta Dalal :Rebuilding a state from the debris
Sucheta Dalal

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Rebuilding a state from the debris  

February 17, 2001

The devastation of Gujarat brought out the best and the worst aspects of human nature. Reports of bureaucratic apathy, callous delays and depraved looting of victims matched the aid and assistance that poured in from around the world.

For the corporate sector, the biggest calamity since Independence appears to have been a wake-up call. It has demonstrated our lack of preparedness in dealing with the situation and brought home the fact that such disasters could push back development by a few years.

Past disasters such as the cyclone which ravaged Andhra Pradesh and Orissa or the earthquake, which shattered villages of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh affected relatively underdeveloped regions. The damage to Kandla and Jamnagar a couple of years ago and the quake in Gujarat have flattened and killed some of the most prosperous people and their businesses. Even the more remote and inaccessible villages around Kutch and Bhuj were thriving centres of art and handicraft.

The days that followed the quake only underlined the problems. It demonstrated India's utter lack of planning or preparedness in dealing with disasters. The contrast between the speed of foreign rescue missions and the impassive reaction of our politicians who remained rooted to their seats at the Republic Day parade in Delhi was infuriating. But this column is about the process of moving on and rebuilding Gujarat and learning from the tragedy.

Like all the people who rushed to volunteer their help, corporate India too learnt as it went along. The chairman of Hindustan Lever told me how they were all set to rush food to Gujarat when the simple precaution of sending a couple of executives on a reconnaissance mission allowed them to be more practical with their aid. The team realised that food was not a priority -- people needed tents and blankets and water more urgently. The company accessed water from its battered factory and supplied it to the people through tankers.

Corporate India, including multinationals, rose to the occasion. Other than medicine, food, blankets and water, the emergency supplies rushed to Gujarat included solar cookers, transport vehicles, excavators, wheel loaders, cranes, tippers, trucks, gas cutting sets and breakers. Telephone companies provided free access to their lines and media companies, especially television flashed messages from the victims to their relatives. Nobody waited to count the cost of his or her contribution.

The rehabilitation process has not to move now beyond the rescue and relief operations and into the more difficult task of long-term reconstruction and prevention. Few donors are willing to trust government with money, yet the requirement of funds is enormous and reconstruction cannot happen independent of government.

The finance minister has already announced plans to seek $ 1.5 billion from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank -- that was before an avalanche of aid began to pour in from Indians and especially Gujaratis across the world.

Since then the government has levied a two per cent surcharge on taxable income and many corporate houses have come forward to adopt entire villages and reconstruct them on their own.

As Mark Tully points out in his column for, the only group which has yet to announce any sacrifice is the government and its mantris -- nobody has suggested a cut in government expenditure, reduction in size of government or even the unnecessary fleet of cars which forms part of every MP's entourage.

The hesitancy, if any, in donating more funds, is because of Rajiv Gandhi's candid confession that only 15 per cent of government money actually reaches those for whom it is intended. So FICCI, ASSOCHAM and the Confederation of Indian Industry are all working on independent reconstruction and rehabilitation packages, which are separate from government efforts.

The larger industry groups want to be even more hands-on and adopt entire villages. Though the government has still to work out the modalities, a business house such as Reliance Industries has already taken over Anjar and set up a base camp there to help people put their lives together. The company has helped clear the debris, cremate the dead and treat the seriously injured.

It has now moved on to the business of reconstruction. The tragic school which lost 400 of its students marching in the Republic Day parade has been re-started in a make-shift tent and Reliance has also undertaken to revive at least 15 screen printing units in order to help people earn a living again.

As for the reconstruction work, Reliance officials say they are awaiting government decisions with regard to permissions and modalities.

Nusli Wadia (chairman of Bombay Dyeing), Kesub Mahindra (chairman, Mahindra & Mahindra) and Housing Development Finance Corporation have formed another interesting group. The house of Tatas and Hindustan Lever are also in touch with this group and may dovetail their efforts with the Maharashtra government which has offered to adopt seven villages in Gujarat.

This group is co-ordinating its plans through Maharashtra's former chief secretary N Raghunathan who did a tremendous job with the rehabilitation of Latur and other affected villages. Several individuals and organisations that have more faith in groups such as these are also looking to make their contribution through them.

At the same time, Hindustan Lever is also contemplating going alone and working on two villages where its factories are located. "After all," says HLL chairman Vindi Banga, "if we help our people we have to help everybody else rebuild their lives too."

Zee Television, which provided excellent coverage of the quake and support to the people of Gujarat has gone a step further and adopted the village of Samakhiali, "taking total responsibility for the return of normal life in the area".

In effect, Corporate India is ready and willing to help with funds, manpower and management skills -- how fast Gujarat is reconstructed would depend on how quickly the Gujarat government gets its act and maps out the parameters for reconstruction.

There are hundreds of ticklish issues which require policy decisions. For instance, caste, religion, superstition and economic differences are issues that need to be addressed. For instance, the Maharashtra experience shows that people were unwilling to live in houses which were built on the spot where there had been a concentration of violent deaths. Relief workers at Gujarat report that even the havoc caused by the quake has not made people set aside their caste differences.

The earthquake may have had the intensity of several hydrogen bombs, but even this mammoth tragedy is not without several rays of hope.

The increase in the water table at several affected areas, the discovery of water in the Rann of Kutch and a quest for the re-emergence of the mythical Saraswati river are nothing short of a major miracle in this intensely drought prone region. Like Germany after the world war and Japan after the atom bomb, the phenomenally entrepreneurial Gujaratis could, with the support and monetary assistance from around the globe rebuild a better and stronger State.

-- Sucheta Dalal