IN June 5, raging winds over the Arabian Sea were fast developing into a killer cyclone. But when it struck the Saurashtra coast between Porbander and Dwarka at 7.30 am on June 9 with a devastating force of 130 km per hour, no one was prepared to cope with a natural disaster of such monstrosity. The same afternoon, despite its waning force, it lashed Kandla port in Kutch, which was taken completely unawares. The Met office had issued a warning for Kutch as late as 10 pm, June 8. Not surprisingly, the death count for Saurashtra was 100; for Kutch 703 and mounting.
The weatherman's warning had indeed come late. Admits R.K. Kankane of the Cyclone Warning Centre in Ahmedabad: "We didn't expect the cyclone to veer as far as Kutch, and so suddenly. And that's why we hadn't included Kutch in our earlier alerts and warnings." Kankane agrees it was too late to carry out evacuations but that "the authorities could have at least alerted the people."
Apparently it didn't. "Despite the warning, the port authorities only put up a signal number one (signifying low intensity windspeed) when signal number eight should have gone up," says a highly placed government official. "Neither did they care to alert the slum residents, most of them labourers living behind the port."
An employee with the Kandla Port who was on the site during the storm recalls: "There was no warning. We were practically in neck-deep water before we learnt of the storm. The civil administration was caught completely by surprise. Everything had collapsed. The cyclone hit in the afternoon. The rescue and relief operations started only at 9 pm."
He rescued six people, even as he helplessly saw many being swept away. His officer's wife was snatched off by the leaping waters, which had reached nine-feet high by then, even as he reached out to her. As he fled to Bhuj, more than 80 km away, he saw bodies strung along wires and poles. The wind, toying with the heavy export containers, tossed them about, even as ships were lifted right onto the shore.
The Gujarat government, which goes by the body count, put the toll at 918 but expects that to go up. Unofficial reckoning puts a conservative guess at about 3,000, the bulk of them in Kutch. In neighbouring Rajasthan, the toll rose to nine with Barmer, Jalore, Jodhpur, Pali, Barotra and Bhilwara districts bordering Gujarat bearing the brunt of it.
Besides three slum colonies at the Kandla port which have been completely wiped out, the salt-workers were the worst-hit, part of the migrant labour from north and east India who came to Kutch hoping to cash in on the 15-day pre-monsoon peak period at the pans. Owners of these salt pans had ignored the warnings, since the heat wave had ensured a boom time in salt production as evaporation of sea water was rapid. When the high waves hit the shores, Kandla Salt Works, the biggest in Asia, vanished without a trace.
According to a Rajkot resident, who visited the storm-hit areas, "so fierce was the storm that 13 floating barges are reported missing off Kandla. Warehouses have collapsed. Export cargo is either lost or ruined. In Jamnagar, 40 small ships are lost, with 15 fishing boats yet to return." He says rescue workers, from the RSS and other volunteer groups, are conducting mass cremations, using diesel. Ram Baug Hospital in Gandhidham, unable to cope with the flow of injured, has sent out its teams.
There has been a massive destruction of property as well. Again, the Gujarat government's estimate of property losses at Rs 1,200 crore was also overthrown by unofficial estimates that placed the loss at Kandla port alone at Rs 1 billion, while the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce expected the state to suffer Rs 1,700 crore in property losses, with a major business crunch expected over the next few months till Kandla port is restored to normalcy.
The most severely affected areas are Kandla-Gandhi-dham and Jamnagar. And though the government claims a few jetties at Kandla are already operational, the port is expected to return to work only after three months with even the neighbouring tiny ports savaged, thus blocking the flow of petroleum into the state, according to GCC president-elect Utkar Shah.
Despite the high toll, and the many allegations of complacency, the administration appears to be unrepentant. "We had anticipated two-metre waves, but the waves rose as high as four metres. It was unprecedented for the Kutch area," says P.K. Mishra, Gandhinagar-based additional chief secretary (revenue).
But now is no time to pass the buck. The Gujarat government's primary concern is to rush relief to the 12 affected districts. The state has asked the Centre for Rs 500 crore from the national relief fund. Already, Rs 50,000 is being granted to the next-of-kin of each dead person, disbursed from the prime minister's relief fund. Asked what emergency steps the government has taken to control the outbreak of water-borne diseases, home minister Haren Pandya says: "Our priority is to search for the dead bodies. The dead are being brought in even now, with more coming from Kalyanpura. And mass cremations to control the outbreak of cholera." He insists many lives were saved at Jamnagar because the police forcibly evacuated thousands among the reluctant populace.
What makes matters difficult is a complete collapse in communication. "Even if warnings were issued to higher-ups, it did not reach the people. Since electricity also hasn't been restored, there is no water supply in many areas," says one Bhuj resident. The water supply department promises to speed up restoration work as the department's underground supply lines have not been hit—unlike the electricity board, which has suffered a loss of Rs 350 crore damage.
Amid the widespread devastation, the people are striving to find a way out. Not an easy task when your home has been washed away, your job is in peril, drinking water supply, communication and power supply totally cut off. The government, meanwhile, could do a rethink on how to tackle natural calamities of such magnitude.