February 23, 2020
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Nobody's Children

Desolate and without their real protectors, Gujarat echoes with the cries of hundreds of orphans

Nobody's Children
Nobody's Children
You will not find too many children in Anjar these days. This is, after all, the town which alone lost some 400 children on a busy bazaar street as they marched down singing paeans to nationhood when the earth shook and swallowed up their town. So, snuggling in her grandmother's lap, under an elegant black-and-green shamiana in a dusty playground, Richa Ramniklal is somewhat of a hapless exception. The shamiana, set up for a marriage ceremony the day before the quake killed thousands in the town, is now a gloomy refuge of a few hundred survivors. Three-year-old Richa is the most unfortunate of them all—her parents perished in the rubble. In the doleful wastelands of Gujarat today, she is a quake orphan.

It's early days yet to pin down how many children have lost their parents in quake-devastated Gujarat. Some estimates by Ahmedabad-based adoption centres suggest that there might be as many as 6,000 such children. But reports of a larger number of children who have lost their parents are slowly pouring in. Assessment teams from the government and ngos are also scouring for them. Adoption centres in Ahmedabad are already swamped by calls from couples at home and abroad. They are keen to adopt the quake orphans. Says Vijay Pandit, superintendent of the Ahmedabad-based Mahipatram Rupram Ashram, a 108-year-old orphanage which houses some 70 children: "I have already received applications from couples in the city and Mumbai for adoptions. The phone here just keeps ringing all day." Child Line, a hotline to help distressed children, has been receiving up to ten calls every day from interested couples. But, as Hannah Crabtree of Save the Children, an international ngo working with children, says: "Everybody seems to be in a hurry to adopt. In a few days, the orphanages might even begin receiving a large number of children. But it is important not to rush things and check the antecedents of the willing couples."

Crabtree, who's now camping in Bhuj to collect information about such children, is not off the mark. For the moment, children like Richa are being looked after by their numbed relatives in tatty tarpaulin-and-tent camps that dot the ruins of western Gujarat. Communities have traditionally come to the rescue of displaced and distressed children after calamities in India. But how long these relatives and friends will look after the children will depend on their earnings and caste and community-based gender preferences. Also, pauperised communities who have lost their kin in calamities have a cruel interest in sheltering orphans—the lure of compensation monies.

How long, for example, would little Richa's seventy-something half-blind grandmother Parvati be able to pay for the upkeep of the unlucky girl? She doesn't have an answer. "How and why we survived is still a big riddle to me," she says. When the quake struck the town, the little girl was playing with her in the family tenement in a small two-storey house. Instinctively, grandmom grabbed the child and hid under a cot, shivering in fear. She also saw Richa's mother drowning in a sea of crashing rubble as she ran into the room. Next door, her father, Ramnik Chandulal, was at work in his little shop, making block prints that were the pride of the town. His lifeless body was pulled out of the rubble a few days later. In the din and bustle of the makeshift marriage-turned-survivor's camp where the maimed and the hardy sleep side by side in rusty cots, Richa wails most of the time: "Where is mummy? Where is mummy? Find her for me." When night falls and the cold freezes the inmates, she dozes off. "How am I going to protect her? I am not going to live for long," says Parvati.

In Bhachau, Jenaben Qasim echoes the sentiments. These days, she is looking after her two nephews and two nieces who have lost their parents in the quake. For the moment, they have found a home inside a relatively clean army-donated tent alongside the busy Bhuj-Ahmedabad highway—a far cry from the remains of their chaotic hometown where the angry living are running all over the mineral-water pouch-strewn streets that reek of gamaxine and grime, grabbing all relief they can get. But when they move to a new home, will Jenaben's husband, Qasim Nazi, who used to own a small tyre repairing shack in the town, be able to maintain the four children apart from the three of their own? "I am not even thinking of the future," says Jenaben, adding, "Right now, I am simply thinking that we have a roof over our heads and the boys are playing in the field."

By all accounts, Qasim's brother, Hasam Usman and his wife, Nasim, were a happy family with their two sons and two daughters. Hasam kept the home fires burning carting and hawking utensils. Business was good—he had shelled out Rs 40,000 from his savings to buy a new two-room concrete home only two months ago in the town. He was sending eight-year-old Ashif and six-year-old Najir to school. When the earth moved that morning, the boys were at school, mugging maths lessons. They ran out of their crumbling classrooms and lay flat on the rumbling earth. Nasim was at home with the daughters, four-year-old Nazma and two-year-old Shabnam. They went down in the rubble. Hasan's journey around town with his cart to begin his day's business terminated abruptly a few hundred yards down the street. "When I reached home from school with my brother, I found that some neighbours had just taken my mother out from under the slab," says Ashif, eyes welling up with tears. "She was bleeding a lot from her head. I asked her if it hurt. She feebly told me to bring a cloth and cover the wound. Then she fell silent. Somebody told me that she was dead." Then the boy began looking for his father. He found him lying over his cart, chunks of stone on his head and neck. When night falls and aftershocks shake the tent, the four orphans hold tightly to Jenaben. Says she: "Nazma cries every night. She keeps saying 'Give me my mummy back. I want to see her now.'"

Eight-year-old Anil Kumar Mansukhlal's story is even sadder. He last met his parents ten months ago when he visited his Ratnal village on vacation from Ahmedabad. His father, Vagjee Mansukhlal, who worked as a tailor in Ratnal, a village in Bhuj, had sent the boy to his brother's home in Ahmedabad so that he could go to school. Sometimes he would mail-order his son's Rs 200-a-month tuition fees. There wasn't enough money for him to see his son frequently, so Anil had visited home only twice in three years. Two days after the quake, there was a call from a neighbour in Ratnal informing that his parents and a ten-year-old brother Jogesh were dead. Only three-year-old Jigar had somehow survived with injuries. "When the call came, he kept asking whether his parents were dead," says his uncle Rajubhai Govindbhai, 23, even as Anil stares blankly at the sky. "When we said yes, he cried continuously for two days. Now we try to keep him busy with toys. At nights, he keeps us awake, crying for his parents and asks me to take him to his mother."

Far away, in a tent camp for survivors in Ratnal, another village razed to the ground by the angry earth, little Jigar has gone speechless after the tragedy. His parents died going through the motions of their everyday chores—mother Manjula Behn had stepped out of her home to pick up some vegetables from a hawker when the house collapsed. When her husband rushed out to rescue her, he also drowned on dry land. Across the highway, Vagjee's brother, Govindbhai, was walking to a field for ablutions when he mistook the rumbling for the first train travelling on the newly-inaugurated broad guage railroad skirting the village. Looking back, he saw a cloud of dust and ran back. He found Jigar, caught between two slabs of concrete, and gasping for breath with a deep gash on his stomach. After pulling him out of the rubble, he realised that the rest of his nephew's family had perished. "Since then Jigar has stopped talking," says his uncle. "He doesn't even cry."

Desolate and without their real protectors, life for Jigar and others in ravaged Gujarat is not going to be easy. For now, the communities around them are holding on to them bravely. A team of nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, which went around 20 affected villages, claimed to have stumbled upon little orphaned twins, but their grandmothers and relatives were refusing to let them go to any orphanages. On the other hand, there were reports from Anjar that a few people landed up at a relief camp with a orphaned baby boy last week, "desperately looking for someone who could adopt the baby." Nobody agreed. For the moment, the community is the quake orphan's last resort. "I am going to keep and maintain my brother's baby, come what may," says Govindbhai Vagjee of his orphaned nephew Jigar. That's the only silver lining for the cursed children of Gujarat today.
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