Monday, May 29, 2023

Gujarat Earthquake: The People Of Bhuj Have Re-built Their Lives But At What Cost?


Gujarat Earthquake: The People Of Bhuj Have Re-built Their Lives But At What Cost?

In the 22 years since the Bhuj earthquake, the lives of people in Kutch, the district devasted by it, have changed but the psyches of the people still carry the fear of that day

Remains of the Day: The old Jubilee Hospital which collapsed in the Bhuj earthquake Photo: Dinesh Parab

Sejal Ramchandra Rajgor was 13 months old in 2001 when an earthquake of 7.6 magnitude hit Gujarat with its epicentre in the Chobari village of Kutch district. Rajgor, a resident of Bhuj, devastated by the earthquake, was buried under the falling debris. The earthquake occurred at 8.46 a.m. on January 26 that year but Rajghor was rescued in the evening. She was pulled out by her relatives with one foot crushed by the weight of the debris and the other severely injured.

Rajgor lost her mother in the earthquake. Now 23, she has a prosthetic foot. In the 22 years since the earthquake, she has been in and out of hospitals (initially in Mumbai and then in Bhuj) and undergone several surgeries to heal her foot. “The healing was a gradual process and she has faced severe pain all these years,” says Damayanti Rajgor, her aunt. Damayanti and her husband lost both their children in the earthquake and have brought up Rajgot as their own child. “As I grew up, this artificial foot has become a part of me and I never think about it as an artificial limb. It is something I need to take out and keep when my feet are tired,” Rajgor says to Outlook. “I run, play games and do everything within the limitations of my injury,” she says.

She has refused to erase the memories of the earthquake. “This gives me the inner strength to carry on. Though I do not remember much when I look at my foot, I know that I have no other option but to face the challenge,” Rajgor says resolutely.

Seated in an office lined with trophies received for his work during the earthquake and the years after, Dr Gyaneshwar Rao thinks fondly of Rajgor. It was Rao who had operated on Rajgor, gave her the prosthetic foot and guided her through the rehabilitation crucial to her being mobile again. He has only words of praise for the youngster. “She is one of the bravest and most positive persons I have seen,” he says. Right after the earthquake, Rao set up an open-air medical centre with operating facilities, providing crucial medical aid to the injured. For months on end this makeshift hospital provided succour to the injured. “The biggest challenge was to provide sustained medical care to those who needed long-term medical rehabilitation. There were about 400 cases of spinal cord injuries and these people needed special care. The orthopaedically handicapped and those with severe head injuries too needed another kind of specialized care,” Rao tells Outlook.

Bhuj did not have the necessary medical facilities before the earthquake. This put a great strain on Rao and the medical team in the aftermath of the earthquake. “Despite not being medically well-equipped, Kutch rose to the occasion. The resilience of the Kutchi people is admirable,” says Rao. Today the Kutch Rehabilitation and Therapy Centre in Bhuj, Rao’s brainchild, supports the rehabilitation needs of persons with disabilties within Kutch and its neighbouring districts.

Resilience trumps fear: Sejal Ramchandra Rajgor and her aunt;
Resilience trumps fear: Sejal Ramchandra Rajgor and her aunt Photo: Dinesh Parab

According to government estimates, there were 13,572 deaths and 21,456 injured in the earthquake in Bhuj even as other sources report much higher numbers of both dead as well as injured.

About 27 km away from Bhuj lies Ratnal, another village flattened by the 2001 earthquake. Trikambhai Ramji Varchan (58), a survivor, tells Outlook that despite the passing years, the pain of loss has not lessened. The village lost 160 people, of which 60 were children who were out either in the school for the Republic Day parade or at home. “The village did not have children for some time. We were a population of 10,000 and many houses had lost a child each. The pain of that day cannot be erased,” Varchan tells Outlook.

The village with its population of 14,000 now comprises people who belong to the Rabari, Ahir, Darbar and Dalit communities, all of whom live in segregated areas in the village. While in 2001 the village was congested with houses, the 22 years since the earthquake has seen a new kind of development in Ratnal which now has concrete roads, walking areas with paver blocks, wide spaces, water supply to every home, CCTV cameras and streetlights. An 11-member, all-woman gram panchayat has also brought in significant changes in the village. Sariyanben Trikambhai Ahir, the sarpanch of the village says that the men tend to the goats, cows or buffaloes and the women are involved in embroidery work—an integral part of every household in Kutch district.

All the affected with whom Outlook spoke share a common narrative of loss and rebuilding their lives in the aftermath. While Kutch was considered to be a poor district prior to the earthquake, the rebuilt district is a tale of prosperity. The establishment of medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs) by those in the district and tie-ups with businesses in the larger cities of Ahmedabad, Surat, Mumbai and Jaipur have benefitted the region. The establishment of women’s self-help groups (SHGs) and entrepreneurial ventures tell an important story of growth in the district.

Pabiben Rabari, hand embroidery artist
Pabiben Rabari, hand embroidery artist Photo: Dinesh Parab

“This SHG has helped in the financial empowerment of women. Since embroidery work and handicrafts are part of every household, the women are involved in it. It is something they can do from the comfort of their homes,” says Pabiben Rabari, sitting on a charpai (mat) in her modern, concrete house in Bhardoi village in Anjar taluka of Kutch district. Rabari is a hand embroidery artist who employs about 300 women to help with her rural venture. Anjar had seen 2,000 deaths and 6,000 families rendered homeless by the 2001 earthquake. The dead included 185 children and 20 teachers who were participants in the Republic Day rally on that day. They had reached Khatri Chowk in Anjar when the earth shook and buildings started crumbling.

Today, a memorial—Veer Balak Smarak (Monument to Brave Children)—exhibits the memorabilia of these children in the form of personalised objects and stories associated with them. The images at this museum portray the ground reality of the aftermath of the devasting earthquake.

In the over 850-year-old Bhujodi village, the mud houses were flattened by the quake and the residents had faced tremendous economic, mental and physical hardships. “We are a village of weavers. Reestablishing the village took a long time. The financial losses were too high and the help that we received saw the rehabilitation,” says Vankar Shamji Vishrambhai, who won the national award for weaving in 2005. “The weavers went to work as daily wagers and did all sorts of jobs. We never realised that the earth could shake so much,” he tells Outlook. Today, through its handicrafts, the villagers have tried to face their financial challenges and eke out a living.

The financial help and expertise provided by the Gujarat government and numerous domestic and international NGOs has seen significant development in Kutch. The mud houses have been replaced by concrete ones and open spaces have been allocated in village squares to enable people to run out and converge in the event of an earthquake. “Earthquakes are not new to this region. There have been many in this region since then, but these have not been of a higher magnitude,” says Dr Mahesh Thakkar, Head of Department, Earth and Environmental Studies, at the Gujarat University.

Workshop of master weaver Vankar Shamji Vishram
Workshop of master weaver Vankar Shamji Vishram Photo: Dinesh Parab

Interestingly, real estate prices at the relocation sites have risen multiple times in the 22 years since the 2001 earthquake. Many survivors have left the villages and moved on to other cities in Gujarat and Maharashtra. However, for those like Osman Gani Ahmed Khatri, a shop owner in the old Bhuj market, life has not changed much. “We had money before the earthquake. Now we barely manage to barely make ends meet. My pregnant wife, my mother and I were buried under the debris. We were rescued by our relatives. My wife, Asma, came out with both her hands injured. She suffered serious nerve damage and lost the functioning of both her hands for several years. We lost everything in the earthquake,” Khatri tells Outlook.

The intervening years has seen the divorce of his parents and piling financial hardship. Khatri worked various jobs to pay for his wife’s rehabilitation. “Some years after childbirth, her condition started improving. Today, she embroiders and we sell the products in our shop. We do not get customers but the earnings are just enough to get us by,” says Khatri.

A majority of the people in Kutch are involved with tourism, one of the most lucrative businesses here. Ironically, ‘earthquake tourism’ is the major driving force of this industry.

A majority of the people in Kutch are involved with tourism, one of the most lucrative businesses here. Ironically, ‘earthquake tourism’ is the major driving force of this industry. The Gujarat government’s Smrutivan (Memory Garden), a museum dedicated to imparting knowledge about earthquakes in general and the Bhuj earthquake in particular, tops the list of tourist sites.

Sanjay Upadhyay, one of the owners of Chanchal TV, is of the opinion that the ‘Kutchi resilience’ has been a major factor in the success of the development of Kutch. “The people of Kutch did not sit back; instead they set about to rebuild the district. When the Gujarat government aggressively started marketing Kutch as a tourist destination, the people of Kutch got into allied businesses that would benefit them,” says  Upadhyay. “People come here to see the remnants of that earthquake. Many of the structures such as Jubilee Hospital, Aina Mahal and the old Bhuj area stand testimony to the devastation. While all the areas devastated by the quake have been rebuilt with no traces of the damage of that day, the few places that were abandoned by the villagers still stand,” he adds.

The hospitality industry is another flourishing sector. “The communities work together as they have realized the benefits of working together. In Kutch, there is no benefit in the segregation of communities as each is dependent on the other,” says Hanif Kadri, who is a driver with a travel agency. “Even before the earthquake each community lived amongst their own, so where is the question of segregation? We are non-vegetarians and most of the people in Kutch are vegetarians, so we try to live with communities who have similar food preferences. But we all work hand-in-hand,” adds Kadri.

“The earthquake has taught us the important lesson that women are as important as men. We cried when we lost our women. Their incomes were as important as ours,” says Arjanbhai Vachha, a small-scale entrepreneur of wooden products. For the people of Kutch, the last two decades have seen earthquakes of lesser magnitude, unsettling them every time the earth shakes even a little. “We run out of our homes even if we hear loud sounds. We will never forget the way the earth roared on that day,” says Varchan.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Unforgettable Roar")

Haima Deshpande in Kutch