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Quake aftermath pulls India together and apart


The state of Gujarat in northeast India was on our itinerary long before the earthquake struck. It is a wealthy state and home to 50 million. It is also the place where Christians have been most consistently harassed and attacked in recent years by mobs inspired by Hindu fundamentalist politicians.

On the morning of Jan. 26, at the moment the earthquake struck, my wife, Hoa, and I were in New Delhi in a bus driving to a celebration commemorating Indian independence. A large tremor was felt throughout the city, but we felt nothing and were unaware until we got off the bus and began to hear people speak of the quake.

There was, of course, no way to know its size or the devastation it had just caused throughout Gujurat. During that first day we ran into people who told us they were in buildings and saw walls shaking and cabinets falling. Still, there was no immediate news as to size and meaning, although by the end of the day we were hearing on CNN in our hotel room that the quake had registered close to 8 on the Richter scale and that large segments of Gujarat had been devastated.

That evening we watched CNN for information. News within India was lagging behind international reports. Yet hour-by-hour the magnitude of death and destruction grew. Papers the next morning were reporting 10,000 dead. By the following day reports had grown to 25,000, and four days after the quake estimates were up to 100,000.

Today, 11 days after the quake, some 30,000 have been counted as dead. Some 50,000 to 75,000 more may still be missing. No one knows for sure because no central authority has taken responsibility for gathering the information.

India is a culturally and ethnically diverse nation. There are more than 20 official languages. Some say nearly 1,000 languages are spoken throughout this nation. This diversity comes with a large measure of regionalism. Not often, it is said here, does the nation pull together, but the outpouring of aid and concern for the residents of Gujurat is evident wherever one goes.

Newspapers, businesses and student groups have taken up collections. India Airlines has scheduled 40 additional flights into Gujarat this week to bring in clothing and food.

Last night we took a train from Bombay to Surat and checked into a local hotel. Our first encounter with the quake came as we looked at large bed sheets hanging throughout the hotel lobby, covering cracks in the walls that had been caused by the quake.

We were offered reassurances -- for what they were worth -- that the aftershocks had ended and that we would be safe.

Fifty-two people died in this provincial town when apartment buildings collapsed, trapping them inside.

Most of the destruction was some miles to the north. One of the heaviest hit cities was Ahmedabad. Most of those who died there were crushed when multi-story buildings fell around them. It has been repeatedly pointed out to us that such buildings are relatively new to Gujarat and that the occupants were “among the rich” in the city. The poor cannot afford such structures.

In neighboring areas, however, it was a different case. Many villages have been totally wiped out. Some have simply disappeared.

Relief has been slow to arrive on the scene although after nearly a week and a half this appears to be changing. The army has been the only organized force to offer relief in a systematic way from the beginning, and it has had no training in such efforts.

The newspapers are filled with stories of finger-pointing and scapegoating. Poor construction, it has been reported, has been the chief cause of death in this earthquake.

A government official in a state with a relatively large Christian population stated what we had heard privately from some Catholics in Goa, to the south, that God was punishing Gujarat for its persecution of Christians. While his remarks seemed to make sense to many Christians, they were the cause of his forced resignation two days later.

It is clear that the finger-pointing in India’s highly politicized climate will not end soon. Prime Minister Vajpayee, it is being charged, was slow to respond and to rally government relief. The charge may have some credibility.

One of the reasons I came to India was for a gathering of the International Press Institute, a meeting of publishers and editors worldwide that watchdogs human rights abuses against journalists. The day after the earthquake the prime minister addressed the group and said almost nothing about the calamity. We did take a few seconds in silence to recognize what had happened. I was surprised that he took time to speak to us while a part of his nation was in ruins.

International aid will be necessary in large amounts. Television goes around the clock with scenes of devastation and suffering, and the newspapers are filled with such reports. Let’s hope the human family responds to this great need.

Tom Fox, NCR publisher, can be reached at tcfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001