This is about thoughts I first had over two years ago. Nevertheless, they are thoughts I've mulled over for much of those two years; and in some ways it seems best to me to mull, to discuss them, now. Now, when there's no great disaster to cope with.
A week spent in quake-hit Kutch in early 2001 left me thinking them. As it happened, there were not too many deaths in the villages I visited. There was, however, a lot of destruction: most houses were just piles of stones. Destruction like that would devastate me. But in Kutch, I was moved by the spirit of the people in these villages, their willingness to pick up and carry on after this huge disruption to their lives. (Though as an aside, I should mention that even with that spirit, we often had to face up to the ancient caste divisions that the quake had done nothing to blur).
What was nearly as moving was that so many had come from all over the country to offer their help to Gujarat. I often wondered: what stimulates generosity like this? The team I was with was particularly interested in what must be a continuing preoccupation in Kutch, quake or no quake: water. So we visited some dams in the area to check how badly they were damaged. In the village of Toraniya, where we camped for some days, we listened to a young man explain his dream. He wanted to dam a seasonal stream some distance from the village and make a pond, a talao, so Toraniya would have a year-round source of water. (One year later, when I visited again, Toraniya had that dam. But that's another story).
Many interesting experiences, and much to think about. Yet when I look back on those days from several weeks later, I find myself thinking most about one aspect above all: the way we respond to calamity.
Consider some random observations from my time in Kutch.
First, banners were everywhere in the area. Every truck carrying relief material also sported a banner identifying the organization that had sent it. Every camp of volunteers had one too. On the walls of some crumpled buildings in the town of Samkhiali, a painted sign announced that Zee Network had "adopted" the town for "complete rehabilitation". "Zee: With You In This Critical Situation", said another sign, whatever that meant. Naturally, these signs had been painted only on the walls that faced the highway. They had to be read, after all. (One year later, when I visited again, the same signs were still on the same crumpled buildings. But that's another story too).
The banners told an inspiring story of the wide cross-section of India that had come to Gujarat. They also told me that some of the most industrious people in India after the quake were the painters of signs. And something about that does not fit.
Second, take the way at least some relief material was distributed. In the village of Shikarpur, off the Malia-Samkhiali highway, I came upon a Delhi team simply tossing old clothes off a truck into a pathetic sea of reaching hands. I waded in, yelling "What are you doing?" at them. All I got was a collective shrug, followed by more tossing. The tossers didn't seem in the least concerned about their efforts. In Bhachau, another truck drove past us, the men on top flinging biscuit packets overboard as people raced behind reaching for them, fighting and snarling over them. A wrenching sight. Must we treat people, even earthquake victim people, this way?
Third, I wish there were more questions about the kind of material that comes in as relief. Like the old clothes I saw in Shikarpur. They arrived by the truckload, and some were tossed at the victims: but all over the quake area, we saw piles of clothes just flung aside. Whatever the reasons, and I can think of some, nobody wants old clothes. Then there was the team that had come from Nashik with a truck full of shankarpale, the savoury Maharashtrian snack. Nobody wanted that either, so after some days roaming the district, they met us and dumped half their load on us. Really, why do people send such stuff?
He meant relief.
Fifth, even well-meaning people were often unaware of the magnitude of the tasks they had undertaken as "relief". Take the traders' association from Delhi that also came to Toraniya. They had come, they told us with some pride, to feed the villagers meals for a week. A fine impulse, perhaps? But to begin with, it wasn't clear that the villagers even needed, or wanted, free food. Several told us they had more than enough supplies to cook for themselves. The Delhi traders had not bothered to ask about this.
Still, they got going with an encouraging enthusiasm, producing piping hot puri-bhaji and serving it with warmth and good cheer to hundreds of villagers. But after just two meals -- lunch and dinner on that first day -- they ran out of steam. The next morning, they lined up the villagers, distributed their vegetables and oil and vessels, got into their Toyota Qualis, and left. Gone like they had never come. "Kya karen, boss", one said to me as he packed. "We have families back home too, we have two days travel ahead of us, and we are tired." I couldn't help wondering, while appreciating the motivation that brought them here, what good they really had done in Toraniya.
Sixth, there was the nearly ubiquitous attitude of "helping" the victims, as opposed to seeing that they helped themselves. In one village, some Baba's sturdy followers were erecting tents for the villagers. They refused to let the villagers help. Kindly but firmly, they told those who offered: "Hum aap ka seva karne aayen hain, aap sirf baithiye aur hum kaam karenge." (We have come to serve you, so just sit down while we do the work).
Is it right to "help" in this way?
Seeing all this in Kutch, I found myself struggling to understand what this business of relief is all about. Should it be so haphazard? So thoughtless? So inappropriate? So patronizing? And yet, I walk something of a tightrope in asking such questions. So many people do so much for victims of calamities out of the goodness of their hearts, driven by the sheer human desire to help. I don't mean to scorn that at all.
Yet with that desire to help, perhaps we should ask how we can best help. Is this attitude towards relief really helping the victims?
This reminded me of a remarkable man from Texas called Fred Cuny. A sort of self-made disaster-relief expert, I suspect Cuny would have resisted that description itself. He went into places like Turkey, Bosnia and Guatemala after various natural and man-made calamities; and the "relief" he saw happening disgusted him. He came to believe that rushing in this "relief" only created more problems in the disaster area: inappropriate material, logistical nightmares and a population that grows to depend on handouts. All of which, in one form or another, to one extent or another, was on display in Kutch. (And for that matter, in Orissa after the 1999 cyclone).
Tragically, Cuny was killed in early 1995 while on a mission in the deadly Chechnya war. Yet his ideas and thinking live on: in the people he motivated, the books and papers he wrote and that have been written about him and his work. In memory of this original thinker, I'd like to offer here just a flavour of his ideas.
In his 1983 book "Disasters and Development", Cuny had something quite unexpected to say about disasters: "For the survivors of a natural disaster, a second disaster may also be looming."
He meant relief.
After a 1976 quake in Guatemala, blankets began arriving in the capital by the planeload. But this was in a country where blanket-making is a major part of the economy. Result: the shipments immediately bankrupted many weavers. Why, Cuny wanted to know, had nobody taken this into account? In another case, a shipment of instant mashed potatoes left locals bewildered. They began to use it as detergent. Food shipments like those potatoes troubled Cuny for another reason as well. Too often, like with the blankets, they only impoverished farmers in neighbouring areas. He also fumed over how operations died out a few weeks after the disaster. This tended to leave victims worse off than if there had been no relief at all.
As Cuny stressed, you have to understand local conditions after a calamity. That decides how relief will proceed. And you have to be prepared for the long term. These lines about his work in war-ravaged Sarajevo in the early '90s speak for themselves (from Scott Anderson's "The Man Who Tried To Save The World", an investigation into his death):
With nearly all food supplies being either airlifted or trucked into the city --
and thus always vulnerable to the Serb blockade -- [Cuny] started a seed distribution programme that enabled the increasingly desperate residents to grow fruits and vegetables in their backyards or apartment terraces. [His] engineers designed a portable gas-powered
stove that doubled as a heater, a vital improvement in the cold Sarajevan winters when fuel supplies were scarce. Noticing the array of homemade -- and dangerous -- devices the residents had used to hook
onto the city's functioning gas lines, Fred brought in planeloads of reinforced plastic piping -- some 15 miles worth -- and linked thousands of homes to the lines.
"That was an unbelievable project," said Aryeh Neier, the president of [George] Soros's Open Society Institute [that funded the operation]. "Fred managed to enlist 15,000 Sarajevans to dig trenches through the streets to put in the gas lines -- and this was while the shelling was taking place."
To me, Cuny's most important insight was about the entire attitude of relief, of responding to tragedy. Cuny thought disasters must be viewed not as tragedies, but opportunities. Mourning helps nobody and only keeps people mired in self-pity. Far better to get on with the job. And when you look at it that way, opportunity lies everywhere: in rebuilding homes, in fixing water sources, in repairing drains and pipes, in giving the most deprived people -- always the worst hit -- new voice and strength. (For some reason I remember here the aside I had at the beginning of this piece, about caste divisions).
Opportunity is in how you mould a damaged society anew.
If there was any of this kind of thinking in Gujarat after the quake, I saw no sign of it. What I did see was far too many boxes of unwanted shankarpale. They might as well have been instant mashed potatoes.