The Day the Earth Shook

Earthquake shocks are a recurring phenomenon in Kutch history… Following the great earthquake of 1819, the western portion of the Rann, which had been drying up around the Kori… sank twelve feet or more… But another violent earth tremor, of the magnitude of that which damaged Anjar so severely in July 1956, might at any time alter the terrain of the Rann once more. ” – The Black Hills: Kutch in History and Legend, Rushbrook Williams, 1958.

My recollection of earthquakes was adventurously romantic, seen through the eyes of a young lad. Of Delhi in the early sixties, being dragged out of the house, dumped on the road, snuggling up under a huge blanket (shared by the dogs with attempts to kick the sister out), secretly waiting for some silly building to collapse… that was what earthquakes were made off!

Thirty-eight years later, on January 25, 2001, Delhi was long forgotten. I was camping out in the countryside near Bhuj, conducting a conservation education camp for the Gujarat Nature Conservation Society.

We, of course, had no clue that early next morning Kutch would be turned on its head. Nothing could have been further from our minds than an earthquake. We even dismissed the ‘abnormal’ behaviour of animals around the campsite as inconsequential. It started after midnight with the howling and yelping of jackals. This continued for a few hours and it seemed as if the pack had gone berserk, running all over the place. We presumed they were reacting to the presence of a leopard reported in the area.

Much later, I woke to the sound of growling and weird gnashing. I came out of the tent to keep the fire going, and as if on cue, the partridges started their chorus, soon joined by the Red-wattled Lapwings from the nearby water body. Then the Green Bee-eaters nesting in a tree took to the air. It was bizarre, amazing and a bit unnerving! I had never experienced anything like this in my life.

Like most other people, I had heard about abnormal animal behaviour just before earthquakes, but I never thought that the ruckus being made was a warning!

However, on the morning of January 26, 2001 it took just 1 minute and 15 seconds, for me to realize that there are no romantic visions as far as killer earthquakes are concerned.

60 kilometres (as the crow flies) from the epicentre, hanging on to the tent-pole with my ears bursting with the triumphant shrieking and rumbling being emitted from the earth, I watched the ground splitting around me, wondering which side I would be able to leap. Still on the roller-coaster ride, I saw the hills crack open with a roar and huge boulders crumbling. At one place, the earth spat out a huge column of dust. The trees, it seemed, were paying obeisance to nature, almost bending to kiss the ground with their branches. Somewhere in the midst of all this, my mind also registered the terrified screams of our kitchen staff.

And then it was over.

The silence was unreal. Lying on the ground with my face near a surface-crack, I noticed in a very detached manner that mini puffs of dust were rhythmically bathing my arm. My ears soon detected more growling from the earth, warning of after-shocks. In the distance, there were ‘explosive’ sounds. The ground was still shifting.

I tried to get up, but surprisingly could not find the strength. So I crawled towards a clearer area and turned my face towards Bhuj. Our camp, being on an elevation, we always had a wonderful view of the city and the old fort with the camel-humped dungars rolling down to the horizon. But now I saw nothing but a thick cloud of dust! Still trying to comprehend the situation, my sensibilities were shattered by an eerie wailing sound that drifted in from Bhuj.

Kutch has been razed to the ground. It took the Gujarat government six days to initiate relief measures for Kutch. Thousands of people lay trapped under the debris, crying out for help and most of us were totally incapable of extending any more help than to hold a stranger’s hand till the breathing stopped.

No water. No food. No medicine. No shelter. No relief measures.

When relief planes did reach Bhuj, those carrying ministers were allowed to land first. They all stepped out with their ‘Z category’ security, talked about crisis management and earthquake-proof houses to people who wanted heavy equipment to clear the debris and look for survivors. They talked about task forces to people who were crying out for medical care. They talked about the resilient temperament of the Gujarati community and their tenacity to face any calamity (statistics of past calamities read out), to people who wanted food, water and blankets to survive the day and cold nights.

Then they all went back to Gandhinagar to wave their respective party flags.

Thousands of people dead, whole cities razed to the ground. Kutch faced the brunt of the earthquake, but many died and suffered because the government failed to extend timely support. The government machinery, once again, proved itself impotent.

Even a month after the quake, there was no real help from the government. Ask the people of Bhuj, Khavda, Bhujodi, Nakhatrana, Anjar, Vandh, Kera, Samkhyali, Bhachau and other quake-effected areas, and they will tell you that what relief they did get, came from NGO’s and private sources.

In Bhuj, people could be heard saying that they were happy that the circuit-house had collapsed. At least no VIP with his attendant entourage would spend the night! At another area of Bhuj, an old man lies on his stomach in front of the special tent erected by the government for ‘earthquake relief’. His words – “Kill me if you want to, but I will not leave this place. All I am asking for is some of the food and blankets that are kept inside.”

The amazing stories of government apathy and human greed can go on. Many commissions will be launched and reports filed. The media will no longer find the earthquake stories ‘print-worthy’, and, except for those directly affected by the pain and loss due to the earthquake, the rest will eventually forget.

And, of course, the cover-up is in full swing. Kandla, for example, with its oil and chemical ports, is an area declared safe by the government. News about cracked pipelines and toxic chemical spills was quickly peppered over, and all pipelines and their foundations were claimed to be “intact with no earthquake damage”.

The Kandla port has already had a disastrous effect on the bird sanctuary near Jamnagar and the Marine National Park. The coastal areas of Mundra, Mandvi, Navlakhi, Jodiya, Jamnagar, Sika and Byet Dwarka could soon become dumping grounds for the debris generated by the collapsed dwellings, leading to further ecological disasters as businessmen make real estate out of a natural disaster.

One hopes that the people of Kutch will retain their spirit and remain alert to the dangers that threaten their land – including the destruction that is gifted to them in the garb of ‘development’!

Ho! The black hills of our land!

Ho! The white milk of our land:

Sweet are our water and air!

Loyal in heart and in hand

We Kutchhis hold true to our land!

– Kutchhi Dance Song.

(First published in Sanctuary Asia magazine, April 2001)

Some later images:





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