February 19, 2001



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Major General Ashok K Mehta

Kargil to Kutch

Reliving the tragedy of the Kutch earthquake with Army and Air Force units deployed to aid civil authority there was a self-cleansing experience. It is enough to bring anyone down to earth. For those who survived, the shock was so devastating that they were left with only one feeling: that they're alive. That is why, despite entire settlements being razed to the ground, not a trace of remorse or sorrow is visible in most places. Life goes on.

Every time our helicopter would land outside what had been a village, its inhabitants -- to the last child -- would swarm the helipad to see this mechanical bird. Everything here is now in the past tense. Not finding words to describe the scale of destruction, the Army is using two of its field signals. The first for taking a lying (prone) position which means the village is flattened; the second is the signal used at the firing range for a washout (read village wiped out).

When the earthquake happened, the clap, roar and thunder reminded Khotadi's sarpanch Ram Jadeja of low flying jets breaking the sound barrier. He wasn't entirely wrong. It was January 26 and precisely the time for the Republic Day flypast over Gandhinagar. The epicentre of the earthquake which I saw is estimated to lie between Lodiya and Jawaharnagar, a place called Dhorai, 20 km northeast of Bhuj. Small craters have erupted here. Nine to 12 inch high volcanoes which spewed water laden with white ash now pockmark Dhorai.

The cruellest of ironies is that Dhorai is close to Jawaharnagar and Anjar, the epicentre of the earthquake in 1956 which wiped them off the map. And now, both have disappeared again, though the people live on. Everything southeast of the probable fault line extending from Bhuj to Ropar has been demolished. Far from the Rann of destruction, near Mandvi on the southern coast, is one freak pocket of annihilation called Khotadi. Surprisingly, the area between Bhuj and Khotadi is fine.

If the Kutch earthquake was about total disaster, the rescue and relief operations undertaken by the Army, the Air Force and to a lesser extent, by the Navy were swift and spontaneous. For the first 72 hours, there was no civil administration that the military could assist. Along with the state structures, its institutions had also collapsed. Worse, the Army and Air Force in Bhuj had themselves suffered extensive damage and required help. Like the rest of Kutch, every soldier and air warriors is under canvas. Thousands of their families have been evacuated.

The IAF particularly is badly hit, losing 98 of its persons at the Bhuj air base. Despite these handicaps the services have mounted the biggest ever relief and disaster management operation in the history of this country. Soldiers moved out of the Bhuj cantonment as soon as the earthquake struck. Luckily there were troops out on training nearby and they were also called in. Aerial reconnaissance provided the initial estimate of the scale and spread of destruction.

The most critical to relief reaching Bhuj was the state of the runway and landing facilities at the IAF air base. Power failure had led to disruption of all essential services, including communication. The air traffic control was extensively damaged. So the Bhuj base commander flew a helicopter 100 km to Nalliya to inform his command headquarter at Gandhinagar that the runway was serviceable. This was a lucky break. By mid afternoon (26 January) an air bridge was established and essential relief material including heavy engineer plant and specialized personnel began arriving.

If Bhuj was critical to maintaining an air ferry, Bhachau, an important road and rail junction was key to opening the land link to Bhuj and other parts of Kutch. Bhuj and Bhachau became the air and road heads for channelising relief operations. Unfortunately, at neither place was there any monitoring and distribution centre to deploy resources commensurate with requirements. This resulted initially in bottlenecks at both places.

The Bhuj airport is accustomed to handling just one commercial flight a day which, during Op Sahayata, shot up to 90 flights. The air base became a giant warehouse of stores and parking lots for trucks and aircraft. Till February 12, when flights began tapering, the IAF alone had flown some 1200 sorties and carried upwards of 5000 tonnes of stores. The air effort was so colossal and nearly as large as the air lift for two Siachens, that the IAF had to call off its biggest ever air power demonstration called Vayu Shakti at Pokharan.

On the ground the Army's rescue and relief teams had reached out to the villages. However, it did not have the resources and the information to cover the entire disaster zone in one go. The next best option was to keep spreading into the interior from Bhuj, Bhachau and Anjar. Organised in composite task forces of medical, engineers, infantry and logistics, the Army took in clusters of villages, later fanning out. State, NGO and voluntary relief teams had been mainly confined along the roads and highways though slowly they too moved off the beaten track.

A typical programme of work by Army has included simultaneously clearing road arteries and lanes; rescue, recuperation and evacuation; extricating the dead; establishing tented camps; setting up kitchens and providing drinking water... This is not all. It is helping state authority and individuals in extricating personal valuables and state documents. Army engineers have recovered crores worth of stamp paper, bonds, cash, jewellery, weapons, RDX and bank records in Bhuj. Rare artefacts and vintage coins have also been unearthed from the rubble. A curfew has been enforced to prevent lawlessness and looting. The Army is patrolling the area.

Every village with Army presence has a central Sahayata centre for the needs of the people. Most NGOs and relief providers have insisted on involving the Army in distribution of aid. The Army has not only erected neat rows of blue-and-white tented camps but also dug snake trenches and latrines. Schools have been restarted under canvas shelters. Villagers are being encouraged to revive religious teaching. It is uncanny that while mandirs and mosques have come down, idols of Hanuman and Rama are unscathed. The Army has got involved in rehabilitation also. Local commanders are encouraging the village sarpanches -- the panchayat system is well rooted here -- to revive cottage industry like Kutchi handicraft. They have even offered to buy their products.

The Army and Air Force have plans to adopt villages. The Navy has already adopted Mota near Porbandar. Bus services using Army transport have been revived at some places. There is a scheme for adoption of orphans and setting up old age homes. Any account of the succour given in Kutch would be incomplete without mentioning the sterling work done by the military hospital at Bhuj. Within four hours of the earthquake, a makeshift hospital, the only one in the region, was operational outdoors. As all civil hospitals had collapsed, this was the only functioning one. One of the surgeons described the scene as a warzone. He said their main job in the first 48 hours was one of "butchery" -- endless amputation of limbs. While the book prescribes around 10 to 12 amputation operations every day, his team carried out that number by the hour.

Although 200 doctors came into Bhuj, none brought any equipment along. "They were like photographers without a camera," noted the military surgeon. The Israeli military hospital came up on January 30. The navy deployed its ships in Kandla port. By the afternoon of January 26, two of them were converted into hospitals. Port facilities were revived and sailors helped in making Kandla functional. Naval stations at Jamnagar, Porbandar and Okha were also mobilised for relief operations. 26 When the official record of Operation Sahayata is chronicled, some gallant stories may be missing. Like Murugeshan's. A retired havaldar from Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, he mustered a dozen volunteers and brought them to Khotadi village. There is a Major Rego from Goa, operating near the epicentre. And a lady officer from Meerut, Capt Bajwa. She has become folklore, rescuing a woman after being trapped for 125 hours in Anjar.

Although the Army has a penchant for statistics, in Kutch the Great Indian Soldier is not being measured in figures. He has become a byword in every Kutch household. Wadli is a small village south of Bhuj and one of the last to be touched by the Army as late as February 8. Relieved to see soldiers, Sarpanch Kanabhai told the Engineer Regiment Commander: "Aap aaye to jaan aayi (your presence has given us a new lease of life)".

Apart from these tales about the Army, there are equally engaging stories about the supporting cast. The response to the earthquake has been overwhelming, within Gujarat and from outside the state, including overseas. For the first 48 hours at least, there was no trace of civil administration or state machinery anywhere and therefore, the monumental confusion. As the dust settled, the size and scale of the tragedy began to unfold. Clearly there was no coordination between Bhuj and Gandhinagar on one hand and Gandhinagar and Delhi on the other. Consequently, the disarray in organising and directing relief activities.

Many valuable lessons have no doubt been learnt, not the last that the services, Army in particular, have to be central to any future disaster management organisation. This is not to underplay the sterling role of others in the scheme of relief. But there is a curious pattern in their order of arrival. The NGOs came first, followed by religious houses displaying their gurus and mutts. The corporate houses came next, selecting villages for adoption. Political parties were the last to make an appearance. For example, Sonia Gandhi touched base on February 12. 'Congress relief camp' banners and offices came up overnight at Bhuj. It will be unfortunate, as feared, if relief is disbursed as per vote-bank.

Besides the communal divide in Kutch, there is intense polarisation also. When the Army first set up tented colonies, villagers refused to move in. They wanted the camps to be segregated along caste and religion lines. This is anathema for the Army. But even so, it obliged. The RSS and Bajrang Dal volunteers were the only ones prepared to help the army in extricating the dead and cremating them.

As the civil administration and essential services are being restored for the final phase of rehabilitation and reconstruction, the Army has begun thinning out. Except for blankets and tents, other resources are adequate. The last task assigned to the Army is the demolition of dangerous and insecure buildings. Before the end of this month, barring the demolition squads, the Army will have pulled out. When the local commander in Adhoi, easily the worst devastated place in Kutch, told the sarpanch that it was time for the army to leave, the latter nearly broke down and cried.

Why does the army relish Kutch more than Kargil? Because there is instant gratification. And for once, they can see and feel they are important and indispensable. But it is not just a feel-good experience. As one Brigadier who is retiring later this month told me, "Kutch has been a humbling experience, among the most satisfying assignments of my life. The earthquake has thrown up many talented writers in the Army, who handed over to me, their writings -- Bhachau Despatches; Can't Save Bhachau and Adios Adhoi." For more, get on to the Army website.

The complete coverage of the Gujarat earthquake


The mantras for peace
Why Nepal loves to hate India

General Ashok K Mehta

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