Two years on, Gujarat still recovering from earthquake

By Jenny Iao in Delhi
"More lives in my neighbourhood could have been saved if only I knew first aid at that time,' says Amin Khoja with regret as he recounts the devastation of the earthquake in 2001 which flattened his house and almost all the infrastructure in the Kutch district of Gujarat.

He and the other 12 members of his family were woken up by a strong tremour at 8:45am. 'It was Republic Day and security was tight as usual in this border state. We thought a war had started," Amin recalls. It was a thought shared by many. If fact what they had felt was an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter Scale.

Grabbing his sister, Amin managed to escape from the two-storey house. Within 15 seconds, his house and that of his neighbours had completely collapsed. Not everyone in his home town of Bhuj was as lucky. More than 20,000 people were killed and thousands injured across Gujarat, many of them in the city of Bhuj.

Ensuring that his family was relocated to a safe area, Amin went back with his father and uncles to help find survivors. For hours - even after the army arrived at noon - they helped to search for and rescue their neighbours.

"I pulled six or seven people from the rubble, but I didn't know how to treat them next. Some were bleeding, or had broken necks, arms, legs or spinal injuries. I felt extremely helpless until the ambulance arrived," Amin sighs.

"It will remain the most regrettable day of my life. Later that day, I found out that 50 persons had died on the way to the hospital from my colony in Bhuj. If only more people in my community had known first aid, the loss of life could have been reduced," he adds.

In the following months, Amin, who used to run his own computer business before the shop was destroyed by the earthquake, provided administrative support to an non-governmental organisation which provided medical care to quake victims in front of the tented Bhuj hospital.

"When Indian Red Cross was recruiting field workers for a community based-health project, I didn't think twice," he said.

Two years on, many people are amazed at the speed with which many of the devastated villages have been rebuilt. But like the vast majority of affected people in Bhuj, Amin is still awaiting the town planning schemes that would allow him to rebuild his home.

His family of 13 is now divided between three temporary rented homes in different parts of the city. Many families who cannot afford this privilege are still living in tin-sheds or tents made from the plastic sheeting donated by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies during the earthquake relief phase.

Amin's dream of reuniting his family under one roof may take some time, but his dream of helping his community has come true.

'Two years ago, my knowledge of the Red Cross was minimal, apart from that it was one of the first aid agencies on the ground to assist the quake victims," he says. Today Amin is one of the senior trainers in the Indian Red Cross three-year community based health project in Gujarat. He is currently developing a community-based first aid training plan for volunteers in the quake affected district of Surendranagar.

"With my new knowledge in community-based health, disaster preparedness and mental health, I believe that I can do so much more to mobilize the communities to prepare for and in the event of disasters,' he says with pride.

When Gujarat was rocked, not by an earthquake, but by communal riots in 2002, Amin had personal experience of the unique position of the Red Cross during the relief operation in Ahmedabad.

"The greatest satisfaction is to see villagers with increasing health knowledge becoming more involved in solving their community problems,' says Amin. 'It is not easy to carry out community health activities in places where there are no active Red Cross branches. Retaining a network of 1,500 volunteers will be our biggest challenge,' he adds.

Since the three-year rehabilitation commenced in July 2001, the Indian Red Cross, with the support of the International Federation and sister societies, has implemented projects in the fields of health, water and sanitation, reconstruction of health facilites and private housing in quake-affected districts.

The Indian Red Cross has been eager to build on the lessons learned during the Gujarat earthquake operation, especially with regards to the development of branches and resources, and the integration of health, disaster preparedness and organizational programmes.

"There is still a long way to go before we can stand on our own. We need long term commitment from our partners to help us achieve our vision of becoming a leading humanitarian agency in India," says the secretary general of Indian Red Cross, Dr Vimala Ramalingam.

"The Gujarat experience may be a small beginning. But we are hopeful that this start will yield long term impact on strengthening our branches to better assist vulnerable communities. If another Gujarat earthquake happens, the Indian Red Cross will certainly arrive on the ground before the sister societies or the Federation. But we still need support from the Movement," she adds.