Volunteer spirit empowers Gujarat quake communities

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Jenny Iao in Bhuj
Armed with his toolbox, Chandrakant Suthar left his village at eight in the morning to travel the 40 kilometres to the Civil Hospital in Bhuj, where he teamed up with fellow local Red Cross volunteers.

The semi-permanent 200-bed hospital was built after a massive earthquake devastated the city nearly two years ago, claiming more than 20,000 lives.

Now it was about to get a makeover. Twenty-four Red Cross workers and volunteers from the surrounding area had gathered at the venue of their weekly community-based health meetings.

After a short briefing, the team fanned out through the hospital, armed with brooms, brushes, buckets and detergents. Within minutes, they were to be seen tackling the red stains dotted on the walls around the hospital.

But Chandrakant,28, was assigned a special task. His artistic talents were deployed on 40 empty oil drums, on which he started painting 'please spit here' in Gujarati.

"We have trained over 1,300 volunteers across Kutch, Rajkot and Jamnagar districts," explained Prachi Mehta, a senior Indian Red Cross trainer. "We have decided to stage a cleaning and hygiene awareness activity in this Red Cross-built hospital."

As well as being among the first to respond in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake on 26 January 2001, Red CRoss volunteers have played a crucial part in the long-term rehabilitation of the region.

The hospital was built by the Indian Red Cross and International Federation, with support from the British, Norwegian, German and Finnish Red Cross and the European Union's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), on ground adjacent to a Red Cross tented hospital which was set up within six days of the earthquake.

But in April 2002, the facility was handed over to the government of Gujarat, along with the medical equipment.

"Of the 1.5 million people who have access to the hospital's free services, most patients are from low income communities," said Dr Bheda, Chief Civil Surgeon of Kutch district, who was appreciative of the efforts of the Red Cross volunteers to clean up the hospital.

"Spitting is observed everywhere and people have a traditional habit of chewing pan masala, which is a mixture of tobacco and spices. The result is a red stain around the hospital premises," he explained. "With over 9,000 people visiting the hospital every day, the maintenance of the hospital is stretching our existing human resources."

After three hours of cleaning, the hospital was almost as good as new. Eager for it to remain so for as long as possible, the Red Cross volunteers and field workers distributed dustbins and Chandrakant's spittoons and explained to people how to use them. Posters with pictures and slogans on hygiene and health awareness were also pinned in various public areas of the hospital.

The hospital, which the local population feels belongs to them, was just one of a number of projects that form part of a three-year Red Cross rehabilitation operation in Gujarat. In addition, some 200 village health facilities are being rebuilt, along with a housing project and over 300 small water harvesting reservoirs.