By Gagan Sethi*
On the morning of January 26, 2001, when the earth decided to shake itself a bit on Gujarat soil, little did one know that a disaster of such huge proportions would be the consequence. For serious urban planners the message was: Don’t mess around with nature. I remember being told, “People don’t die because of an earthquake, they die because of poor quality of housing.”
It may be difficult to accept, but this is entirely true. Yet, the paranoia of earthquake-resistant housing remains only with those who experienced the shake-up; the learning hasn’t yet gone to other states of India. Housing stock being built still does not yet factor the earthquake.
Though this learning is uppermost when I think of the earthquake year, the story I narrate is a little different. I left for Kutch the same day afternoon after ensuring that my family was at a safe place, at my father’s farm house.
Kutch was calling. We had a huge contingent of staff and programmes there, but had with no idea of the tragedy. I had to be there to assess what was needed to be done. My driver Rocky, on whom one could rely to take one through the riskiest of roads, was my valiant charioteer.
We were one of the first to cross the Surajbari Bridge, where the road was broken down. As I neared Bhuj, the scene was scary; anything visible as a building was lying scattered. The power of nature, which mocked at the wonders of human engineering, had won. I was getting prepared to face an unpleasant situation. I just hoped none of our staff or their near and dear ones were injured or, worse, killed.
I reached Bhuj in the evening and went to the park near the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) office, where people of the surrounding area had huddled up. I met Sushma Iyengar and Sandeep Virmani there, and they suggested that the reports they were getting was that the damage was huge and to respond to it we would need a strong support system from Ahmedabad. Till such time the network in Kutch would have to handle out things on its own.
The interaction gave birth to the Citizens’ Initiative, with a secretariat at Janvikas in Ahmedabad. The first request we received was to ensure that volunteers had wherewithal to do their work – plus detailed maps of Kutch.
I was left wondering: What was the need for a map? However, one doesn’t question things, especially when the requirement comes from the ground. The next day we worked hard, and with the help of a planning group called EPC, we got prepared nearly 500 maps of talukas, roads and villages, which were immediately sent to the volunteers, who were to carry out relief work in Kutch.
The maps helped the Kutch Abhiyan, a network of NGOs, the most. During the first few days, it became the preferred point of contact for hundreds of groups, well-wishers, funders, and aid agencies. A major reason of this was that, they were able to get information of the damage, and would physically map out the requirements with the help of the raw maps we had sent.
I have never seen the value of a map which was more strategic resource than food. Disaster relief needs mind, might and material. The mind is to think simply and a map to help direct thousands of volunteers who came with just the milk of human kindness. The map was their simple useful tool to direct relief so that relief got evenly distributed.
*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social justice. Contact: gaganssethi@ DNA. This article first appeared in