By Alexander Luke*
On the third day after the earthquake in Gujarat (January 26, 2001), I was driving to Kutch with two of my officers. The government had asked me to look after the relief work in Gandhidham where the Kandla Port was located. On the way, I saw whole villages levelled. Bodies were being burned. Small buildings by the roadside lay smashed as if by a giant hand. On entering Gandhidham the sight of collapsed big buildings including newly constructed hotels revealed the force of the disaster.
It was worse in other places. The local revenue authorities met me and we set-up office in a tenement which had not collapsed. A phone was attached but the mobile phone was what kept us going. It was this tenement office which I would work from during the next fortnight. Our tasks were to rescue those who may be still trapped in collapsed buildings, treat those injured, to provide food, fuel and shelter for those who lost their homes and to remove the rubble out of the city; in that order. Rebuilding would follow much later.
Meanwhile, material was beginning to move in to the town from other parts of Gujarat and even the country. Food grains, packed food, and provisions were arriving but these had to be distributed. All open spaces were being used for setting up tents and makeshift shelters for those displaced. A large number of volunteer organizations including the good ladies of SEWA had moved in. Teams of doctors were arriving. Some of them set-up field hospitals with astonishing speed.
Then the rescue volunteers arrived. They were specialist teams from abroad who having heard of disaster had packed their kit, gathered and caught the first plane they could find. They demanded nothing of us except to let them know where among the collapsed buildings were persons unaccounted and presumably buried.
Then an Italian team reached the site. They were a group of six, slim, serious young men and were keen to start searching for any survivors. They had three dogs which looked like terriers, very temperamental, shivering with excited anticipation. They were specially trained to sniff out the presence of humans amidst rubble. The team members handled them with great affection and care.
One by one, these dogs were let loose around the building and their behaviour observed. All the dogs had a go like this. The men then poked and peered into the dark spaces but did not go in. And then the youngest, slimmest looking one of them did something which took my breath away. He crawled into the rubble through a gap and was gone for 5 minutes. He emerged finally from the same gap, feet first, looking very disheartened. He had done something hazardous and skilful, putting his life in danger, for people he did not know.
But the emotion he felt was one of failure that he could not locate any one alive. It was the bravest and noblest deed I had witnessed in my life. After an hour and a half the effort was called off and we decided to demolish the building at the earliest. I talked to the Italians afterwards. They said they were from a working class background, and spent money they raised locally to travel anywhere in the world where there was a disaster. What brought them here, I asked? They smiled, surprised I had to ask. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.
Vinod Khanna, the film star, arrived one day with a large number of trucks of foodgrain from Gurdaspur where he was the Member of Parliament. With him was his charming wife who hailed from Gujarat. His coming caused a huge stir around our office. I told him of the arrangements for the distribution of grains he had brought but he had come for a longer stay. His plan was to set-up a camp to treat post disaster trauma over a long period. He needed an open site of land.
The Mamlatdar, the Revenue authority, told me that the main open ground was the Ramlila maidan in the city. If I wanted it could be made available. In a time of disaster there is an unusual amount of trust in the intentions of people. Without a second thought and without any formal authority, I allotted the land to Vinod Khanna orally for setting up a post-trauma camp. Additionally, a substantial part of the funds required for the setting up of this camp, around Rs 1 crore was donated or arranged by the Gujarat Alkalies and Chemicals Ltd (GACL).
About 150 families, whose houses had collapsed, stayed in the camp for around six months. It was well-run, with cooking, recreational, cultural and sanitary facilities. It was neat and there were smiling faces to be seen. Vinod Khanna stayed at this camp for long periods at a time, sharing the same facilities with all the other inmates.
The reports I got from local people spoke positively of the running of the camp. People of all denominations stayed at here in perfect harmony. Vinod Khanna’s work helped many shattered lives to heal. It was the finest role of his career; he was a hero in every sense of the term. The camp was wound up at the end of six months and the open land restored to the government. But when he turned up, I gave him just two days before he packed up and left. Coming from the tinsel and make believe world of Bollywood, I often wondered where he got this feeling for the pain of others.
*Retired IAS official (Gujarat cadre). This is an excerpt from his autobiographical book, “Passport of Gujarat: Hazardous Journeys”, Manas Publications, 2015