ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Rising From the Rubble

A year after a devastating earthquake, India is rebuilding.

The people in the state of Gujarat in western India probably will never forget 26 January 2001. It should have been a festive Republic Day, marking the adoption of the Indian constitution and 52 years of independence from Great Britain. But it was not to be. Instead, shortly before 9 a.m. the region was rocked by an earthquake of tremendous ferocity, measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale.

What should have been a celebration turned into a nightmare for the residents of Gujarat, located on the Kathiawar peninsula that juts into the Arabian Sea. The earth shook violently for about a minute, thrusting portions of the earth skyward, opening deep ravines in the crust.

Because of the holiday, many people were still in their homes when the quake struck. Those who lived in one-story homes had a better chance of survival than did those in multilevel or high-rise apartments. These larger buildings collapsed, burying thousands alive and trapping many more in the rubble.

There was no warning, no tremors that usually indicate that the earth was about to split open. Local governments were unprepared. Geologically, the slow movement of the subcontinent of India toward Asia caused the quake. It was the worst earthquake in India since 1950.

The epicenter of the quake was near Bhuj, a city of 150,000 inhabitants. Aftershocks continued for several days, causing further shifting of the earth. More than 7,000 villages were affected. Connecting roads between the towns were destroyed, cutting off the residents. The water supply was interrupted. Telephone lines were down, which severely limited communication with the outside world. Relatives abroad could not get through to family in India, and those who were spared could not report the good news to anxious loved ones.

Officials put the death toll at about 50,000, but unofficial tallies easily double that number, since only recovered bodies were counted. About 166,000 were injured and 600,000 were left homeless. Property damage was upward of $5.5 billion.

Many of the towns and villages in the quake area were located in the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Rajkot, headed by Bishop Gregory Karotemprel. Bishop Gregory is a member of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, an Indian congregation serving throughout the country. He began relief operations immediately, on the very day of the quake. Three base camps were set up to assist the homeless and provide them with food, water and shelter. Additional subcamps extended the relief and rescue work into outlying areas. Relief centers were established in Bhachau, Bhuj, Morbi and Rajkot, as well as at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Gandhidham.

One rapid-response service that the diocese implemented was to set up the Gandhidham hospital as a main treatment center. About 400 doctors, 617 nurses and some 1,000 volunteers and medical personnel worked round the clock ministering to the wounded. Makeshift tents served as surgical units. Vehicles belonging to the diocese transported the injured from their villages to St. Joseph’s. Medical treatment, food and lodging were provided free to patients and outpatients alike for three months.

One of the first agencies Bishop Gregory turned to was CNEWA. “We are primarily providing medical care, food materials and temporary shelter to the victims,” he wrote to Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General.

Bishop Gregory asked the agency “to provide immediate relief to the victims, to rehabilitate them with houses and to reconstruct the damaged institutions.” Msgr. Stern sent out an immediate emergency appeal and CNEWA donors responded with outstanding generosity, enabling CNEWA to provide more than $800,000 to the relief and reconstruction efforts over a four-year period.

While Bishop Gregory was grateful that his clergy and religious were safe, he reported in his letter that “the school buildings, convents, boarding houses, hospitals and other institutions in the diocese are completely or partially destroyed.” Referring to the fact that no priests or religious were killed, Bishop Gregory added, “We strongly believe that God saved us in order to save others.”

The diocese launched massive rescue operations, which were headed by its social service department, the Navjeevan Trust. Father C.C. Jose oversees the trust, which manages the funds received from CNEWA as well as from Catholic Relief Services, Caritas India and the Catholic Health Association of India, among the many international organizations that responded to India’s crisis.

During a three-week field visitation of projects in India late last year, CNEWA’s programs director Thomas Varghese spent a week assessing reconstruction efforts. Starting in Rajkot, he traveled to the areas which were hardest hit. Besides tremendous damage to homes, public buildings and the region’s infrastructure, loss of church property and institutions alone totaled more than $843,000: $330,000 in Bhachua, $280,000 in Bhuj and $233,000 in Morbi.

Bishop Gregory told Mr. Varghese about the chaos in the first days after the quake.

“All the agencies were totally unprepared. We did not know what to do,” Bishop Gregory said. “All possible rescue operations we tried,” but there was no machinery to organize them, he said. “We took the injured people to the army hospital and to…Gandhidham. And later we started providing food, shelter and medical care. Everything was free,” the bishop added.

The first phase of recovery – rescue and relief operations – is over. The second stage – rehabilitating the villages with new houses, schools, health and community centers – is well under way.

The work involves overseeing the building of some 2,000 houses and assisting the resettlement of some 12,000 families. Not only were many buildings completely destroyed, but some of those left standing were damaged beyond repair. They had to be razed and rebuilt on stronger foundations. In an effort to speed the work along, many people cleared their own land and helped lay the foundations of their new homes.

Repairing local schools and health facilities is also on the agenda.

The reconstruction should take about two years, Bishop Gregory estimates. By this June, he expects to have a large part of the work completed. The bishop is careful about documenting the work being done. “I must let the people know what I am doing with their money,” he said. “They are so generous to us,” he added.

Some of the projects sponsored by CNEWA already have been completed. These include repairs and reconstruction of St. Joseph’s Convent in Hapa, a water tank in Oushpavati Sadan and a welfare center in Motadevalia – all in Gujarat state. There also are many works in progress: repairs to a convent of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Rajkot; reconstruction and repairs to St. Xavier’s School in Bhuj; and repairs to St. Ann’s High School and Sacred Heart Church, both in Jamnagar.

Amid the rebuilding efforts, another reality the church faces is anti-Christian sentiment. Catholics make up less than 2 percent of the population. In the days immediately following the quake, the government was reluctant to allow religious groups to assist, fearing attempts would be made to proselytize the victims. While the current political administration does not openly oppose the church’s recovery programs, the diocese is sensitive to the issue.

Extensive negotiations with the local government were required before the diocese was allowed to assume responsibility for the restoration of entire villages. Bishop Gregory said that he had worked well in the past with certain villages, but when he wanted full control for restoration, a tremendous amount of red tape was involved. Village officials had to give written consent, and this was slow in coming.

“We had to do what they wanted us to do before we could do what we wanted to do,” said Bishop Gregory.

The third phase – encouraging the people to move back to their villages and resume their former occupations – is perhaps the most important. A public relations campaign is emphasizing the fact that improved construction standards will make the new buildings, as far as possible, earthquake-proof.

There is a future in Gujarat. Formed in 1960 by carving out a portion of Mumbai state, it is considered India’s second most developed region. Mainly agricultural, the area also is rich in minerals. Its industries include textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and engineering.

The Diocese of Rajkot has worked selflessly since the earthquake over a year ago. The Navjeevan Trust has set up several plans whereby individuals can be part of the recovery effort by adopting a family or several families or an entire village. The need is great. In fact, the diocese does not have the funds to complete many of the projects that are under way. Most of its money was spent on rescue and relief. Its plans for the rehabilitation of entire villages – roads, water supply, power lines – will require years of ongoing work. Thanks to the generosity of its donors, CNEWA has given initial financial assistance and has committed itself to long-term goals – helping people rebuild their lives.

Miss Humanitzki is Feature Writer at CNEWA.

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