The earthquake that hit western India last 26 January devastated the state of Gujarat. More than 50,000 persons were killed and property damage exceeded $5.5 billion, according to a privately distributed report by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Rajkot, headed by Bishop Gregory Karotemprel, C.M.I.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a papal agency supporting the Eastern churches, responded quickly, sending funds to be used at the discretion of Bishop Gregory, whose diocese was particularly hard hit. Over the past months, additional monies were sent to aid in the rebuilding of schools, convents and clinics destroyed by the quake that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale.
The earthquake struck on Republic Day, the 52nd anniversary of India’s independence. There was no warning. Government agencies were unprepared and heavy machinery was unavailable. It took time to organize rescue operations.
Eventually, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Gandhidham became the main center for medical care. Doctors and volunteers worked round the clock providing relief to the injured.
The road to Bhuj bears graphic reminders of the earthquake that struck on 26 January 2001.During a three-week tour in November and December, Thomas Varghese, CNEWA’s Programs Director, spent a week assessing reconstruction efforts in the diocese. Based in Rajkot, he traveled to the areas of greatest damage: Bhachau, Bhuj, Bhavnagar and Morbi.
Mr.Varghese reports that, immediately after the quake, help was unable to reach the stricken area for several days; bridges were down and roads, impassable. Two Jesuit priests finally got through, bringing food and medicines.
The government arrived on the scene about a week after the catastrophe. Officials were reluctant to let religious-affiliated groups assist, fearing attempts would be made to proselytize the victims. Government aid presented problems of its own; there were charges that rather than giving tents, clothes and food to the homeless, government agents were asking for payment, Mr. Varghese reports. Eventually the ban was lifted and private agencies were allowed to help.
The government announced during summer school recess that on 3 December all the damaged schools were expected to be open. Mr. Varghese reports that the church-sponsored schools were able to meet the deadline.
St. Joseph’s Hospital in Gandhidham was the main center for medical care for earthquake victims. Surgical units were set up in makeshift tents.In Bhuj, through the financial assistance of CNEWA, St. Xavier’s School has been rebuilt. The school is for grades one through twelve. A new kindergarten for preschoolers has also been completed, and work is continuing on a convent for the Carmelite Sisters who run the school.
In Morbi, St. Mary’s School was severely damaged and the convent collapsed. Again, with CNEWA funding, the school with grades one through ten was rebuilt. A convent for the Sacred Heart Sisters who conduct the school for some 1,000 students is being restored.
Also in Morbi, a building housing an after-school program where children can study and do homework, has been rebuilt; Deepthi, a health center run by the Sacred Heart Sisters is in the planning stages; St. Therese’s Center, and the Nirmal Shishu Bhavan, an orphanage for abandoned children up to age three, all financed by CNEWA, have been rebuilt or are under construction.
Women in Maliya collect water for cooking and washing from emergency relief tanks.However, as Mr. Varghese points out, more has to be done. Many of the villages were leveled; few houses were left standing. These villages are very poor, and they have no contact with the outside world, people have lost everything, he adds, and any rebuilding requires permission of the government. The Diocese of Rajkot, with CNEWA’s support, has assumed responsibility for the reconstruction of many villages, notably Bhuj Taluka, Morbi, Anjar and Billia.
Navjeevan Trust, the social service department of the Diocese of Rajkot, has been coordinating the work and managing the funds it has received, working closely with Caritas India and Catholic Relief Services.
“It’s a challenge for the church,“ Mr. Varghese says. The government has distanced itself from the people; they are discouraged. The church must convince the people to go back to their villages and resume their former jobs, whether they are farmers or craftsmen. The church must revitalize the villages.“
In coming months Mr Varghese expects to receive requests for additional funding. With the data he received firsthand, he expects to be able to distribute the money where it will do the most good.