Installment #24 - February 10, 2001

Kutch Villages

Three Swamis, a driver, and I left the Ramakrishna Ashram in Rajkot on Sunday by jeep, heading to the Ramakrishna Ashram in Bhuj. On the way, we stopped at the village of Jawaharnagar, in the Kutch district near Bhachau, because the ashram is considering adopting this village (as well as about five others). Jawaharnagar was totally destroyed by an earthquake in the mid 1950’s and was relocated to a nearby site and rebuilt. But the construction was not earthquake resistant and the village has again been totally destroyed. The Ashram is looking into the purchase of some adjoining land on which to rebuild, and we toured both the village and the adjoining land. I was shown the newest house in town in which had lived a nurse with her husband and daughter. I was told that she had run out of the house during the earthquake only to be pinned under a falling section of the concrete wall that surrounded the house and yard. She was freed by villagers, but died a few minutes later. The house was badly damaged, but remained standing.

At the Ashram in Bhuj, we found temporary structures being built from poles lashed together and covered with corrugated metal sheets and burlap. They were to be used to house volunteers and homeless ashram members. Food, blankets, and plastic sheets were being distributed to local residents. A medical team, working with the local people, was also based at the ashram. I took the opportunity to revisit the buildings were Mr. Joshi and his family had lived. I found the site deserted. It appeared to me that all of the places where Mr. Joshi had thought his wife, daughter, and granddaughter might be buried had been excavated. I have no way of knowing what, if anything, the rescuers found.

Late in the day, we left for Dhaneti and the Vivekanand Vidhyalaya School, which is affiliated with the Ashram, and was to be my home for the next several days. The school sits in a walled compound about 150 feet by 250 feet and consists of an L-shaped school building containing an office and six classrooms (being used for storage of relief supplies and sleeping), a garage (being used as kitchen and dining room), and a bathroom building. A temporary lashed pole and burlap building provided additional sleeping space. Classes have been suspended during the relief effort. The kids and many of the village men come to the school each day to help.

On a typical day, we loaded the truck and bus with supplies (usually large sheets of plastic, blankets, bottles of cooking oil, and sacks containing bulk flour and grains, spices, tea, matches, and candles), and left the school about mid-morning with a crew of about ten people. We would drive to a pre-selected village and determine if help was needed. If it was, the vehicles were parked near the center of town and a survey team (sometimes more than one) consisting of a local villager who knew most everyone in town, a senior volunteer, and the stamp-pad and token person (that was my job) would move outoften runningto visit every family in the village. The senior volunteer would write the name of each family head on a form (often arbitrating as to what constituted a separate family). If the family head could write, he or she was asked to sign, otherwise a thumbprint was taken, and a "token" was issued. The tokens were pieces of paper which had been stamped with an ashram stamp and, when presented at the truck, identified the holder as being eligible to receive a "unit" of supplies. Volunteers were stationed at the vehicles to collect tokens and hand out supplies.

We would distribute in one or two villages in the morning, return to the school to have lunch and to reload the vehicles, and visit one or two more villages in the afternoon, usually leaving the third and last village at dusk. We would occasionally have to visit several villages before finding one that needed what we had to offer; some villages had already been visited by relief teams, or simply felt that others needed aid more than they did. I helped with distribution in about ten villages in the area bounded by Bhuj on the west, Lodai on the north, Bhachau on the east, and Anjar on the south, but the group from the ashram based at the school has distributed relief material to about 3000 families in 21 villages so far, I am told.

In one village, we helped an affiliated organization distribute their supplies, and I found myself leaning over the hood of a jeep in the middle of the road near the center of town, rubble on one side of the road and tents on the other, writing "Sarada Math" on about 200 scraps of paper that were to serve as tokens (our usual tokens having been left behind) while a herd of cattle galloped by behind me, kicking up a cloud of dust. The thought struck me that one month from now, when I am back home, it will be hard to believe that all of this actually happened.

In many of these villages, it is literally true that not a single building is left standing. Many streets are heaped with rubble and impassable or barely passable. People are living in makeshift shelters, most of which help keep out the sun and the cold, but will not keep out the rain when it arrives in May or June. The relief work we are doing is vital, but even more important will be the long-range rehabilitation of the region. The Ramakrishna Ashram has plans to adopt and help rebuild six villages; five in Kutch district, and one in Rajkot district.

While based at the school, we slept in a tent, ate in the garage, and washed with cold water from a bucket. For the first couple of days, before power was restored, electricity was provided in the evening and early morning by a portable generator. I sat on the floor like everyone else for my first meal, but one of the swamis noticed that my legs didn’t bend quite enough, and from then on I sat at a chair and desk. I tried once or twice to join everyone else on the floor, but they insisted that I use the desk. For the first few meals, I ate what everyone else atespicy vegetarian food. But, concerned about my intestinal fortitude, the swami requested boiled vegetables for me, and from then on lunch and dinner consisted of boiled potatoes, chopped carrots and cabbage, roti, buttermilk and, for desert, a chunk of sugar made from fermented sugarcane. Breakfast every day was chai and biscuits. At home, I make chai for Rita but never drank it. Here, I’ve gotten used to it and have found that I like itonce it has cooled off a little.

Tomorrow (Sunday) I will be returning to Dhaneti and continuing to help with distribution of supplies to villages. I expect to be there at least until Friday, February 16, and I will report again as soon as I am able.

My thanks to those of you who have contributed to the Assisi-Downs Ramakrishna Ashram fund. Your money will be put to work helping with the ashram’s ongoing relief effort and program of village rehabilitation.

A note on place name spellings: Most of the place names in Gujarat are (surprise!) in Gujarati and have been translated into English in different ways at different times. Add to that my poor spelling ability and tendency to forget how I spelled a name previously, and you end up reading a variety of spellings. If it sounds the same, it's probably the same place (Kutch, Kutchh, Kuchchh; Danaty, Dhaneti). My apologies.

I am writing this report on my (Dave's) laptop computer in the Ashram's computer room, because they are in the process of creating a web site, and will be using some of my digital pictures. I was just told that we will be leaving early tomorrow in order to be at the school for an expected visit by Sonia Gandhi. I read last Monday's and Tuesday's newspapers last night and found three stories concerning the Ramakrishna Ashram and its earthquake work. It seems that the Ashram is among the leading NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) involved in the relief effort. From what I have seen, they deserve to be.

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This street in Jawaharnagar is still completely buried under rubble from collapsed houses.
One of the main streets in Jawaharnagar.
Supplies are being given to residents of Bhuj living in the neighborhood of the Ashram, from the Ashram building.
This motorscooter was in front of the building in which Mr. Jothi lived.
Children and adult volunteers on the grounds of the Vivekanand Vidhyalaya School in Dhaneti cutting rolls of plastic into 5’ by 40’ sections. The sections are then folded and delivered to villages, one per family.
Swami Sarvasthananda at his desk at the school. He has been directing the relief operation based at the school since immediately after the quake.
This view of the frame of a temporary home under construction shows how it is done. A completed shelter is seen in the background.
This posed picture shows me handing a tarp to a villager.
A main street in one of the villages.
The house fell, but the front door frame remained standing. In the lower right, the cement block wall that surrounded the house can be seen. Most of these walls appear to be built without a foundation, and are not reinforced, and a large number of them are now laying in ruins.
Another view of village destruction. This street has been cleared since the quake.
This guy has built himself a new temporary home and is using a door, probably from his old home.
What can I say about devastation like this? Most of the people from this area are living in tents and homemade shelters on the other side of the road from this scene.
Village kids play in front of temporary homes.
This temple at Anjar did not do well in the quake.
The arrival of a truckload of strangers in town is always cause for the kids to gather to see what is going on.
Back in the first Rajkot report, there is a picture of three women wearing the backless choli. I saw it being worn in about every village we visited, and got some better pictures. Here is the front...
... and the back of the backless Choli.
Water is a problem in most Kutchh villages. The area of Kutch we visited is very dry and dusty. Well pipes have been cracked by the quake, and many places do not yet have electricity for well pumps. When a water truck comes to town, there is a procession of women with water cans piled on their heads.
Food is being distributed to residents of Dhaneti from the grounds of the Vivekanand Vidhyalaya School, our home base.
A government minister visits Dhaneti with Swami Sarvasthananda. There is a plan under consideration to rebuild the village at a new site and he visited to explore that possibility.
An uninvited member of the dishwashing crew. This may illustrate one of the reasons that most houses and yards are surrounded by a wall; there are many roaming cows, dogs, and in some places pigs, goats, and sheep always looking for an easy meal.

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