December 30, 2005

Pushed into G5

Immediately after the 2001 quake in Kutch, I spent a week working in a small village called Toraniya. A year later, in January 2002, I went back there, and elsewhere in Kutch, to get a sense of how people were coping.

This article for Remembrance Week is from my notes from that second trip.


A year later, the reality in Kutch remains rubble. There's less of it in Toraniya than there was, but enough still lies around that you might think the quake was a month, not a year, ago. People are still in tents or temporary shelters supplied by relief agencies. A year later, too many have seen no sign of their Government-announced compensation, too few have got only the first installment, and only one person we met -- my friend Lirabhai Bhaga Gothi, who let us camp on his land a year ago -- has received the full amount: in his case, 56,000 rupees.

Understandably, this money dominates conversation among quake victims. It is decided by a Government survey that assigns each damaged house a rank between "G1" and "G5". G1 applies to structures that are only slightly damaged. G5 is rubble. "I am G4", people say, and just by that admission I get an idea of how important these figures are.

Combining this rank with the size and location of the damaged house, authorities decide compensation amounts. Typically, if you "are" G1, you can expect to receive in the single-digit thousands of rupees. The amounts go up from there, to a maximum of 90,000 rupees for a large G5 house.

Simple enough? But no surprise, it has become hopelessly tangled.

One reason: about six months after the quake, the Government of Gujarat began distributing money that's known as "hangami awas" (a slang term for "temporary housing"). This was a flat Rs 12,000 per family, so they could erect a shelter, timed for the searing Kutch summer.

But this Rs 12,000 has got confused with the "G" amounts. The G4 and G5 grants are to be paid in installments, and many people got the first payment of Rs 20,000. Then the hangami awas. People wonder, what's what?

You think, how difficult is it to distinguish between two sums of money? But that's just the beginning of the confusion.

For subsequent G4/5 installments, you need to show you are rebuilding your home. But in Bhuj in particular, any rebuilding is stymied by ever-shifting town planning schemes that the municipality announces. A road will come through here. Or maybe not. A park over there. Or maybe not. A school where this pile of rubble sits. Maybe not.

Given all this, few people are certain enough to build with confidence.

Halimabai, a skinny 80-year-old grandmother, sleeps under a worn blanket on the rubble of her family home in Bhuj. (Yes, a year later, I find her on that rubble). Her house is, she says, "in cutting" (she uses that English phrase). She has heard there a new road is to run across her plot, taking away (thus "cutting") her home. Therefore, why build? Therefore, she has spent a year lying on rubble.

As Halimabai and I speak, her dog chases a filthy pig out of the tent her extended family lives in, nearly knocking me off my feet. I resist the temptation to see metaphor there too.

And even with the scepticism about Indian governments that's bred in me, I am startled by the depth of disillusionment with the Government that I sense in Kutch. As we stand in the patch of uneven ground that used to be his house, Ramchandra Shivji Jethi, a retired X-Ray assistant, says despondently: "Our houses are in G5, but the government is pushing us humans into G5 as well."

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