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MORE than a month after the event the Gujarat earthquake, which devastated large parts of the state, mainly Kutch and Saurashtra, continues to generate tremors. As the initial numbing and trauma created by the extent of death and destruction starts fading, both state and society have to gear themselves up for the long-haul task of reconstruction and rehabilitation. One only hopes that this time around we will be able to overcome our proclivity for partisan political agendas and knee-jerk policy suggestions.

In one respect Gujarat is fortunate. Unlike Orissa, wracked by the super cyclone last year, the western state will not be as easily forgotten. Possibly the fact that the state is a major industrial and commercial hub, site of our biggest petro-chemical complexes, that the Gujaratis have a substantial presence in the influential NRI world, and that a significant proportion of the victims were ‘people like us’ may for once ensure concerted action. Equally if not more important is that Gujarat is home to a vibrant NGO community which has already taken the lead, both in organising relief and planning reconstruction.

These fortuitous circumstances ensured an unprecedented show of concern from the normally apathetic middle class, corporate India and the NRI community. For an administration not famed for its efficiency and in any case stunned by the magnitude of the task, the concern itself – expressed in the inflow of materials and people – became a problem. Barely had we recovered from the controversy over the number of dead, with our Defence Minister taking the lead in propagating inflated figures, we were saddled with images of relief materials piled up on roads and wrangling over which people, communities and regions were receiving aid and which not. The last in particular was seized with glee by opposition parties who not only accused the Sangh Parivar of partisan behaviour in the selection of relief recipients but the central government for giving a blank cheque to the state government since Gujarat is a BJP run state. Evidently, even national tragedies cannot overcome political faultlines.

As much as the need to firm up a disaster management plan, often talked about but never put into place, is to learn from the experiences of Latur, not Uttarkashi – two regions visited by earthquakes in the last decade. Uttarkashi witnessed a pouring in of relief, a proliferation of agencies each claiming their share of the calamity market, but little by way of either durable structures, planned community clusters, what to speak of ensuring that the affected got appropriate employment and income opportunities.

Latur, by most accounts, did far better, ostensibly because systems were put in place which ensured synergy between state and non-state actors. Central to the reconstruction exercise was the involvement of the community at all stages. For once we built new villages which did not look like extensions of a PWD vision – with each house enjoying a distinct personality. Local people were trained as masons leading to not only lower costs but personal supervision. And care was taken to build community structures designed to withstand greater shocks.

Gujarat poses a more complex problem – logistically and politically – because of significant urban destruction, including in state capital Ahmedabad. Everyone realises that more than old buildings it was the relatively recent structures, including luxury high-rises, that collapsed. But will someone be brought to book for the criminal flouting of building norms and city land-use plans? Unless this is done, who will be confident that the earlier process will not be repeated?

A few years back the fire in a Delhi cinema-hall, Uphaar, claimed many lives. That too was a high-profile incident highlighting the non-observance of fire safety regulations and procedures. The case against the accused is still in court; an annual memorial meeting is held at the site. But, despite the outcry, few multi-storey buildings, including those of the government, conform to norms.

This is crucial. As a society, we remain impervious to the need for compliance with public safety standards; even less for the maintenance of safety systems. Not surprisingly, as more of our people move into crowded urban complexes, disasters are just waiting to happen – be it earthquakes or fires or what.

Spectacular events like the Kutch earthquake have a way of driving home these points. But the reconstruction of Orissa hardly demonstrates that the appropriate lessons have sunk in. No major effort, for instance, is underway to re-introduce mangrove plantations on the coast, an effective barrier against tidal waves and cyclones. And now that Gujarat has supplanted Orissa in our consciousness, even the little that was being done has stopped.

So, will we ever learn?

Harsh Sethi