Kashmiris Must See That We Care
13 October 2005
New Delhi: There needs to be a civil society response to match that of the government for the earthquake affected in Kashmir. WHEN HURRIYAT leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, speaking during the special prayers at Srinagar's Jamia Masjid on Tuesday, commented on the lack of response from the rest of India to the enormous tragedy in Kashmir in the aftermath of last Saturday's earthquake, he had a point. He said: 'It is sad that people have not responded to this great tragedy. This was not expected. When Latur and Bhuj were ravaged, big industrialists stepped forward to help. But no one seems to be coming to our aid.' The excuse used is one of logistics when one compares the response after the 2001 earthquake in Kutch and the recent one in Kashmir. It is true that within a day of the Kutch earthquake the first civilian flight had landed at Bhuj airport and Ahmedabad airport was functional. It was easier to rush relief because the terrain was not as difficult as in Kashmir. But even in 2001, it took a few days for the enormity of the tragedy to register with the authorities. As one of those who reached Bhuj a day after the quake struck, I recall that even the Collector's office was severely damaged and for two days there was absolutely no coordination. The people we spoke to were angry for days afterwards that no help had reached them. Even the relief that was initially sent out was random and uncoordinated. For example, hundreds of truckloads of used clothing were sent, most of them inappropriate. I can clearly remember the road from Bhuj to Bachhau and some of the other badly-affected villages literally littered with discarded clothes flapping in the desert wind as some of them got entangled on the branches of leafless trees. Kutchi women do not wear saris or salwar kameez. Such clothes were of absolutely no use to them and no one had planned what should be sent. Even the much-publicised adoption of villages by different corporate houses had a different face when one looked at it closely. Although some of them did help in clearing the rubble, and ensured that the media were kept informed about everything they did, the long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction had to be done through the government. For this, the presence of a strong civil society coordination group that worked with the government, made an enormous difference to the quality of the intervention. What is important at a time likes this is the perception that people care. And in the end, for the people of Kutch, that is what made a qualitative difference. They were touched not by the largesse of international aid agencies or Indian corporate houses but by the hundreds of ordinary Indians - doctors, nurses, students, executives, engineers, journalists - who took time off to help in any way they could. Busloads of people travelled all the way from Punjab and set up langars to provide free food for the thousands whose lives had been permanently dislocated. There were collection centres for earthquake relief in all the major metros, media houses, and others set up relief funds and the response was tremendous. Groups working specifically with children rushed to Kutch to give the specialised help needed for the hundreds of orphaned and injured children. And specialists in disabilities dug in for the long-term work with those who had lost limbs in the earthquake. Kashmiris need to perceive that the rest of India cares and wants to help. While it is good that both Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have gone there and offered assistance, that is not enough. There needs to be a civil society response to match that of the government. Even if people cannot physically go to some of the more remote areas, what is to stop us from raising the funds so that the necessary relief gets to these areas? Who is going to work with voluntary groups in Kashmir as they begin planning beyond immediate relief to the far more challenging and arduous task of rehabilitation and reconstruction? In the last decade and more, there have been three major earthquakes in India, in Uttarkashi, in Latur, and in Kutch. There is plenty of experience available in this country to help the Kashmiris. This natural disaster may or may not further the peace process between India and Pakistan. But it certainly can go a long way in creating stronger people-to-people bonds between the people in other parts of India and the devastated people in Kashmir.