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The dry eye of the figureless god

by John Sparrow
When a massive earthquake hit the Indian province of Maharastra in September 1993 the effect was devastating. The Federation with the Indian Red Cross implemented an extensive reconstruction programme. Today, the people of Maharastra see the fruits of this joint effort.

The villagers of Killari knew something was up. The well providing water to the eye of the figureless god in the three-centuries’-old Nilkantheshwar Temple had run dry about two months earlier — during the height of the monsoon. They thought that maybe it was a drought in the making, like back in 1972, when the well also ran dry and three years of failed rains followed. The idea of an earthquake did not enter their minds — why, there had never been an earthquake in their district. But even though the water in the temple had run dry, the keeper of Nilkantheshwar visited there daily, brought fresh flowers to the eye of the figureless god and worshipped. Maybe the water would come back.

Shortly after 3.30 in the morning of September 30, 1993, the cows became restless in their sheds and the dogs started to bark. The people in the villages around Killari, where Osmanabad and Latur districts meet, had been celebrating the end of the Ganesh Chethuthee, a religious festival, well into the night. Most were fast asleep.

Then, without warning, the earth shook violently for some 40 seconds. Houses made of rocks, plastered together with soil and water, crashed down on the unsuspecting inhabitants, burying them alive. Less than three minutes later another equally powerful quake struck.

The earthquake was the largest ever to hit this part of India, measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale. It killed over 7,500 people — nearly 15 per cent of the population in the 120 sq. km. area around the epicentre — and more than 15,000 people were injured. Seventeen villages were totally destroyed and some 145,000 homes damaged — all in less than minute.




Community response

“I have never seen such sympathy and compassion between Indians as during that time,” says Dr R.K. Nitturkark, medical superintendent of the new Red Cross-funded referral hospital in Nilanga, Latur district, as he describes the first frantic hours and days of the disaster back in 1993.

The earthquake victims were brought in “by all possible means,” Dr Nitturkark says, and just as fast the people of Nilanga came rushing to the hospital to offer help. Three professors and 50 students from the local technical college arrived with every available hostel cot and soon neighbours were bringing in food by the truckloads. Within 24 hours a group of 15 Hindus from Bhiwandi, near Mumbai (Bombay), almost 700 km. to the west, arrived with food and equipment and started cooking for the patients and staff. “They cooked with skill and affection for 15 days and nights,” says Dr Nitturkark, “and their food was better than any five-star hotel.”

The Nilanga hospital was also damaged by the earthquake, although it was still standing. The in-patients were terrified and refused to stay indoors any longer, adding to the confusion and overcrowding already in the hospital compound. One can still see up to one-inch cracks in the walls of the old hospital, now connected to the new 30-bed referral hospital built with money donated mainly by the British and Netherlands Red Cross Societies.

But that night their trouble had only just begun. As the sun set, enormous thunder and lightning split the heavens and brought on the heaviest rains Dr Nitturkark can remember. The injured had to be moved into the cracked hallways of the hospital and every shed that still stood in the compound. “We were not sure that we would ever see the light of day again!” he says. “First the earthquake, cutting off our electricity and water, and then the rains. But there was no time to be afraid, only time to work.”

A massive undertaking

The reconstruction that was to follow the earthquake required huge resources. The Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) and Indian authorities invited the International Federation to assist and in October 1993 it issued an appeal for a total of Sfr 6.2 million, all of which was covered within a relatively short period. To date more than a quarter of National Societies have made donations to the Maharastra project.

In all, the Federation/IRCS agreed to take on a total of 44 projects in the affected area, making them the second largest contributor towards the rehabilitation programme, surpassed only by the government of Maharastra. The projects include three hospitals, five primary health care centres, 26 sub-centres and housing for the necessary staff, a total of 135 staff quarters, two rehabilitation units, trauma units and psychiatric units and six schools for some 4,000 pupils.

With a grant from the German Red Cross, the Federation also built a new water-supply system for Killari and eight other villages. After various delays, the project gained momentum during 1996.

The Maharastra Earthquake Reconstruction Project is one of the largest projects of its kind in which the Federation has become involved. It is also one of the most comprehensive and significant reconstruction pro-grammes ever undertaken in India, one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Some 27,000 new homes have been, or are being, built. More than one hundred schools with one thousand classrooms for about 40,000 pupils have been, or are being, constructed.

The total cost of the reconstruction project is estimated at 2 billion rupees (Sfr 83.3 million) while the total cost of the Federation’s projects has now reached nearly Sfr 7 million (165 million rupees). The calamity brought about some positive change. For the IRCS the Maharastra earthquake marked a distinct increase in Disaster Preparedness Planning and related activities. It has also strengthened the local branches in the affected area — and, last but not least, given the people of earthquake-stricken Latur and Osmanabad districts new hope for a better life, a hope made possible with the generous help of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other donors throughout the world.




Water in the eye

Passing through old Killari village, the epicentre of the 1993 earthquake, evokes the eerie feeling of a ghost town. Over 400 of Killari’s 15,000 inhabitants lost their lives. Scores of people were injured. A few walls remain standing, but mostly old Killari is piles of rocks, gradually disappearing in the undergrowth.

In Nilkantheshwar Temple, a holy man sits with three of his followers, two of them women, and a group of men from the village. The temple, badly damaged in the earthquake, is surrounded by the ruins of their former homes. Three workers are sitting on rickety scaffolds on top of the temple, repairing the elaborately decorated dome. The holy man is serene and silent but his alert gaze follows the visitors’ every move. Looking into his eyes you sense that none of this worries him in the least. The water in the eye of the figureless god in the temple’s centre has reached its natural level again.

Omar Valdimarsson
Omar Valdimarsson is a freelance journalist based in Reykjavik, Iceland.

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