Ahmedabad There are lessons for Nepal in the aftermath of the earthquake in Gujarat-not least, the value of a central government that's politically motivated to be seen to be doing well by the affected people. But there's more, much more, than that. I covered the 1999 supercyclone in Orissa, and now I am a small cog in a vast media machine spewing pictures and words to a shocked world from Gujarat.
The contrast between the two disasters could not be starker and perhaps this is where politicians, leaders and residents of Nepal need to make a choice: should the country be like Orissa, or Gujarat? These are the two extremes of South Asian development. Here, amid the tragedy, damage and despair is a powerful spirit of self-reliance, and a strong sense of community. I've met countless local people, rich, poor and middle class, who are "doing something". Women are cooking meals for those who've lost their homes; men are using their bare hands to move concrete slabs and try to rescue people in the absence of lifting equipment; doctors are volunteering medical services. Even bankers are raising money from friends and clients.
There were, amid the unparalleled devastation of Orissa in 1999, a few similar scenes but not on any sort of scale. Far more common was the sight of devastated people squatting by the roadside, awaiting assistance, and doing little to arrange it themselves. Nor were the urban middle class and elite of Orissa pitching in to help the devastated people of the countryside, not at first. The media and political opponents of the government in Delhi leapt on the three day delay in starting relief efforts, some even suggesting that the BJP-lead coalition administration was motivated by partisan politics. In fact, the cyclone was of such overwhelming intensity that it cut all communication and transport links. It took three days to get telephone connections re-established, and the airport functioning.
There was also criticism of the fact that Ersama, the hardest hit area where more than ten thousand died, received its first emergency aid a week into the crisis. Again, the problem was one of infrastructure and logistics. This district with the highest death toll was remote, swampy and unknown to be in such dire straits until outside relief workers actually arrived there. Yet Indian army soldiers, who first discovered the mass carnage, said nothing was being done on a local scale, even to cremate bodies, arrange temporary shelter or send word for help. I'm not suggesting that victims of the cyclone were in any way responsible for their immediate plight. But an overwhelming sense of helplessness and despair gripped the vast majority of those affected in Orissa.
As ever, the problem is developmental, not cultural but it is curable. Orissa is one of India's poorest states, Gujarat among its wealthiest. The ties of community and family in the western state are powerful. Orissa is beset by caste and communal divides that have forged little sense of collective well being, despite an ancient culture. Gujaratis abroad, and they are invariably successful in foreign settings, invest heavily in their homeland; those who escape Orissa usually do so for menial jobs that don't pay well enough to remit money back home. And Orissa was traditionally one of India's worst governed states, if its woeful development indicators were any indication.
So these are the stark choices before Nepal: a combination of social unity and self-help versus cynicism about bad government and a culture of entitlement. The media has been warning that a huge earthquake is overdue in Nepal. Seismologists agree, but in the grip of self-indulgent gloom and reluctance to come together, the onus is being placed on the authorities to "do something". Their inaction is just further proof of incompetence, or so we say.
Instead, why don't we take matters into our own hands; prepare local disaster plans; form neighbourhood groups to arrange secure caches of food, water and fuel; force schools to do earthquake awareness training; circulate information about preparation and coping. Enlist medical people, local police, merchants and everyone else to get ready for the big one. In short, get off our butts and don't wait for government.
We can be like Gujarat, or Orissa. It's up to us.