A field-worker’s perspective of the Gujarat earthquake response
by Seema Siddiqui June 2003

The earthquake hit just after eight in the morning on 26 January 2001, and lasted for 90 seconds. It measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. The epicentre was about 20km north-east of Bhuj, in Gujarat’s Kutch district. Over 30,000 people were killed, and 167,000 injured. Nearly 8,000 villages were affected in 21 districts. Official figures state that 378,286 houses were completely destroyed, and 968,879 partially destroyed. Approximately 95 per cent of all standing structures in the Anjar, Bachau and Rapar blocks of Kutch were razed to the ground. More than 20,000 cattle were reported killed. Estimates of the economic damage range from $1.3 billion to as high as $5bn.

Urban versus rural relief

Mr Khan is a driver in the town of Bhuj. He was the first victim of the earthquake that I met. Although thankfully none of his family was injured during the quake, they lost all their valuables and cash, and their house. More than 100 organisations, private, government and non-government, were providing relief materials after the earthquake, but Mr Khan could not get a single tent for his family, who were living on the street in a temporary structure made from a tarpaulin sheet and bamboo sticks.

Mr Khan’s plight is symptomatic of one of the main difficulties with the relief effort: the urban versus rural divide. The focus of the NGOs operating in the Kutch region is mainly on the three blocks of Bachau, Rapar and Anjar. Not enough attention is being paid to rehabilitation work in towns such as Bhuj and Gandhidham. The town of Bhuj has been severely affected, with many buildings collapsing completely. Many of those that still stand are uninhabitable. Reconstruction work has started on quite a large scale, but is being hampered by recurring tremors.

Towns are seen as being inhabited by middle-class people, who are not considered as vulnerable as villagers in rural areas because they have access to resources to cope with the disaster. Mr Khan’s request was denied on the grounds that the tents were meant only for distribution in villages. The villages did desperately require tents – but so did the people in the towns of Gujarat.

In the case of the Gujarat earthquake, people living in the towns were the most vulnerable because many of the injuries and deaths were due to badly-built buildings. Better-off households managed to make temporary shelter and food arrangements, but poorer people were left stranded because they did not get the same benefits as people of similar economic stature in the rural parts of Kutch. Vulnerability is determined not only by geographical location, but also by the capability of the individual or household to cope with a disaster. It would be incorrect to presume that all families living in a village in rural Gujarat will not have the resources to cope.


Coordination during any relief response plays a crucial role in ensuring that it is effective. A genuine effort was made to coordinate the numerous NGOs in Gujarat, both among themselves, and with the government, which provided information regarding the size and population of villages. In order to avoid duplication, relief organisations exchanged information among themselves regarding items being distributed and areas of coverage. The leading role in the coordination effort was taken up by Kutch Navnirman Abhiyan, a grouping of 14 NGOs that first came together during the 1998 cyclone.

Little effort, however, was made to integrate the overwhelming private response to the disaster. As a result, clothing that the people of Gujarat had refused lay strewn along the Bhuj–Anjar highway. It was heartening to see that people all over India and the world responded so quickly and sent whatever they could, but often the intended beneficiaries had no use for what was sent.

massive response

The appropriateness of the response

Relief items should meet the needs of the people they are intended for, and they should be culturally appropriate. In Gujarat, this was not always the case. Savlon disinfectant, for example, was distributed as part of hygiene kits. But many women had no idea what it was supposed to be used for, and assumed it was hair oil. Some people received mosquito tents to live in, whereas others got proper tents that could house their entire family. After the earthquake, local markets mysteriously started selling boxes of green and black grapes (which happened to be from the same company), even though there had never before been any grape production or distribution in Gujarat. In Rapar, Bachau and Anjar, the block-level hospitals, primary health centres and sub-centres were flooded with oral rehydration solution, cotton wool, bandages and antibiotics. But the immediate need was for eye drops and disinfectant ointment, which no organisation seemed to have. Workers had no choice but to improvise, which they did quite well.

The choice of relief items depends on proposals designed by headquarters staff. In theory, feedback from staff based in the field is supposed to be incorporated into these proposals. But in reality, this does not seem to be happening. Field workers are also the ones who bear the brunt of people’s anger when irrelevant relief material is doled out. Relief workers stationed in the field simply have no idea what material is going to be sent to them, and at what time. Many relief workers had to visit the same village numerous times in order to distribute the various relief items that arrived at different times. This led to a staggered relief response, which was time-consuming and costly. If the feedback of the people working in the area had been taken into account, money would not have been wasted on items that were not necessary, and that are probably lying in some building rotting, or being sold in local markets.

Organisational limitations

Organisations face limitations in the procurement and dispatch of material. In the event of a disaster, it is very difficult to procure the required material at short notice, because relief items are limited and in huge demand. Efforts need to be made to procure as many materials locally as possible. For example, bamboo poles required for the erection of tents could have easily been obtained in Gujarat or neighbouring states, but instead organisations chose to fly materials in from New Delhi, or even from abroad. This is where preparedness comes in. If the organisation is well prepared and has stocks of essential relief items, then there will not be a problem. In most cases, however, procurement takes place in the aftermath of a disaster, as there is not enough incentive, or in some cases resources, to keep stocks of essential relief items.

Evaluations and funding matters

Evaluations are meant to help agencies gauge the strengths of a project, and identify areas that need to be strengthened. The idea is that this will afford better delivery of services next time, with as little waste of time and resources as possible. Many organisations, however, perceive evaluations as a threat because future funding could be at stake. To impress donor organisations, many important issues are suppressed. It is imperative for implementing agencies as well as donor organisations to acknowledge the mistakes that are made. The purpose of identifying mistakes is not to criticise the work done, but to learn from mistakes in order to reach out more effectively to people in need.

In-house evaluations could be a solution. The assessment has to be non-threatening, and its purpose clearly explained to all personnel. People will only tell the real story if they are sure that it will not have any implications on their current and future job status. It is up to the organisation to provide the necessary environment for the free sharing of information. My only hope is that, for the sake of the many people that suffer in disasters, we will not be afraid to admit our own mistakes.

Seema Siddiqui is a Fellow with CARE India.


The Indian government’s website on the Gujarat earthquake, www.gujarat-earthquake.gov.in/final/bhuj.html.

The Earthquake in Gujarat, India, report of a monitoring visit for the DEC, March 2001, www.disasters.org.uk/dec_standard/upload/Report%20280401.doc.

The UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) website, www.reliefweb.int/undac.