The attitude of relief


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THE astonishing thing, always, is that in some ways it was the best time of my life. I mean the several days I spent in Erasama, Orissa, right after the cyclone that devastated the state in late 1999. Nearly as uplifting were the days I passed in a tiny village called Toraniya, in Kutch, soon after the enormous earthquake of January 2001.

Both times, all I saw around me was devastation and trauma. And in Orissa, death too was everywhere. (Toraniya, fortunately, had only a few casualties). These were tragedies on a scale I had never seen; roaming both areas left me choked with despair. But both times, the despair ran in parallel with a curious high: a feeling of awe and encouragement. That high came from watching the efforts of the people who had poured in to help with relief efforts. After Erasama, I wrote this for Seminar (January 2000):

‘I met volunteers [working] enthusiastically, without regard to personal convenience or professed faith, with commitment, compassion, and a truly moving camaraderie and goodwill. There were TELCO employees, a pair of nuns in their grey habits, RSS and Ananda Marg volunteers, theology students, an Islamic youth group, CRPF constables, a team from Rourkela, Army jawans, Youth Congress men, and frail women in white saris from the International Movement for the Prevention of Indecency. The effort to cope with this vast tragedy – at least in Erasama – was humbling and inspiring.’

Yes, I had never seen tragedy on this scale. But in my forty-plus Indian years, I have never seen selfless work on this scale either. There was a spirit in the air that effortlessly transcended the cynicism that India so diligently breeds in citizens like me. One young man had come to Erasama with the clothes he wore and a sheet to sleep on; that’s it. He had apparently heard the news of the cyclone at his desk in a large bank in Delhi, got up from his seat and taken the next train to Orissa. ‘Arre yaar,’ he explained with a sheepish grin when I asked, ‘I just had to see what I could do.’



With all this, and despite the sorrow and destruction in Erasama, it was easy to believe that something new might just be built here, something would come of that old adage that every crisis brings in its wake opportunity. Call me naive, but a part of me really believed that from this senseless destruction would emerge a new Erasama, if not a new Orissa: clean, well-administered, healthy, resurgent. After all, once past some early hiccups, the huge relief effort was running smoothly, doing all the right things, cleaning up, setting people’s lives back in order faster than I would have believed had I not been there myself. That was what made it so profoundly encouraging to be there.

And it was with that naive expectation that I returned to Erasama six months later. To utter disappointment. The town I wandered through now bore only a passing resemblance to the buzzing, cheerful, spirited place I had known. Yes, the innumerable relief teams had gone home as they had to. But what of that changed world I thought I had glimpsed when I was last here? That fruit of the opportunity to build anew? Nothing.



Nevertheless, Erasama had certainly returned to normal after the trauma of the cyclone. The Colorado Study Circle (‘First Floor, Near Bus Stand’) was bustling with studious patrons. A barber whose booth the cyclone smashed was in business again, long line of hairy customers awaiting his expert snips. Even the local pathology lab – man at a tiny table right on the road, peering through his microscope at what he told me were ‘bloodurinestoolsamples’ – was back at work. Little shops at the town junction were stocked with crates of Pepsi and Thril (‘better than Pepsi, sahib!’ someone yelled as I examined a bottle).

Nevertheless too, there remained an edge to this normalcy. Across from the microscope, I stepped into the shell of a warehouse: rubble, shattered walls, twisted girders, all lying there. A triangular section of the roof of the veterinary dispensary hung on a rod and a prayer. Ready any second, it seemed, to decapitate the patients below. In the panchayat office, a minor functionary was caught with a stash of stuff he had siphoned off the continuing flow of relief material.

In a stagnant pond, men and boys splashed around, hunting for fish, their bodies and those of the thrashing fish coated with black slime. From another stagnant pond, two large pigs came racing out, dripping black slime in gobs as they vanished into the bushes across the road. Later, a man emerged from the same pond, two large cans slung over his shoulder, filled with water from the same pond. The town junction was the combination of snorting buses, filth under-foot, scrawny stray dogs and utter chaos that’s familiar to anyone who has spent time in small-town India.

Erasama was back to being a grubby little town like every other grubby little town in India. Just the normal, nothing else. And the contemplation of this normalcy, six months later, nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Many of these thoughts were on my mind as I travelled to Toraniya after the Kutch earthquake. Why had so little changed in Erasama? Would it be the same in Kutch? The questions made me resolve to be a little less wide-eyed here than I had been in Orissa.



All over again, I was humbled by the spirit that people from all over my country brought to Kutch. But I was also consumed with more mundane, perhaps even cynical, thoughts. When I look back on that trip, months later, I find myself thinking most about one aspect above all: the way we respond to calamity.

Consider some random observations from my time in Kutch. Consider too that I saw similar things in Orissa.

First, banners were everywhere. Every single truck carrying relief material sported a banner identifying the organization that had sent it. Every camp of volunteers had one too. On the walls of some forlornly crumpled buildings in the town of Samkhiali, painted signs announced that the Zee Network had ‘adopted’ the town for ‘complete rehabilitation’. ‘Zee: With You In This Critical Situation,’ said one wall, whatever that meant. Naturally, these signs had been painted only on the walls that faced the highway. They had to be noticed and read, after all.

The banners told me, yet again, that inspiring story of the wide cross-section of India that had come to help Gujarat. They also told me that some of the most industrious people in India after the quake were the painters of signs. And something about that nagged at me.



Second, the way at least some relief material was being distributed. In Bhachau, a truck drove down the road past us, three men on top flinging biscuit packets overboard as people raced behind reaching for them. Fighting, snarling, over sailing biscuits. A memory that, every time I dredge it up, wrenches at me. In the village of Shikarpur, off the Malia-Samkhiali highway, I came upon a team from Delhi simply tossing old clothes off another truck into a pathetic sea of reaching hands. I waded in, yelling, ‘What are you doing?’ at them. All I got was a collective shrug, followed by more tossing. The tossers didn’t seem in the least concerned about what they were doing. A man on the fringe of the cacophony turned to me and asked: ‘Why are you bothering? After this quake, we’ – and here he pointed at his fellow villagers – ‘have become like animals.’

Must we treat people, even earthquake victim people, this way?

Third, I wish there were more questions about the kind of material that comes in as relief. Like the old clothes I saw in Shikarpur. Usually the first relief materials collected after a calamity, they arrived by the truckload. But whether tossed at the victims or distributed with a little more thought, piles of clothes lay everywhere, just flung aside by the victims. Whatever the reasons, and I can think of some, few people want old clothes. Why do we well-meaning city folk send them? (I did).

Then there was the team that had come from the Abhishek Mitra Mandal (name changed) of the ‘BJP Ward 24, Nashik’ (as the labels on their cartons told me). After the quake, the women of the Mitra Mandal gathered and spent a whole day producing a vast quantity of shankarpale, the savoury Maharashtrian snack. Their young men packed it in plastic bags and cartons, made sure to label each one, loaded them all on a large truck, and drove it up here. Only to find that quake victims did not want shankarpale either. So after some days roaming the district in futility, they came across us, camped in Toraniya. In some relief, they dumped their load on us and drove back to Nashik. Nobody took it from us either. Really, why do people send such stuff?



Fourth, a lot of teams wandered about, looking for somewhere to unload the material they had brought. They had no idea who needed what kind of help and where. Now Samkhiali is a sort of natural entry point to the quake zone. Incoming teams had to stop at a Gujarat government tent there and submit such details as their truck number, the organization and the material in the truck. It would have been logical for the officials to direct them to where their material was most needed. Instead, after scribbling down your information, you were on your own. You could roam wherever you chose. The officials did not even have maps of the area to hand out. No wonder there were reports that villages near the main highways got an excess of relief material. No wonder more remote ones, like Toraniya, were neglected. And no wonder teams wandered aimlessly.

Fifth, even well-meaning people are often unaware of the need for, or the magnitude of, the tasks they undertake as ‘relief’. Take the traders’ association from Delhi that also came to Toraniya. They had come, they told us with pride, to feed the villagers ‘for a week’. A fine impulse, perhaps? But to begin with, it wasn’t clear that the villagers even needed, or wanted, free food. Several told us they had more than enough supplies to cook for themselves. None of the traders bothered to ask about this.

Still, they got going with an encouraging enthusiasm, producing piping hot puri-bhaji and serving it with warmth and good cheer to crowds of villagers. But after just two meals – lunch and dinner the first day – they ran out of steam. The next morning, they lined up the villagers, distributed their vegetables and oil and vessels, got into their Toyota Qualis, and were gone. Gone like they had never come. So much for that ‘week’. ‘Kya karen, boss,’ one said to me as he packed. ‘We have families back home, we have two days travel ahead of us, and we are tired.’ I couldn’t help wondering, while appreciating the motivation that brought them here, what good they had really done.



Sixth, the ubiquitous attitude of ‘helping’ the victims, as opposed to seeing that they helped themselves. In one village, a Baba’s sturdy followers erected tents for the villagers. They refused to let the villagers help. Kindly but firmly, they told those who offered: ‘Hum aap ki seva karne aaye hain, aap baithiye aur hum kaam karenge.’ (We have come to serve you, so just sit down while we do the work).

Is it right to ‘help’ in this way? Right for the helpers, for the helped, for anybody?

Seeing all this in Kutch and Orissa, I found myself struggling to understand what this business of relief was all about. Should it be so haphazard? So thoughtless? So inappropriate? So patronizing?

And yet, in asking these questions, I know that I walk something of a tightrope. So many do so much for victims of calamities out of the goodness of their hearts, driven by the sheer human desire to help. I don’t mean to scorn that at all. Yet with that overwhelming desire to help, perhaps we should ask how we can best do it. Is it really via what we conventionally think of as relief? Does this attitude towards relief really help the victims?



Thinking these thoughts brings to mind a remarkable man from Texas called Fred Cuny. A sort of self-made disaster relief expert, I suspect Cuny would have strenuously resisted that description. He travelled to places like Turkey, Bosnia and Guatemala after various natural and man-made calamities. Everywhere, the ‘relief’ he saw disgusted him. He came to believe that rushing in ‘relief’ only created more problems in the disaster area: inappropriate material, logistical nightmares and a population that grows to depend on handouts.

All of which, in one form or another, to one extent or another, was on display in Kutch, in Erasama.

Cuny disappeared in early 1995 while on a mission in the deadly Chechnya war. His death remains murky, perhaps explained only by the purely vicious mess that conflict is. Yet his ideas and thinking live on, in the people he motivated, the books and papers he wrote and that have been written about him and his work. In memory of this original thinker, I’d like to offer here a flavour of his ideas.

In his 1983 book Disasters and Development, Cuny wrote: ‘For the survivors of a natural disaster, a second disaster may also be looming.’



What he meant, of course, was relief. Cuny knew what he was talking about. After a 1976 quake in Guatemala, he found that planeloads of blankets had begun arriving in the capital. But Guatemala was and is a country where blanket-making is a major part of the economy. The shipments immediately bankrupted many weavers and compounded the distress. Why, Cuny asked, had nobody taken this into account? In another case, a shipment of instant mashed potatoes left distraught locals be-wildered. What was this white powder? They began to use it as detergent. Besides, food shipments like those potatoes troubled Cuny for another reason. Like the blankets, they often only impoverished farmers in neighbouring areas. He also fumed over how operations died out a few weeks after the disaster. This, he believed, tended to leave victims worse off than if there had been no relief.

As Cuny stressed, you have to understand local conditions after a calamity. That understanding must decide how relief will proceed. And you have to be prepared for the long term. These lines about his work in war-ravaged Sarajevo in the early ’90s speak for themselves (from Scott Anderson’s The Man Who Tried To Save The World, an investigation of his death):

‘With nearly all food supplies being either airlifted or trucked into the city – and thus always vulnerable to the Serb blockade – [Cuny] started a seed distribution programme that enabled the increasingly desperate residents to grow fruits and vegetables in their backyards or apartment terraces. [His] engineers designed a portable gas-powered stove that doubled as a heater, a vital improvement in the cold Sarajevan winters when fuel supplies were scarce. Noticing the array of homemade – and dangerous – devices the residents had used to hook onto the city’s functioning gas lines, Fred brought in planeloads of reinforced plastic piping – some 15 miles worth – and linked thousands of homes to the lines.

‘That was an unbelievable project,’ said Aryeh Neier, the president of [George] Soros’s Open Society Institute [that funded the operation]. ‘Fred managed to enlist 15,000 Sarajevans to dig trenches through the streets to put in the gas lines – and this was while the shelling was taking place.’



Yet with all his innovative thinking, to me Cuny’s most important insight is about the entire attitude of relief, of responding to tragedy. Cuny truly believed that disasters must be viewed not as tragedies, but as opportunities. Mourning helps nobody and just mires people in self-pity. Far better to get on with the jobs that need doing. And when you look at it that way, opportunity lies everywhere: in rebuilding homes, in fixing water sources, in repairing drains and pipes, in giving the most deprived people – always the worst hit – new voice and strength.

Opportunity, Fred Cuny believed, is in how you can mould a damaged society anew.

What are the lessons for us? Trying hard to think as Cuny might have, I came up with a few ideas for disaster-hit areas. I don’t know how practical they are, but I will list them here for you to mull over.

1) Doctors are needed, no doubt, and I saw them in plenty in both Kutch and Orissa. Who I didn’t see in similar numbers were engineers to repair wells and pipes, to quickly restore clean water supplies. Partly as a result, there were nagging reports of outbreaks of cholera and diarrhoea, meaning even more doctors were needed. In future disasters, should engineers reach the area first, even before doctors and volunteers?

2) The cyclone killed enormous numbers of domestic animals – cattle, sheep, goats, dogs. How will they be replaced? How will suddenly destitute villagers pay for new animals? Can a disaster be a time to introduce new breeds – cows that yield more milk, goats that produce more than one kid at a time? After all, there are people throughout the country conducting research on just such breeds. What better chance to turn that research into reality than when animals have died on such a scale?

3) The cyclone also uprooted millions of trees. Several groups in Orissa talked about huge replanting programmes. Can they be run as employment schemes as well, in which local people plant trees and get paid for it? (Widespread unemployment is a not-often addressed result of disasters). Besides, there was evidence that the Bhitarkanika sanctuary, also hit by the cyclone, was relatively unscathed because it was protected by extensive mangrove forests. Other coastal areas, where ‘development’ has ravaged mangrove stands, were devastated. Can replanting efforts extend to restoring the mangroves along the coast of Orissa?

4) Both in Kutch and Erasama, people were already rebuilding their homes with whatever material they could find. Can the government and NGOs leave them to do it as best as they can? There are a few good reasons for this. One, this way victims will be back in homes far sooner than if they wait for massive government house-building programmes to stumble into action. Two, they will construct their homes as they want them. From Latur to the Narmada valley, a lesson bitterly learned is that governments produce housing that nobody wants to, nor can, live in. Three, building nearly two million brick and concrete houses – the problem Orissa faced – needs money on a scale far vaster than is available. One estimate I heard was Rs 30,000 for each such house; times two million is 60 billion rupees. Compare that to the entire Central government assistance to Orissa: five billion rupees.

All things considered, much better to let suddenly homeless people build homes themselves, perhaps offering them small loans as necessary.

5) Which raises the question: what happens in the next disaster? Won’t these very rebuilt houses be flattened all over again, killing people by the thousand all over again? Not necessarily. If outside agencies concentrate not on houses, but on spreading the gospel about quake-resistant methods, on building secure cyclone shelters, that will save lives. Now cyclone shelters are hardly cheap. But for example, schools need to be rebuilt as well. If they can double as shelters and are built with that in mind, that’s an efficient way to spend money.



Cuny treated each disaster as unique. Because it is. Each has its own set of conditions, dynamics, geographical peculiarities and so on. There can be no blanket approach to relief, he believed, and trying to apply one would not only fail, but compound disaster.

Therefore, reacting to disaster needs care and compassion, yes; but also efficiency and a willingness to explore alternatives, to think and think again.

What’s not needed, at least in Kutch, is shankarpale. Despite the overflowing kindness of those Nashik women.