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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 October 2005, 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK
'Cruel joke' of India's relief effort

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Kamalkot, Uri, Indian-administered Kashmir

Quake victim
Ghulam Rasool by the roadside with his family watching the relief trucks

The great Indian relief rush has finally begun.

Nearly a week after an earthquake decimated large swathes of northern Indian-administered Kashmir, civilians and NGOs have taken it upon themselves to feed, clothe, nurse and house thousands of survivors.

The survivors, neglected by a slothful administration and battered by moody weather, have little choice, anyway.

In the summer capital of Srinagar, men and women, young old, squat on roadsides in gloomy makeshift kiosks collecting relief from people.

Others, mostly young men, wave black flags, stop traffic and ask for money - some are making a quick buck out of a tragedy, the others are more serious about their mission.

All this and much more is contributing to an unprecedented gridlock on the narrow mountain roads skirting the Jhelum river to the quake hit villages of Uri.

Rocky patch

The good Samaritans - missionaries, doctors, political oddballs, power grid engineers, bankers, clerks, religious workers, unemployed youngsters- are all going up the picturesque mountain road in dust-caked smoke spewing vehicles bearing stickers like 'Fallow me' (sic) and 'Killer Hunter'.

Quake victims
Some people have resorted to begging

They are carrying rice, biscuits, old clothes, blankets, plastic sheets, kerosene, water, medicine, cooking oil.

The great Indian relief rush to Uri, however, is not perfect.

As is the case with most Indian relief operations, there are a lot of hit-and-run gigs where 'volunteers' throw old clothes, food and plastic to screaming hungry and shivering throngs and depart.

It is a very Darwinian way of relief distribution - the old, sick and women practically get nothing.

Others are more methodical taking supplies to local warehouses, coordinating with local authorities - if they are listening- and making an effort to distribute it methodically.

At the end of the day, a week after a tragedy, dazed survivors in the far flung mountain villages move around in outsize relief clothes, munch on relief biscuits, take their quota of relief rice to a wet rocky patch wondering where to cook it.

They sleep in the open in the cold and rain, and at the break of dawn send their children to beg on the mountain road from passing vehicles.

It's business as usual - disaster relief operations, Indian style.

'Cruel joke'

"This is how disaster relief works in India," quips Basher Ahmed, a youngster who spent four days in Sultan Diki village distributing rice, clothes, biscuit and bread.

Sultan Diki is a village where over 50 people died.

"The administration fails, the army rescues, and civil society follows."

The problem with the great Indian relief rush is that a lot of it is badly organized, distribution is skewed and some supplies simply go to waste.

On the rocky road to Uri, a little-known political party sets up a small camp and loads a smelly dump of old, donated clothes in the open.

It rains that night. Next day shivering survivors are gleefully presented with wet clothes.

In Kamalkot, one of the worst affected villages in Uri flanked by steep snow-capped Pakistani ridges, there is a traffic jam of relief supply vehicles, but survivors are still sleeping out in the cold.

There's simply not enough tents to shelter people after the army dropped a few in the initial days. But there are mountains of old clothes lying around.

The relief scrum on the narrow road means that sick and wounded people who need to be rushed down to the nearest hospital down the mountain road have to wait for hours till the traffic clears.

It seems like a cruel joke to people like Ghulam Rasool who sits by the roadside with his wife and three daughters watching the relief trucks go up and down.

The 47-year-old day labourer lives in Salambad on the lower reaches of the mountain, barely 12 km from the Line of Control, the de facto border which divides the disputed region of Kashmir.

Rebuild a home

Rasool has become homeless for the second time in three years - in 2002, shells fired from Pakistan blew up his home, gutted his belongings and about $450 he had kept aside for his eldest daughter's remainder dowry.

Quake victims
'No one from the government has turned up to help'

"I used to give my dowry in instalments to my son-in-law in case he began mistreating my daughter," he says.

Then he took a loan of $4500 from a local bank and friends and rebuilt his two-storey tin roofed stone house.

Last Saturday, the quake destroyed his home again. Since then Rasool and his family have been living on the road by day and sleeping inside parked buses in the neighbourhood bus stand at night.

The only relief he has got from the government is rice - every member got 11 kg of rice. Nobody gave him fire and utensils to cook the rice though.

Every other day, the quick relief teams give him vegetables, milk and bread.

"Thank god for them, and the army. If they had not been around, we would have perished of hunger and cold," he said.

A befuddled Rasool watches the relief trucks trundle up the mountain, and wonders why he still cannot get a decent makeshift roof over his head.

After years of dodging shells from across the border - "We often used to run away from home when there was intense shelling," he says- and becoming homeless again, Rasool is tired.

"I don't think I can stand up a third time and rebuild a home if the government does not help me. I just can't think ahead," he says.

Nobody from the government has turned up yet and taken note of his losses.

Some policemen came to tot up the loss of lives in their village. That was when they saw the last of the civil administration.


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