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Friday, 2 February, 2001, 17:51 GMT
India quake: Mike Wooldridge in Bhuj quizzed

The BBC's Mike Wooldridge is in Bhuj, the epicentre of the earthquake and the hub of the relief operation. He answered your questions in a live forum.

To watch the forum, select the link below



Richard Cook, Lincoln, England:

Is this the worst tragedy that you have reported on as a journalist? How can these people rebuild their lives?

Mike Wooldridge:

One can never really compare one disaster or one tragedy and another in this way. The statistics are certainly one for the record books. What we trying to do in our reporting is to focus on the fate of communities, families and individuals.

In the second part of the question he asks how people can rebuild their lives - people, and particularly in India, seem to do that for themselves. They need of course external technical help to do this - they need building materials for those who are moving back into apartments in the bigger cities - these buildings need to be reconstructed.

For a long time people are destined to live in tents at best - at the time being they don't often even have those to live in. So the process of rebuilding their lives is going to be very difficult. It will depend on their own ability to find work again. Many people have lost jobs as a result of this, their place of work has collapsed along with the earthquake. Once people do have a chance of getting back to work - for many that will be a very difficult task - they will need help with that as well. I think a lot of people will pick up the pieces of their lives from their own resources but at the same time they will clearly need considerable help. We are talking about thousands and thousands of families here.

Leena Kewlani, Dubai (United Arab Emirates):

How much money will actually reach the victims. Wouldn't it be better if the international community sent tents and blankets rather than cash?

Mike Wooldridge:

The international community responds at various levels to a disaster of this kind. There a section of the world community, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other large financial institutions, that will in a sense be responding with cash, grants or loans. India has asked for 1.5 billion dollars for that already and may need more in the longer term. But alongside that you have the international agencies - donor governments, all the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), they are very much dealing in material things - in tents, blankets as well as sometimes in cash.

Often those who are giving their money do indeed prefer to see it given in material things - they feel that it is easier to trace what will happen with it. But it doesn't necessarily mean sending those things from abroad - it can often be better to buy them within India.

In the past there has been a history sometimes of cash going astray in all sorts of countries of the world - but that monitoring process is one that is becoming sharpened and I am sure we will see that that is the case here.

Eva Marie Lourenco, Mumbai, India:

Do you think the funds will reach this people and how can you reassure us? It would be really disappointing if at later stage we were to find out that they have been misused.

Mike Wooldridge:

We have found that with each disaster that passes, the mechanism for checking that funds are well spent probably improves. Where there are difficulties it is probably with the cash and items that are given in the first flush of response.

I would suggest that any individual look at the track record of the agency to which they are making their contribution. This is sometimes no easy to do but I think this is a role for the media to report how agencies are spending their money and to report if there are any examples of misuse.

Ameen Kader, Calcutta, India:

It is reported in this earthquake in Gujarat that many people died not because of any external physical injury, but simply remaining trapped inside the debris for two or three days. Don't you think that it is a failure on the part of the Indian Government that they didn't reach these victims of the earthquake in time?

Mike Wooldridge:

There has certainly already been accusations of that kind - they have surfaced in the media here. There are people who feel that more should have been done in that first two or three days. It was certainly the case where I was in Ahmedabad, the largest of the towns in Gujarat, on the evening of the earthquake. It was mainly the people in the local community who were quite literally scrabbling among the debris of buildings in those first few hours and people were complaining that they weren't seeing more help from the authorities.

But the scale of this disaster was enormous. Even the Swiss, British, Russian rescue teams and those from other countries, would testify to the difficulty of being able to cover all the ground. Even they had to concentrate their efforts on the buildings where they felt there was the best chance of finding somebody alive. There had to be a concentration, they would say, on some buildings rather than others - every building could not be searched with specialist equipment however regrettable that may be.

Senthil Kumar, Chennai, India. :

How is the Indian government handling the rescue operation in Gujarat? We get different stories from different sources.

Mike Wooldridge:

There has been a good deal of criticism and that is increasing. We have to remember here that there was a near total breakdown of the government structure in this part of Gujarat. Communications were almost totally cut off - there were government officials, police, Indian air force personnel, army etc., who were themselves were caught in this disaster and some who died in it. The government would argue this in defence against those criticisms that it might have been slow to react.

There is one element that the central government is looking into as to whether there was a further slowness of reaction because it was Republic Day and because the authorities were caught up in preparing for the Republic Day ceremonies. As time goes by, and the judgements are levelled more acutely at the machinery of government, they will come under increasing scrutiny.

Rabindra, London, UK:

What is your guess on the final casualty figures of this earthquake?

Mike Wooldridge:

We have had a very wide range of estimates from the authorities - it currently stands at anything from around 35,000 to a figure of 100,000 which was given by the defence minister during the course of the week and by one or two other officials. That does seem an extraordinary range.

The official count for bodies actually recovered stands at around 14,000 - but there are many, many people under the debris. We simply don't know how many people are under the debris. It is very credible that the death toll could be somewhere in that range of say 50,000 to 100,000. I think it is extremely hard to narrow it down beyond that at this point.

Awil, The Netherlands:

Mike, you know the region very well - do you think that this will bring the two enemies, India and Pakistan, closer together now that Pakistan is sending help to India?

Mike Wooldridge:

I think it will take much more than that one operational gesture to bring them closer together. Perhaps this will turn out to be one of the confidence-building measures between the two countries that they have each said that they want to see happen.

Pakistan has sent this aid at a time when both sides are struggling to find a way to restart their official dialogue on the basis of the cease fire that is in effect at the moment in Kashmir. Certainly the Indian Government, once the aid arrived, welcomed the gesture and obviously that must be a step towards what could potentially be an improvement in relations between the two countries.

Sanjiv Kaushal, Coventry, England:

I get the impression from television reports that relief efforts are being centred around the towns and cities in Gujarat. What is the situation like in more rural areas?

Mike Wooldridge:

It depends on which aspect of the relief operation you are talking about. Within hours of the earthquake there were a lot of spontaneous relief efforts that were taking place - private individuals, religious charities etc. were sending in vans and trucks with all sorts of supplies - prepared food, blankets and clothing.

The relief efforts did spread quite rapidly out beyond the towns into some of the villages as well. The larger supplies, on the larger trucks, weren't perhaps getting too far off the beaten track. But even within Bhuj there were complaints of unequal distribution of aid and to a certain extent I think that is true. I would say one week on from the earthquake that that is the real challenge now to distribute the aid more equally between the town and cities and the rural areas.

Amitabha Bandyopadhyay, NY, USA:

We are collecting money from our school for the relief work in Gujarat. We want the money to go towards rehabilitation of the families rendered homeless because of the quake. Could you advise us of a good organisation whom we can trust with our money?

Mike Wooldridge:

I think it is terrific that that this kind of collection is being made. I don't think it would be right for me to single out one agency against another.

Perhaps as I said in answer to an earlier question - it might be good to look at the track record of a particular agency. They might also want to put the chosen agency on the spot and say that they want their money to be spent on the rehabilitation of the victims. The best agencies would be only too willing to do this.

Abdul Ingar, Toronto, Canada:

What are the most urgently needed items? What is the best possible and efficient way to assist?

Mike Wooldridge:

What so many people in the places I have been to have said for themselves is that they want tarpaulins. Thousands and thousands of people are living out in the open after this earthquake. They may have houses that are still standing but so many of them are simply not safe to go back into. They are still getting aftershocks and those houses are often so damaged that they are vulnerable to collapsing. They also welcome blankets and food.

In the longer term they will need help in getting jobs - that is more difficult for people to contribute to but they can ask which agencies are working in helping people get back on their feet. They also want medicines of course - there are people with injuries from the earthquake and people who are vulnerable to illnesses that arise because of the conditions in which they are now living.

Prasant Kumar Mohapatra, Orissa, India:

What are the construction standards of high rise buildings in the region like?

Mike Wooldridge:

One of the most extraordinary things has been to look how surgical the earthquake was - how it took out a single multi-storey building in one street and then perhaps not another for several streets away. Certainly people are asking whether certain buildings should have been built where there were. There is talk of prosecuting the builders. There are many questions being asked about the structures and these questions are going to mount.

Tasneem Jivanji, Montreal, Canada:

There is going to be a huge time lag between the completion of new infrastructure/houses and the wearing out of temporary housing to hold the survivors. What is going to be done to aid the survivors during this time?

Mike Wooldridge:

I think there will be a big time lag. People are talking about one to three years or even longer than that before sufficient housing is constructed to re-house all those whose homes have gone.

Many people have moved out of the area for the time being. There will be many relief camps - they will be under tarpaulin. It is extremely important for the public to keep up the pressure on people in the media to continue reporting the conditions in which people are living and on the aid agencies.

Krishna Ravi Kumar, Bangalore, India:

Why are more and more tremors happening in Gujarat after the major one on January 26th. Is India, in general, prone to sporadic earthquakes?

Mike Wooldridge:

India is very prone to sporadic earthquakes, although it is said by the experts that it is the Himalayan region that is much more vulnerable. There have been other big earthquakes in Gujarat before - they seem to go in a cycle - one of the biggest was back in the 1950s.

There are always aftershocks - we have been feeling them when travelling around the area - the largest has been 5.9 on the Richter Scale and that was a pretty severe one. Those aftershocks have made it more difficult in some cases to carry on the relief work - they have also increased the anxiety among those who have survived. This has also encouraged the exodus from the area.

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