NEW DELHI, Jan 29, 01 (CWNews.com) - Following the devastating
earthquake that left a trial of destruction in Gujarat state in western India
on Friday, church groups are struggling in their efforts to launch relief work,
due to problems in communications with the worst affected region.
According to the latest Gujarat government bulletin, more than 20,000
people lost their lives in the quake, which was measured at 6.9 on the
Richter scale by Indian meteorologists (others put it at 7.9). The tremor
flattened buildings and thatched houses on Friday morning.
However, Bishop Gregory Karotemprel of Rajkot, the diocese in which the
worst affected Kutch district is located, told CWNews.com today that the
casualty figure is "much, much higher."
"In my estimate, the death toll is more than 100,000," said Bishop
Karotemprel, a Carmelite of Mary Immaculate (CMI), on his return after
visiting the worst affected Bhuj and Bachau townships in his diocese.
Nearly half the population of the 180,000 people of Bhuj are dead. Apart
from that, in the nearby Bachau town-- 15 miles away from Bhuj-- Bishop
Karotemprel pointed out said, "99 percent of the buildings there have
collapsed." But, due to the absence of communications link in the region,
relief workers have not reached that township.
Given the fact that the Bhuj town and the surrounding villages in the Kutch
district bore the brunt of the quake, the local prelate's estimate seems to be
credible-- especially in the wake of reports about severe casualties in cities
as far as 300 miles from Bhuj. For instance Ahmedabad, the Gujarat state
capital has recorded 1,500 deaths, most of them killed in the collapse of
multi-storied apartment buildings.
Father Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest who is coordinating the relief work of
two dozen relief agencies, also believes that the government's casualty
figures are "an understatement."
"Maybe, due to the lack of communication, the real extent of damage has not
been assessed," Father Prakash told CWNews.com from his base in
Ahmedabad before dashing off to Bhuj in a helicopter to coordinate the relief
work in the worst affected region. "Communication is our worst problem. We
have to go there personally to get feedback from those in the area," Father
In New Delhi, Father Gregory D'Souza, the assistant executive director of
Caritas India-- the social-action of wing of Catholic Bishops Conference of
India (CBCI)-- is "desperately waiting" to hear from a six-member team sent
by CBCI and Caritas on Saturday to assess the quake damage and the needs
of survivors. While the team was expected to have reached Bhuj on Sunday,
Caritas had not heard a report as of Monday evening.
"Even the cell phones they carry seems to be of no help. Only after we hear
from them we could plan the relief work," Father D'Souza said. The chief of
emergency wing of Caritas India has also rushed to Gujarat from nearby
Madhya Pradesh. "But we are waiting for feedback from him on what are the
immediate requirement," Father D'Souza said.
Caritas India, he said, has already received international assistance worth 30
million rupees ($620,000) from church charities in Germany, Holland, and
France. Apart from that, Caritas International and the European Union has
guaranteed another $2 million. "The problem is not money right now.
Information is most required," Father D'Souza said.
"Many dioceses are ready to send volunteers for relief work. How can we
coordinate it, unless we have communication links?" the bishops' spokesman
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has already procured 500 tons of food items for
relief work. While these are being dispatched to the affected areas-- and
more relief materials, including blankets and temporary shelter material, are
being purchased-- he said, "improving communication links is very urgent."
CRS has already asked a leading telecommunications firm, Lucent
Technologies, to set up communication networks for the charities in the
Father C. C. Jose, Social Welfare director of the Rajkot diocese CWNews.com
that people are sleeping in the open, abandoning even buildings that have
been left standing. There have been more than 100 aftershocks reported in
the region since Friday. Most of the houses in the region have developed
cracks in their foundations, if they have not collapsed outright.
"It's very cold here in the night. We need to provide them shelter, and
medical care, urgently," said Father Jose. "There is no electricity and water.
The affected people are in a virtual hell."