January 30, 2001
volume 12, no. 30

Communication Woes Slow Indian Quake Relief

By Anto Akkara

    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 Prakash said.

    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 added.

    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 affected region.

    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."

January 30, 2001
volume 12, no. 30
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