Recounting the horrors of the Gujarat earthquake

  • M R Narayan Swamy, IANS, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 25, 2015 16:21 IST

Book: The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India
Author: Edward Simpson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 302
Price: Rs 950

On the whole, reconstruction works that followed the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat have been presented as a success. British scholar Edward Simpson, an old student of Gujarat, doesn't agree.

True, a great deal of money was spent on building new roads and suburbs, and tax concessions and other state-subsidised incentives led to a booming industrial economy. But all this required heavy borrowing, spawned new inequities, fragmented public services, and led to severe environmental degradation. But Simpson admits that not everyone will agree with this.

A professor of social anthropology in the University of London, Simpson says his book - a scholarly work - "is about the chaotic war of ideas prompted by a disaster" and "an account of how abstract political ideas are made into concrete realities". It is also about memory, use of history and hope.

Simpson is not saying that 'good work' is inherently bad but argues "it is never as neutral or innocent as people often claim and sometimes appear to believe". The Gujarat earthquake story, he feels, might also be read as an allegory of 10 years of politics in the state.

The January 2001 quake killed around 14,000 people, with Kutch itself accounting for 12,221 deaths. It produced 25-50 tonnes of rubble. Hundreds of villages were flattened in varying degrees while badly built tower blocks collapsed in faraway Ahmedabad. In Anjar town, a few hundred school children taking part in a Republic Day parade were crushed to death. It was devastation at its tragic worst.

Simpson gives full credit to the management of mass death. This was "mostly well ordered. there was no contagion from corpses". At least one truck even made a long trip to northern India to submerge ashes in the holy Ganges. Private groups and dedicated volunteers did their best.

BJP-ruled Gujarat, Simpson points out, was the first state in India that went for comprehensive economic and structural reforms well before the temblor. The quake was a boon for those who wrote proposals for international funding; it also became tied to the general reforms of the financial sector. "Policy drafted in offices in Manila, Geneva and New York rippled invisibly into provincial Gujarat."

Equally significantly, Simpson says, the Sangh Parivar and allied groups manipulated the alienation and divisions that followed the quake "for political gain through systematic and planned penetration of the society". Amid rising communal feelings, some excluded Muslims from new settlements.

There were also widespread allegations of corruption and poor quality construction - even as good work went on. Contractors vanished with advance payments, leaving works incomplete. In the years to come, hundreds were arrested for corruption. All this sparked anger against the state. There were also demands that Kutch should get a union territory status. At one time, Narendra Modi, who became the Gujarat chief minister in 2001 but after the quake, was irritated by calls for Kutch's political autonomy. Eventually, however, the state overcame all dissent.

This is truly a political biography of a terrible disaster. It is written with a sense of loyalty to the people of Gujarat but with a perspective not everyone, particularly in the state, will be comfortable with.

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