The death toll from the earthquake that hit the western Indian state of Gujarat last Friday continues to mount. Officially, 6,287 people have been confirmed dead as a result of the tremor that registered 7.9 on the Richter scale, and 15,481 were injured. About a half-million people have been left homeless. The number of victims is sure to climb as rescue efforts continue; Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes believes that more than 100,000 people could have died in the quake and an additional 200,000 injured, making it one of the worst in history.
Now, it is a race against time to find more survivors. The task has been complicated by shortages of personnel and equipment; electricity has not yet been restored and there are limited communications facilities to coordinate rescue efforts. If that were not enough, the tremors have not stopped: There have been more than 250 aftershocks since Friday. While they are lessening in intensity, the tremors increase the risk that already weakened buildings might collapse. Yet, each day, some miracle is revealed as another survivor is pulled from the rubble. Unfortunately, time is running short.
The size of the tragedy is far beyond the ability of the Indian government to cope with. Gujarat has been the fastest-growing state in the country; its economy has been growing at a rate of more than 9 percent a year during the 1990s, almost half again as much as the national average. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimates the building and construction losses across the state of Gujarat at 150 billion rupees ($3.2 billion), or about 0.8 percent of gross domestic product. Since Gujarat is the country’s second-most-industrialized state, the quake has delivered a one-two punch to the economy. The drop in output combined with the need for funds for reconstruction will have a severe impact on national accounts and push the government even further into debt.
The international community must help. The Indian government will ask for $1.5 billion in assistance from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. UNICEF has pledged $8 million and Japan has promised almost $1 million in cash and supplies. A 20-member medical assistance team has already left for India. Other countries have been just as quick to help out and even more generous.
A key source of assistance has been the Indian diaspora, and the mobilization of this group provides insight into the way the world is changing. The group consists of 11 million people scattered around the globe and is the third-largest diaspora in the world. A substantial number of these people are from Gujarat, and they have been quick to utilize the Internet for information about families as well as to get funds home. In crisis situations, information can mean the difference between life and death. New mobile technologies can have a huge impact, as can the ability to mobilize and organize resources through the Net.
Strangely, natural disasters also provide an opportunity for people to overcome seemingly insurmountable political differences. When Turkey was hit by a devastating earthquake in August 1999, Greeks put aside their long-held animosity to send sympathy and help. The assistance made a profound impression on many Turks and has been credited with changing the prevailing political mind-set. There is still a long way to go, but the human — rather than political — response to that tragedy made a big contribution.
Similar forces could be at work in India. In the wake of the earthquake, Pakistan has sent relief supplies to the victims. Initially, the two governments conducted their usual awkward diplomatic dance: Pakistan tentatively offered aid, and India originally declined, but later changed its position, declaring that all offers of help would be accepted with “gratitude and appreciation.”
Nearly two years ago, India and Pakistan were squaring off over the sea near Gujarat. A Pakistani reconnaissance plane was shot down after encountering an Indian Air Force jet. The following day, Pakistan launched a missile at Indian helicopters inspecting the wreckage. On Monday, India’s foreign minister, Mr. Jaswant Singh, was accusing Pakistan of “compulsive and perpetual hostility” and denying that the two countries would ever find a solution to the dispute over Kashmir that has repeatedly taken them to war. That is hard to square with the offer of assistance.
Mr. Singh would do well to remember that Pakistan was also hit by last week’s quake; fortunately, the number of victims was much smaller. Still, the quake in Gujarat should put the notion of “perpetual hostility” in perspective. These two governments’ anger is nothing compared to nature’s fury.
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