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NEW DELHI — The earthquake that devastated many parts of India’s western state of Gujarat opened a Pandora’s Box, out of which tumbled a shocking spectacle of ignorance and mismanagement driven by greed and callousness.

To begin with, nobody is sure how many people perished in the earthquake and the aftershocks that began Jan. 26, the day India celebrated its military might in New Delhi.

The country’s defense minister, George Fernandes, says that 100,000 men, women and children have died, while the official Gujarat government toll is 25,000.

The truth lies somewhere between these two figures, but examples like this demonstrate why serious reservations exist about the way the central and state governments have been dispersing information.

Even the scale of the earthquake appears to have been misread by Indian seismologists, who say the earthquake measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. A team of American experts has disputed this claim, placing the figure at 7.7 and calling the quake worse than the ones that struck Turkey, Taiwan and El Salvador over the past few years.

Waverly Person, director of the National Earthquake Information Center in Washington, said the magnitude of the Gujarat earthquake was 400 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

Even given the tremendous force of the quake, the destruction to life and property need not have been so high had human greed not led to a total disregard of building regulations.

Decades ago, the Geological Survey of India studied the state of Bihar’s 1934 earthquake and distributed valuable information on how brick and mortar construction could be made to withstand earthquakes. Since then, other suggestions have been made by universities.

But in Gujarat, all these rules were flouted with impunity in an effort to cut costs. Greedy builders put up multistory apartment blocks in towns and cities where there was enough land that single- or two-story buildings would have sufficed. It is also alleged that the cement used in such buildings contained too much sand, which had been added to further reduce costs. Of course, government officials looked the other way once their palms were greased.

Exacerbating the effect of this utter disrespect for life was the way in which relief operations were conducted. Rescue teams either arrived late or were concentrated in areas that were in the media limelight, such as Ahmedabad, the former capital of Gujarat, and Gandhinagar, the present capital, even though these two areas suffered much less than Bhuj, the city closest to the epicenter, and surrounding towns.

The case of a French team is a classic example of official bungling. The UniteLegere d’Intervention et de Secours from Paris was the first to arrive at the town of Vondh, 100 hours after the earthquake. A member of this French group expressed his regret, saying that had they arrived earlier they may have been able to save more lives. What delayed the team was the movement of India’s top government ministers, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Home Minister L.K. Advani and Defense Minister Fernandes. All of them rushed to the stricken region soon after the quake struck. One Indian newspaper screamed in a headline: “Gujarat can do without VIP outsiders.” The article went on to quote a senior Gujarat bureaucrat as saying these ministers were more of a hindrance than a help because they distracted and diverted the attention of those engaged in rescue and relief.

The lives of thousands of men, women and children might have been saved if the central and local governments had been prepared to face such an emergency. Even after 53 years of independence, India has no central or coordinated disaster-management plan. As a result, in the latest disaster, as in preceding ones, supplies like food, clothes and shelter were distributed in the most haphazard manner. As there was no unified command to oversee these operations, those most needy were left suffering.

With millions of dollars worth of aid pouring into India, there are fears that unscrupulous people out to reap a quick buck from the tragedy will divert considerable sums from the relief effort.

It is strange that in a nation like India — whose religious and spiritual values are eagerly sought by the rest of the world — there are hundreds of thousands of corrupt individuals who feel no remorse or guilt about plundering a population that lies broken and virtually dead.

The Gujarat earthquake must provoke India to do some soul searching. Above all, the government must awaken to the perils of harboring an attitude that at best can be described as fatalistic and incautious.

With fresh predictions of a major earthquake striking Northern India — including New Delhi — the Vajpayee government must make it a national priority to engage in preparations to minimize the damages from such catastrophes rather than utilizing the country’s money, energy and best brains to build nuclear bombs.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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