As we go into celebrating our 73 Republic Day, putting on display for the world to see, our culture alongside our military might we must not forget the date. The figure 26 has an indelible mark in the history of India it was 26th January that we transformed into a Republic and it was this very Date that saw devastation in Kutch and Gujarat.
On 26th Jan 2001, it was a normal morning for the early risers who took the calm of sunrise as a good opportunity for a morning walk. Others a little more lazy looked at this as a day they could lie in bed for just a little longer. It was as usual a holiday for the vast majority.
Mother nature had different plans for us all.
Tremors and the Day
Deployment. We had moved into Rajasthan for our annual operational rehearsal, leaving behind only station troops which included one battalion.
As I returned to my underground shelter after seeing off the GOC on his air reconnaissance, there was a loud rumbling noise, the underground shelter vibrated and shook,my first instinct was to run out and look for the helicopter fearing that the noise might be due to a crash!
The earth shook beneath my feet as I ran down the steps taking a hard knock on my head. The next thing I remember was that I was lying flat on my back, looking up at my office runner who seemed to be standing tall bending over me, instinctively my hands went up to press my head which seemed to have a deep rut across it, warm blood flowing down and spraying on the walls both sides. I continued to hold my head hard squeezing it, as I shouted to the man “Gipsy Lao, Gipsy Lao”, but he could not hear a thing, my mind was functioning but physical responses were not! My colleague the Colonel Administration was seen running out of his underground office and assisted by some men, got me up and walked me on shaky legs to the Gipsy, still holding my head tight, blood squirting out on both sides of my head, splattering the insides of the Gipsy, I was driven to the Field Hospital some ten minutes drive from our headquarters.
At the hospital, I was taken into the OT and attended to by the Oncologist , who asked me to recount what had happened. As I went through the almost mechanical narration of events, I could feel the blood running down both cheeks and into my neck. Two officers had come in to see me, one look and I saw them pale! Both were made to sit on the camp chairs in a shaky state. My face must have looked horrifying.
Local anaesthesia injected, head was shaved and the wound stitched up. I asked the sister holding my head in a feeble voice, “How many Stitches?” and heard her say “ 23 , but you are alright, you have a thick head!”
I was then given a cup of tea, some biscuits and sat for a while, under observation, before being driven to the ward where I spent the next two days, swelling running down my face, eyes half shut and face looking like a fat Chinese! All communications had been disrupted, signals were working round the clock to get them up and running again.
The next morning I called my wife through rearward communications at Ahmadabad to check on their wellbeing asking her to send me some Homeopathic medicine for my injury and get an update on what had happened there.
Ahmadabad. As per her, the earthquake that struck not only shook the people and gave us a wake-up call but caught all the responders off balance.
The loud noise and din created by alarms of Peacocks, Parrots and other birds as well a barking of dogs were ignored by all, some merely wondered why all this noise?
The morning walkers felt imbalanced by sudden up heaving of the ground beneath their feet, roads opened up or caved in, houses collapsed, communications were disrupted, cell towers collapsed and for the better part of at least an hour mayhem and confusion prevailed.
Being 26 January, Officials were missing and Offices closed, families were hit and did not know where many members had gone. There was no response from the administration!
The Army , the ever reliable last bastion, was out on exercise and the administration did not know whom to turn to for help even though we had a disaster response Standing Operational Procedure in place and it very clearly stated that the Station Headquarters would be the Nodal Agency for responses in such eventualities. Civil administration and their Disaster Response Teams were virtually nonexistent.
They were still not sure as to what had happened! There was no communication with any one, lines were down, Cell Towers had fallen and being 26 January, everyone was on a holiday mood, preparing at best for march pasts and flag hoisting!
Quick Responses & The Army back to the Rescue
Back at the headquarters a day after having my head stitched up , still bandaged, I got back to work getting reports and assessing what had happened.
The ground situation was yet to be clearly established, on the face of it, we had a foggy idea that Ahmadabad and major cities/towns had not been too badly affected. The GOC & Corps Commander continued with aerial reconnaissance of border areas ain their efforts to set an exercise for the division.
I took a decision to send in Medical and Engineer Teams to Bhuj in a nebulous start of what we were soon to realise would turn into an event of international dimensions.
It around this time , while the GOC was out on his reconnaissance that I was surprised to get a call from Army Headquarters and the person on the other side addressed me by name saying” Hello Pradeep this is a friend of yours, is everything okay?” Where is your GOC? I guessed from the voice that it was Lt Gen Gokaran the SO in C Signals, next he said to me” Here, someone else wants to talk to you and next I heard the familiar voice of our then Chief General Padmanabhan whom we affectionately referred to as “Paddy”! “ What`s happening Pradeep? Is all well? What action have you taken? And so I promptly gave him an update, wishing us the best,he hung up saying that I should keep the Military Operations Branch informed.
Calls from the MGGS Southern Command and Army Commander Lt Gen N C Vij followed, everyone was calling up to get a “Heads Up” on the situation. Having briefed them both, I was given directions to keep them posted and also send in a daily Operational Situation Report to the Command and Military Operations Directorate.
As the day progressed, efforts to communicate with the GOC succeeded as he landed at a forward Battalion position and he was impressed upon to fly to Bhuj. The pilot brought him back to Headquarters, began refuelling and asked for clearance to fly beyond the last time to take off, apparently , he was not aware of the urgency of the situation ! We could not get clearance in time and the GOC was stuck at the Headquarters. The Command Headquarters in the mean while directed the Chief Of Staff from the Corps to take charge of all relief Operations at and around Bhuj thus absolving the division from that responsibility.
The Signals worked hard to get communications with Ahmadabad re established, we also deployed our V Sat set and spoke to the Commander at Bhuj as well as Station Head quarters at Ahmadabad. Bhuj had been badly hit so had Ahmadabad. Teams from Baroda the AD School were mobilised as was the battalion located at Ahmadabad itself. We had by now got the Station headquarters to respond to the Civil Administration and our teams from various areas were well on their way.
Bhuj & Ahmadabad
Being close to the epicentre Bhuj had borne the brunt of this earthquake. The Civil hospital had been totally destroyed, Military buildings collapsed too. A young subaltern had escaped through his bathroom window dressed only in his underwear!!
But despite having suffered themselves, the Army were out in small teams for search & rescue missions. The Military Hospital which had been damaged established an ad hoc Operation Theatre in tents and got to work.
Finally, the Division was cleared to return to Barracks , one brigade dispatched to Bhuj to assist the garrison there, one deploying at Ahmadabad along with the Engineers and Elements from Baroda, bulk SMS services , radio and TV news updates were organised, ticker messages announced details of call centres and help lines and a website was also created after getting required clearances.
Everywhere, there were persons sitting outside houses in a daze and shock, lanes and streets were blocked with debris where ever buildings had collapsed and the few who had survived the destruction took to sleep out on the streets in fear of further shocks. Daily routine was to search for survivors, arrange food, water, medication and shelter for the night.
Massive aftershocks added to this fear!
No water, no electricity ,no food and no help for hours! Restoration of these essentials was done on literally a “War Footing” with Army Teams working in close coordination with the Civil Administration.
Aid began to pour in from various quarters, NGOs, International Organisations, Other countries, Other States. Teams rushed in from all over including friendly foreign countries, the Army, NGOs. The largest Army Contingent was also in place. Reception cells were established at the Railway Station , Airport and Divisional Head Quarter. Packages containing food, medicines, clothing, blankets, tentage in large quantities were coming in, we required better handling and despatch. Close coordination with the collection centres resulted in speedy despatch and distribution to the needy.
Large relief camps were established by the two brigades at Bhuj, medical camps and mobile Surgical Centres took care of emergency medical cases. Search teams now had trained rescue dogs apart from the usual engineer equipment. , Administrative Staff, Doctors worked tirelessly day and night in make shift arrangements. Search and rescue operations continued, injured flocked hospitals, relief camps were set up and soon the magnitude of damage dawned upon us in all its fury.
One week later, reports from Bhuj indicated that there were no more survivors, the effort of digging out decaying mortal remains and the stench was now beginning to take its toll on the troops.
Ahmadabad suffered much loss too, mainly due to the ways of corrupt who managed to get licenses to build buildings in gross violation of building laws. Making a swimming pool under the garb of “water storage tanks” on the 14th floor which collapsed do to the oscillation of water; or not getting “Soil Stability Tests” done before constructing and the building sank straight into the ground!
Gujarat promised to rebuild itself! The common sense and practical approach to life was reflected strongly by the Government and the people. I recall one such incidence very strongly. A man approached us for help in recovering his belongings, suggesting that his wife and few months old daughter would have died but he had to go on with his life. 109 hours had elapsed since the building; his home had collapsed and he had given up on them. Our Column searched and with the help of rescue dogs from Switzerland, we found to our utter joy that his wife and child were alive! She had been beating on a pipe near her and feeding her small daughter on her own blood by puncturing her fingers !
Some lessons we could all do well to remember are listed below; by no means complete, they may however from the base to build upon:-
• Town & City Planning must be sincere and avoid making residents pay for lives and properties because of faulty layout, congested lanes and roads and corrupt practices which allow illegal construction.
• Emergency Response teams need to be on readiness, more so on occasions of National Holidays. Natural Disasters have an uncanny way about striking at these particular occasions.
• Hospitals need to cater for a rush of mass causalities much beyond their capacity, thus the need for flexibility, early warning to prepare themselves, call up other medical staff, pres into service private hospitals.
• Need to deploy Mobile Hospitals into the affected areas for immediate medical support.
• Emergency Centres need to be available near various colonies.
• Alternate means of Communications must be established and even Radio/TV Channels must be used .The first to go down are all means of communications & therefore we need to have a fail proof auto rerouting system to ensure communications with all stake holders.
• Relief camps must be established with full medical support, support of NGOs and other Organisations for supply of water, food, ambulances for evacuation to hospitals.
• Sanitation needs attention to prevent epidemics.
• People, the 1st responders need to be trained in what to do to save lives, 1st aid, where to take shelter and so forth.
• Communities need to be resilient and determined to help themselves and rebuild, re habilitate.
• Civil Defence must be revitalised.
• Use of knowledge and technology to forecast and evacuate on one hand and to resort to construction of buildings which are resistant to such events.
• Build long term Critical Infrastructure away from areas threatened by Tsunamis, Cyclones and Earthquakes.
The moot question which invariably comes to mind is ”Have we Learnt our Lessons?”
Are our Towns & Cities better prepared? Would we be able to avoid loss of lives and property if Shimla, Solan, Missouri, Delhi, Mumbai , Ludhiana were to be hit by such a calamity?
Has the NDMA, NDRF and State mechanism been able to achieve what they had been set up for?
Will we allow another Gujarat or Uttarkhand to happen? Could we have reduced the casualties or more so could we have done even better by setting up the right infrastructure along the pilgrim route to avoid such a disaster?
Last but not the least. Let us not forget those who lost their lives and property in the Earthquake at Gujarat on this fateful day, nor forget those who gave their unstinting support in the efforts at search and rescue and those who displayed the indomitable spirit to rebuild and progress to live life in a stronger manner in memory of those and that they had lost! Let us also Salute the Pride of India” The Indian Army” for their tireless efforts to keep us safe.