Ian Davis, a disasters expert, discovers how the Indian city of Bhuj has recovered from the devastating earthquake of 2001

On January 26 2001, India’s Republic Day, an earthquake with a force of 7.7 struck the Kutch region of the north-eastern state of Gujarat. The regional capital, Bhuj, was only 20 miles from the epicentre, and suffered major destruction.

Most of the 20,000 people who lost their lives in the disaster died in Bhuj and the districts around it; about 40 per cent of homes in the city were destroyed, along with eight schools and two hospitals. The historic Swaminarayan temple, and the fort overlooking the oldest part of the city, were badly damaged.

Sixteen years later, I visited Bhuj for the first time to examine how the region had recovered from the earthquake, though optimistic words like ‘recovery’, ‘reconstruct’, ‘rehabilitate’ and ‘resettle’ cannot erase memories of the disaster. Buildings and infrastructure can be replaced, but shattered lives and lost livelihoods often remain as permanent scars on the human landscape.

Another word frequently used when describing the impact of disasters is ‘opportunity’. Has a once-in-a-lifetime chance been taken to ‘build back better’? Have Bhuj and the surrounding towns and villages become safer places against earthquakes, flooding, wind-storms and droughts, and has urban planning been used to create more habitable settlements? Did the reconstruction efforts boost local economies, and have such gains become permanent? Who are the winners and losers from the recovery process?

Community square in a resettlement site, Pramukh Swami Nagar, Bhuj (Credit: Ian Davis)
Community square in a resettlement site, Pramukh Swami Nagar, Bhuj (Credit: Ian Davis)

For the past 45 years I have been visiting and revisiting places around the world that have been devastated by one type of disaster or another to ask such questions, conduct research or advise on recovery strategies. Before arriving in Kutch I had read many encouraging reports of reconstruction achievements there, and was aware of international awards for outstanding progress in earthquake recovery.

Accompanying me was Vishal Pathak, a social worker with long experience of the disaster and its aftermath. He has worked for the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, founded and directed by Mihir Bhatt, which has an international reputation. Apart from hearing their advice, I met local people living in new settlements as well as Chirag Bhatt, an engineer and urban planner who has worked continually in the Bhuj Area Development Authority since the earthquake.

It is estimated that over $17 billion has been invested in the region

What positive outcomes did I find? The earthquake certainly fostered speedy development in Kutch, as the region became better connected within Gujarat and India. The five-year tax holiday the government introduced to encourage investment proved to be a major factor in promoting recovery and thus creating livelihoods, and this incentive was later extended. It is estimated that over $17 billion has been invested in the region.

Within 10 years of the earthquake, 300 new companies were established in Kutch. Urban and rural development covered a wide range of sectors, such as infrastructure, transport, institutional establishments, industrial and port development. Even tourism was triggered by the disaster.

Town planning did not exist in Kutch previously, but now the region is reaping the benefits of well-planned urban centres. Before the earthquake some streets in Bhuj were only 2.5 metres wide, seriously impeding rescue efforts, and resulting in many deaths as people ran out of their dwellings, only to be hit by falling masonry. Planners therefore decided to make all main roads 9m and internal roads 7.5m wide.

Since there is no shortage of land, the rebuilding of commercial and residential structures was restricted to a single storey,7.5m high, to permit rapid escape in the event of another earthquake. Perhaps this was an understandable over-reaction to the disaster, since multi-storey buildings can be made earthquake- resistant. The inevitable result is that the city has spread to four times its original size, reaching 56 sq km, and there is lobbying to relax this restriction.

Since the earthquake there has also been a major education campaign in all primary schools in Gujarat. First teachers are trained, and through them the children, about the risks they face and what steps they need to take to protect themselves and their families.

The gap between rich and poor has widened during the recovery phase

But the disaster has not been without ongoing costs. The gap between rich and poor has widened during the recovery phase. With the reconstruction boom, the cost of land has increased sharply, beyond the reach of middle-class communities which would have been able to afford it before 2001. The influx of skills and unskilled labour from outside Kutch, as well as from outside Gujarat, has created a degree of social insecurity. Illegal alcohol consumption increased after the earthquake, resulting in some anti-social behaviour.

As in most global disasters, the main losers have been poor families. The Indian Express reported in January that 60 per cent of the population of Bhuj, who had lived in 32 unauthorised settlements for over 25 years, did not receive any compensation from the government, as they didnot have legal titles to their dwellings.

Happy in his new home

Ashok Soni, a retired security guard, lost his house in the 2001 earthquake. His family was among those resettled around the perimeter of Bhuj, where plentiful government-owned land was available. His tworoom, single storey house in Pramukh Swami Nagar faces a wide street, so that in a future earthquake people can run outdoors without fear of falling rubble. Initially he felt too far from the city centre, but Bhuj has expanded in his direction.

Urgent action is needed to protect heritage buildings in Kutch, particularly the 19th-century palace of Prag Mahal in Bhuj, which has gone unrepaired since the earthquake. Inevitably 16 yearsof neglect has resulted in further decay of damaged stonework.These sites could be used to show how buildings can be strengthened to resist earthquake forces, an important educational consideration in a region where anyone under the age of 16 – almost half the population of Bhuj – has no memory of the earthquake, although many have grown up surrounded by reconstruction and recovery activities.

The authorities need to raise awareness of the earthquake hazard as well as all the other risks facing the residents of Gujarat: flooding, drought and an occasional cyclone. In the town museum, however, the whole story of the disaster occupies no more than a couple of dull glass cases. Bhuj could follow the example of Kobe in Japan, devastated by an earthquake in 1995, which built an outstanding museum dedicated to the event.

With some imagination, and money from the thriving business sector, such a museum in Bhuj could not only describe its recovery achievements and foster disaster preparedness, it could even attract tourists, as its Japanese equivalent does.

Ian Davis, an architect, has worked in the disaster field since 1972, specialising in shelter, risk reduction, climate change and disaster recovery. Author or editor of 16 books, he has been a university lecturer, researcher, NGO director and international consultant. He is currently avisiting professor in Kyoto, Lund and Oxford Brookes Universities

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