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‘For anyone it is tough to forget a disaster’

While India celebrates Republic Day on Thursday, for many in western Gujarat state the date will bring back terrifying memories of an earthquake that struck with savage force five years ago.

The quake levelled buildings across the state of Gujarat, known for its rich farming lands and prosperous industry, killing more than 25 000 people.

Many of the dead from the quake, which registered 7,9 on the Richter scale, were in Bhuj, a town of about 150 000 people near the Pakistan border.

Parts of Bhuj, in the marshy coastal district of Kutch that lay about 20km from the epicentre, were reduced to rubble and many buildings were badly cracked.

For survivors of the January 26 2001 quake, Republic Day is always a day of mourning.

”For anyone it is tough to forget a disaster, especially of this scale. It not only killed, but [also] took away our homes,” said Hari Om, who lives in a shelter in one of four so-called relocation sites on the edge of Bhuj.

He and others in the temporary shelters say they have even less reason than most to celebrate Republic Day.

”These tin-roof shelters are not good during either winters or summers. I have five children,” said Abdul Sattar, driver of a three-wheeler auto-rickshaw.

Officials said about half of 3 500 families housed in the relocation sites on the edge of Bhuj are still in tin shelters, while the others have built more permanent housing.

Bhuj, in stark contrast to the poor conditions in the relocation sites, has transformed itself and boasts new roads and improved sewerage systems. New shops, homes and offices have sprung up out of the debris. Tourism has picked up and hotels are back in business.

Fears of a repeat of the quake have prompted the town’s authorities to introduce strict curbs on buildings. The local government bulldozed temples and mosques to widen roads. The construction of apartments of more than one storey is forbidden in the town spread over 56 square kilometres.

The destruction of the religious sites was ”to send a message that we mean business”, the collector, or top bureaucrat, of Bhuj, Pradeep Sharma, said.

”The message was clear. If religious structures can be pulled down, then your houses and shops are easier. There is no permission to build multi-storeyed buildings now. At each stage of construction we conduct checks,” Sharma said.

”This area falls under the top seismic zone. The aim is to decongest the city and if development takes place outside the city, it will remain fine for the next 50 years,” he said.

The ruling has proved unpopular and several court cases brought by survivors and shopkeepers are pending.

”The rehabilitation phase is almost over. Now the mantra should be development,” said Nalin Upadaya, an urban planner based in Bhuj. ”The earthquake is an opportunity to change the face of Bhuj, starting right from the slums.”

He added: ”I must say the quake is a blessing, as one never thought Bhuj will bloom like this.”

Sushma Iyengar, chief of Campaign to Rebuild Bhuj, an umbrella body of more than 40 NGOs, said rebuilding has been hampered by lack of funds and strife between competing government authorities.

”But if you look at the overall index, it is a success story. A majority of the affected have been moved to permanent shelters not far from where they work. It has been a successful venture. It can be replicated anywhere in the world,” Iyengar said.

Those in the shelters see it differently.

”What has changed is the city. Not our living standards. It is a shade better than living in the slums within the city,” said Noor Ben, a widow who lives with her four children in a tin shack.

Top official Sharma said the issue of people still living in tin shacks will be addressed.

”As far as temporary shelters are concerned, we will take a decision soon,” he said. — Sapa-AFP

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