After the disaster, a deadly silence fell

When a cyclone warning was picked up in Kandla port, no one thought to tell the salt pan workers. After the disaster, the survivors are battling against an uncaring bureaucracy.
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PRADIP CHOWDHURY, the man beside me in the front row of the small Indian Airlines plane, had every reason to look serious. The factory in Calcutta where he is the purchasing manager makes acrylic fibre. Like every other such factory in the world, it depends on a steady supply of acrylonitrile, a fearsome substance closely related to cyanide, with a flashpoint of 0C.

So hazardous is acrylonitrile that the Indian government allows it to come in through only one port, Kandla in Gujarat, the busiest and most modern port in India.

Kandla is unfortunately a 12-day truck ride from Calcutta, but it is the only major Indian port that is not in or close to a large city. So if Pradip Chowdhury's acrylonitrile were suddenly to go boom one day, it would be a mess, but it would not be a Bhopal-sized disaster, the sort of thing to freeze the cornflakes half-way to your lips. It would be what the Indians like to call a "mishap", perhaps on the scale of the "Nepal bus mishap" featured in Tuesday's Times of India, in which at least 36 people died when their bus plunged into a river west of Kathmandu.

Pradip's acrylonitrile has not gone boom, but it is stuck on a large ship anchored off the Gujarat coast. If the ship is not berthed and the cargo unloaded soon, his factory will stop functioning. But his ship cannot get anywhere close to the port, because Kandla itself has been torn to pieces.

The port stood square in the path of a cyclone that arrived from the Arabian Sea midway through the morning of Tuesday 9 June. There were warnings of a storm; the previous day at 4.40pm the Meteorological Department had suddenly upped the category of warning from signal No 4 to signal No 8, signifying great danger. "The port will experience severe weather from a storm of great intensity that is expected to cross the south of the port."

When they received this message, the Kandla Port Trust (KPT) hurled themselves into action. The chairman of the port's trustees, Captain ANM Kishore, is jealous of Kandla's reputation: last year it handled 40 million tons of cargo, 4 million more tons than its closest rival. The message was passed to shipping agents, port users and ships; cargo operations in the port were stopped and signals were raised.

But the KPT's zeal to protect its domain and its people was not matched by the state authority, which has jurisdiction outside the port's gates. As well as being a port, Kandla is home to the biggest expanse of salt pans in Asia. Flat as a table, cut into rectangles with low ridges in between, they stretch for 45km, to the horizon and beyond, occupying 220,000 acres of land. Every high tide, sea water pours across this vast expanse and is trapped in the individual pans; then the hot sun vaporises the water, and before the next tide can arrive the salt is scraped off with picks and shovels and carted off to be treated with iodine, then packed and shipped.

Working in the salt pans must have a fair claim to being the worst job in the world. A pathetic Gujarati women's folk song has lyrics along the lines of, "Oh Mother, why did you have to marry me to a salt worker? He's too stupid to try anything else."

The desperation of utter poverty goads thousands of men into working here, paddling in brine that destroys their skin, sweating under the fierce summer sun, amassing salt for which they receive 140 rupees per ton - a little over pounds 2 for perhaps three days' work. The brine can cause gangrene, then their limbs have to be amputated and they can no longer work - so their wives and children must take their place if they are to survive.

Desperately poor men, often accompanied by their families, trek hundreds of miles to work in Gujarat's salt pans, from as far away as Orissa, Bihar and Kerala. They arrive in the most primitive workplace imaginable. Their new employer takes no account of them. Their names are unrecorded. No one knows how many people are employed. They have no security or support. They live crammed together in tiny shacks made of breeze blocks and bits of wood on the edge of the salt pans, with no sanitation or even any drinking water.

Here they are, side by side: the aspirational new India of Kandla port, with its mighty cranes, acres of containers, "emporiums" for visiting seamen, with signs in Greek and Russian. And then there is the India where the poor are routinely treated by their employers worse than animals.

And distinctly worse than animals in one particular respect. A flock of goats, a herd of water buffaloes, are counted, watched over, looked after. The salt-pan workers of Kandla, by contrast - employees of the Kutch salt works - are considered to be completely dispensable.

So on the evening of 8 June, as the officers of Kandla port trust busied themselves battening down the hatches in advance of the forecast "storm of great intensity", the workers in Kandla's salt pans carried on oblivious. No one told them anything. No sirens were sounded. No signals were raised. Their employers had every reason to be as well informed as the port authority. But if they were, they made no use of the information. The brutal routine of the salt pans went on as normal.

In fact, it went on more intensely than normal. The fortnight before the monsoon is the most productive period in the salt pans' year: the sun beats down at temperatures of 45 degrees or even higher, so the rate of evaporation is faster. The nameless, unnumbered workers, paid by the ton, went at it like madmen. The wind had already got up, and it strengthened steadily through the following morning. Still they worked on. Then shortly after midday, some of them must have glanced up from their work. What they saw terrified everybody who lived to tell the tale. Rushing across the wastes towards them was a 30-ft-high wall of water. It engulfed them, smashed everything and killed everyone in its path, then came back and did it some more. When it had finished, the salt works had been destroyed and the salt pans were empty of life.

By 4.30pm the tidal wave was gone and the winds, 150kph or even more at the peak, had moderated. Of the 1,000-odd people - 15 more were added to the list on Tuesday - whose corpses have now been counted, just five were employees of Kandla port trust. Most of the rest were salt workers.

But people here believe that the real total, which will never be known because most were washed out to sea by the wave, is far, far higher. According to Captain Kishore of KPT, there were some 2,500 "hutments", salt pan workers' shacks, spread across the pans. They have all been destroyed, and their inhabitants killed - for there was nowhere for them to hide from the wave's force. Unofficial Indian statistics tend to be treated with scepticism. But when local people say that as many as 16,000 people died in Kandla's cyclone, I think they may not be far off.

A nation's genius, as well as its blind spots, are most starkly apparent at times of great crisis. India has a genius for improvising in the most unpromising circumstances. You can see this today in Kandla port.

The damage done by the cyclone is stupendous. I was taken around the port by one of the port's guards, DG Gracia, who was present when the cyclone hit. "I was on duty by the go-downs when the water flooded in up to my chest," he said. "So I rushed to the front gate and climbed up on to the roof of the office, to save my life. From there I saw the big ships that had been moored to the jetties being dragged round and round then flushed out of the channel. I felt sure that everything was going to be destroyed, myself and the whole port, completely. I was terrified."

Along the jetty there is a tall pylon, bent over like a giraffe doing the kowtow, and one of the huge cranes has been shoved over and the long jib smashed down on the ground, where it crumples and snakes like a Cubist eel or an advanced project by Zaha Hadid. Andrew De Sousa, a ship's chandler who had also taken refuge up in the office (where the windows had been smashed by the wind), watched it all happen. "I was shitting bricks," he confessed - "shitting blue bricks," he corrected.

But Kandla port provides northern India with nearly all its oil, and many factories like Pradip Chowdhury's with the other imported products that enable them to keep going. India is already in a recession, and heading for a slump. After a day or two of dithering, the penny dropped: Kandla matters. Fine old Raj terms were dusted off: "on a war footing", "in right earnest", "pressed into service". For once, they were meant. Two weeks on, the place is still a ruin, but it is a buzzing ruin. The catastrophic jetties are already taking off cargo. When Pradip Chowdhury arrived on Monday, he believed he would have to wait four weeks to get his acrylonitrile moving. Now they're saying 10 days, and there is a spring in his step.

The salt pans, by contrast, stretching to the horizon, seem as bald and abandoned as if human beings had never set foot in them. But when we drove up to what little remains of the Kutch salt company, we found signs of life. The company office, its exterior painted orange, has had a huge bite taken out of it. Inside, all was devastation. Six men aged between 25 and 50 were hanging about. They had come on the off-chance that their boss might show up with some money. He hadn't, but they continued to hang about, having nothing else to do and nowhere to go. Of the 400 men, women and children who lived and worked in this particular salt pan, these six men are the only survivors.

They showed me how they achieved the feat. Inside the office, at a corner of the wall, there is a safe. Two stood on that to avoid the wave's brunt. Someone tied an old sari on to a roof beam, and the rest hauled themselves by the sari up into the rafters. They clung there like monkeys until it passed.

All these men are multiply bereaved. You don't know what to say to them. But they in turn don't express much grief. "Are you sorry about losing your wife and family?" the photographer asked one of them, Ramju Hassain. "Yes, of course," he replied, "but everyone else is in the same situation. It's nothing special now."

Ramju lost seven members of his immediate family: wife, son, three sisters, brother, nephew. Apart from himself, only his father survived - he was down the road in Gandhidham. Eight more members of his extended family died as well. He showed where they had all lived, now just a jumble of toppled blocks, broken roof tiles, tatters of clothing, cooking pots, empty soda bottles, a rusting treadle sewing-machine.

Ramju speaks bitterly of the salt company boss. "He hasn't provided even one rupee to help us. He hasn't even visited the place. When some of us went to his office, he wouldn't see us. On the morning of the storm, I asked him to lend us a vehicle so we could move our families out of danger. He refused. He said, if you want to leave, walk."

Soon after the storm, the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, promised relatives of victims 50,000 rupees (about pounds 750) in compensation, for a maximum of two relatives. Ramjet has submitted the paperwork. What will he do with the money? "I will give it to some temple or mosque," he says. And what is he going to do himself, how will he live? He makes a gesture. "I have two hands."