After the earthquake: It is eighteen days since India's catastrophe. Tim McGirk returns to the place where 20,000 died

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Indy Lifestyle Online
India's earthquake lasted only 30 seconds, but its devastating impact will drag on for many years. More than 8,000 homes were destroyed, and more than 30 villages were jolted so severely that they must be rebuilt. The death toll is now pegged at 22,000 victims, rather than the 30,000 feared dead immediately after the 30 September quake, but nobody will ever know for certain how many died.

After a week searching for survivors from villages in the green and deceptively gentle hills of Maharashtra, the army gave up hope. Villages such as Khilari and Sastur, which lost thousands, are now burial mounds, with a few brightly painted doorframes still standing like tombstones above the rubble.

A fortnight after the earthquake, the stench of rotting corpses pervades. Packs of well-feasted dogs roam, sniffing, on the stone heaps. Survivors trying to retrieve a few dented cooking pots from their destroyed homes climb through the debris, clutching handkerchiefs to their mouths to keep from gagging. Yunus Qureshi, a mud-spattered youth in Sastur, says: 'We won't come back to live here. It's too dangerous for the mind. Frightening.'

Even today, the survivors are terrified of another earthquake. Camped in open fields under tin lean-tos and billowing polythene sheets, they feel the earth under them, rumbling, full of menace. It grinds, shudders, grows hot. In some places, fissures have appeared, leaking a ghostly vapour.

'People are so scared; even the ones whose houses are still standing stay outside at night,' says Shivraj Patel, a farmer. 'Nobody can sleep. They sing religious songs because they believe that the day of punishment is near.'

These are ominous times. Wells that once brimmed are now empty, drained by a seismic sleight of hand. Torrential, out-of-season monsoons lash the area, causing extra misery to the 18,000 homeless in the Latur and Osmanabad districts, worst hit by the quake. A crack has branched across the dome of Tuljapur's 1,300-year-old temple, dedicated to Devi, the mother goddess. There are many snakes, sacred creatures, slithering in the Devi temple gardens. But because the quake happened at 3.56am, the priests were sleeping and did not detect the restlessness that serpents are said to display before earthquakes.

Faced with such apocalyptic events, many villagers have turned to superstition. Even in undamaged towns and villages, few will spend the night in their houses until after 21 October: according to an amateur astrologer in Kerala, who predicted the last quake, this is when another will convulse central India. For the poor, illiterate farmers in this region, such divinations are more intelligible than the arcane explanations of plate tectonics and fault zones given by geologists, who claim that another major quake may not hit central India for 20 years.

Natural disasters are commonplace in India. Yet the plight of the Maharashtra earthquake victims jarred many Indians into action. Throughout India, workers in government offices and private companies gave up a day's salary. Newspapers collected thousands of rupees from readers. Women's organisations collected 29,000 saris. In the UK, Indian residents raised more than pounds 1m. 'I'd never seen any response to an emergency like this before,' Nand Lal, a state commissioner co-ordinating relief work, says. 'It has touched people's consciences.'

Lorry-loads of food arrived that soon spoiled in the extreme heat and rains. Foreign aid (Britain sent 3,450 blankets and 315 tents) was efficiently parcelled out, although Indian bureaucracy tied up a French rescue team and their sniffer dogs for 48 crucial hours. Still, they helped to unearth an 18-month-old girl buried alive for five days in Mangrul village.

The narrow dirt roads into the devastated area were soon clogged with ambulances, army bulldozers, volunteer rescue workers and a multitude of sightseers. One woman, pulled alive from the rubble five days after the quake, died when her ambulance was stuck in a traffic jam.

There were also looters. Pretending to join the search for bodies, they took whatever undamaged valuables they could find. Often, the thieving was carried out by police. A daily newspaper, the Pioneer,quotes one Khilari villager, Ramesh Jadhav, 65, as saying: 'We will not like the army to leave our village. The police will steal and loot our belongings from the debris.' Drinking water was scarce, yet police were caught showering from a cistern tank of purified water intended for victims.

The army's conduct, by all accounts, has been exemplary. More than 15,000 soldiers, armed with shovels and pickaxes, reached the devastated area 36 hours after the quake. While the police lounged under trees, the soldiers disinterred corpses and heaped them on cremation bonfires.

Not all relief was distributed fairly. I came upon an encampment of lowly untouchables. As the rain beat down, they huddled under a few broken sheets of tin roofing. Saularam Kambley, an old man with a bandaged leg, was dragged from the rubble by his brother. His son and daughter were entombed.

They watched as lorries carrying milk, blankets and tents sped past them destined for higher-caste survivors. Aid distribution was carried out by the village headman and police, belonging to the Brahmin Saukar caste, who neglected the untouchables.

'We were starving. Finally, when a lorry full of milk came, we forced it to stop and drank and drank. We hadn't had any food for days,' Mr Kambley said.

The untouchables were saved by charity volunteers sent to the earthquake area by a Bombay actress, Shabana Azmi, who starred in Roland Joffe's film, City of Joy, set among Calcutta's miserable rickshaw-wallahs. She is a famous actress, but Mr Kambley had never heard of her. Mr Kambley had no television, no radio. When the Saukar farmers saw that, despite their efforts, relief aid was reaching the untouchables, they asked state government officials to cut it off. Rather than uniting villagers through tragedy, the quake only widened the gulf between India's haves and have-nots.

The Indian Government estimates it will cost pounds 200m to re-house the thousands left homeless, a fortune by Indian standards. Delhi has appealed to the World Bank for emergency funds. The Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, has promised 50,000 rupees (pounds 11,100) to earthquake victims, but the money has yet to materialise.

Many Indian newspapers fear that if this disaster follows the pattern of previous ones, only a morsel of donations will reach the needy. When a quake struck the Himalayan region of Uttarkashi in October, 1991, killing more than 1,000 people, land given by the government for rebuilding was snatched by officials' wives for mountain chalets. But with crucial state elections next month, few politicians can afford to be caught stealing from the miserable victims of the Maharashtra earthquake.

(Photograph omitted)