Epidemic fears for 500,000 left homeless by earthquake

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The Independent Online

Indian relief workers face the grim challenge of removing millions of tons of debris from the devastating earthquake and burning thousands of bodies before an epidemic takes hold.

Indian relief workers face the grim challenge of removing millions of tons of debris from the devastating earthquake and burning thousands of bodies before an epidemic takes hold.

Seventy-two hours after the disaster, still the occasional story of miraculous survival is being reported. Rescuers yesterday found a baby in the lap of his dead mother in the rubble of Bhuj, the epicentre of the quake that jolted western India on Friday. And in the nearby town of Bacchau a seven-month-old girl was pulled from her wrecked home.

But as the days pass, such stories are more rare. Hopes are fading of finding more survivors from the quake that has left an estimated 20,000 dead and up to half a million homeless.

Procedures for certifying death and disposing of bodies have been streamlined.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister, conceded the obvious yesterday. After a tour of the earthquake-struck region of Gujarat he told reporters: "India does not have a satisfactory policy of disaster relief management." He promised to set up a committee to advise on improving the government's response.

Mr Vajpayee, who was accompanied by Lal Krishna Advani, the Home Affairs Minister, and other senior officials, also said Gujarat would receive 8bn rupees (£118m) to fight the disaster, with 100m rupees from the Prime Minister's Relief Fund and another 300m to follow. Britain pledged £10m yesterday for emergency relief work, and India's hostile neighbour, Pakistan, also said it would send tents and blankets. While relief teams belatedly poured into Kutch, the arid western region of Gujarat that has been worst hit, in Ahmedabad, the state's biggest city, a host of forces, uniformed and otherwise, professional and voluntary, hurled themselves at the problems, with varying degrees of efficiency.

At Chandrama Apartments in Ahmedabad, where 26 people died, most of them crushed when a huge water tank demolished a flight of steps, a platoon of the Air Defence Artillery under Colonel Gopi Menon tore down another teetering block to reach buried bodies. "We came in on the night of the 26th," he said, "and we took out the first bodies at 3am on the 27th. Once we got going we removed 20 bodies in 12 hours." There are still several corpses under the mounds of concrete.

At VS Hospital where most survivors of the quake are being treated, some patients are camping out in the grounds and refusing to return to the wards, fearing another quake.

Elsewhere in the city, especially where the Army is not yet involved, groups of uniformed figures mill about in the vicinity of ruined buildings with no apparent idea of what they are trying to achieve.

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