Tea amid the ruins with the Leicester 'sadhu'

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The Independent Online

Since the earth shook in Gujarat on 26 January, entombing thousands of people and leaving hundreds of thousands more homeless, the flow of aid into the region has swelled from a trickle to a flood. International organisations have brought in tons of supplies and hi-tech equipment; the Indian administrative machine is slowly - too slowly, many complain - getting itself into gear.

Since the earth shook in Gujarat on 26 January, entombing thousands of people and leaving hundreds of thousands more homeless, the flow of aid into the region has swelled from a trickle to a flood. International organisations have brought in tons of supplies and hi-tech equipment; the Indian administrative machine is slowly - too slowly, many complain - getting itself into gear.

The man who can almost certainly claim to have helped more earthquake victims more quickly than anyone else, however, is neither a Western aid worker nor a local official, but an orange-robed sadhu, or Hindu monk, born in Leicester. "I am not permitted to tell you my former name," says Swami Brahmaviharidas ("quite a mouthful," he admits), but one could probably find it in back copies of the Leicester Mercury. He gained 12 As at O-level, and was accepted to read medicine at Oxford, but decided instead to return to his Indian roots.

The sadhu and a few helpers arrived in Bhuj the night of the quake, to find 200 people huddled in the yard of the local temple. "They had no light, food or water," he says. "Everyone was scared, including the local monks. We decided to serve tea each time there was a shock, just to give them comfort. That night we had to do 14 rounds."

The spiritual movement followed by Swami Brahmaviharidas emphasises practical good works to a degree considered unusual in Hinduism. Founded in Gujarat by the 18th-century guru Swaminarayan, it has been carried by the Gujarati diaspora to East Africa, the US and Britain, where the huge temple in Neasden, north London, is its principal European outpost. When disaster strikes it can call on hundreds of unpaid helpers and a rush of money from overseas donors.

The day after the quake, Swaminarayan followers served 5,000 people with hot meals. A week later, they are feeding 30,000 people a day. In a middle-class area called New Bhuj, trucks come and go with supplies for outlying areas, rice and vegetables are being cooked over open fires, makeshift shelters have been put up for the homeless and people are queuing to get food and water.

"This is very efficient, because we have zero administrative costs," says Swami Brahmaviharidas. "As locals we understand things foreign agencies might not - we have created a space for family gatherings, for example, because of the importance of family ties in Indian society. You must meet people's spiritual needs as well as their material ones."

All the time we are talking, men are coming up to touch his robes in reverence. The wife of a Bombay tycoon has come with an offer to donate prefabricated homes. "I cannot speak to her, because she is a woman, but tell her we will look into it," he says. Despite his relative youth and humble appearance, he clearly carries authority. Someone else brings him a letter about relief arrangements from India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and two army officers arrive to discuss getting aid to villages along the nearby border with Pakistan.

"There are enough doctors and medicine, but we desperately need tents, as well as wheat and millet flour and rice," says Swami Brahmaviharidas. A veteran of floods around India, as well as the aftermath of the US embassy bombing in Nairobi, he is already thinking about the next phase. "We want to create a tent city. In the past when a village has been destroyed, we have rebuilt everything, and we will do that here."

All this is in stark contrast to the response of the Indian authorities, who "are not co-ordinating themselves", in the monk's words. In an accent that mixes his years in India with his Leicester upbringing, he also has an admonition for the international bodies that have rushed in to help. "This should not be a hit-and-run operation," he says. "You must camp here for at least six months. That is what we will be doing."

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