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India Marks Earthquake Anniversary, Rebuilding Slow - 2002-01-27

A year ago on January 26, the strongest earthquake in half a century hit India's western state of Gujarat, killing more than 13,000 people, reducing towns to rubble and leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. The slow pace of rebuilding the shattered region has brought the government under heavy criticism from many victims.

The landscape of Gujarat still bears the scars of the devastating earthquake that hit the region last January. Piles of broken brick and mangled concrete litter the four worst-hit towns and there are empty spaces where villages once stood.

More than a million homes were flattened. Tens of thousands of people lost their livelihood as entire towns and villages vanished.

Patrick Fuller of the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has spent considerable time in the affected region, spearheading rehabilitation work. He says the region is a long way from recovery. "Initially there was a lot of funding coming in from the international community for the immediate emergency, for the relief operation," he says. "What we have seen is those funds have dried up and the transition from relief to recovery has been a difficult one. It's been a long-drawn out process as you identify the areas in which we can work, and have an impact. The scale of the earthquake was huge."

Housing remains the primary problem for thousands of families still living in makeshift tents and tin sheds. The government says it has built thousands of homes and distributed $230 million in housing aid. But to the victims, progress is too slow, and they accuse the government of dragging its feet.

Tempers run high among the survivors who say they have spent months battling the bureaucracy to get compensation claims. The anger prompted hundreds of them to take to the streets in silent protest rallies on the earthquake's anniversary. Others took part in prayer meetings.

Mr. Fuller says legal wrangles and bureaucratic red tape are hampering rebuilding work. He says the government has not yet cleared building plans for the four main towns flattened by the quake, slowing down the process of putting the towns back on their feet. "You go to some towns like Bachau and Anjar, and some areas you go to looks like the earthquake just hit yesterday. There's all sorts of red tape, and issues concerned with rebuilding in some of the town centers. There are a lot of complexities in relation to people being rehoused, being able to rebuild their homes," he says. "Thousands are still living in tents."

Government officials say most debris have been cleared, key roads have been rebuilt and basic services, such as water and electricity have been restored. They say the scale of the disaster was so huge that more time will be needed to complete rehabilitation work.

Gujarat's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, rejects criticism that the government has been slow in rebuilding the region. He points to the thousands of new houses that have been built and says it is up to people to either count the work that has been done, or focus on what remains to be done.

In the last six months, about 2000 schools have been rebuilt, and in most places children are back in the classroom. Efforts are also being made to build quake-resistant structures because the region has been identified as earthquake-prone. Voluntary agencies say villagers have been able to recover better than people in town, because there is less bureaucracy.

But both government officials and voluntary agencies admit it might take up to three years and much more money before the devastated region returns to any level of normalcy. Meanwhile, for the many survivors of the quake, the bitter struggle continues.