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Indian Earthquake

January 29, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: And with me now is Naresh Chandra, India’s ambassador to the United States. Before assuming his post here in 1996, Ambassador Chandra was governor of the state of Gujarat, where the earthquake hit. Welcome, Mr. Ambassador. First of all, our condolences and sympathies for what’s happened in your country. When we see these pictures of this devastation, even though the official death toll is at 6,000, how high do you fear it could go?

NARESH CHANDRA: It’s too much… I have heard from responsible levels; they put the estimate at 20,000 casualties.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it could go higher than that? I noticed the Times of India was saying today it could be — that there are villages of 30- 40-thousand people where there’s almost no one left.

NARESH CHANDRA: It is possible, but what happens is that quite a number move on to their friends and relatives and then they start coming back. So an accurate count can only be made then. I believe 100,000-plus at the moment are missing. But the majority of them are at other places and will be returning soon once the conditions are better.

MARGARET WARNER: How are you caring for the homeless? Do you have a lot of people who are basically sleep in the streets or are they with friends and family?

NARESH CHANDRA: Unfortunately yes at the moment, as you can see. But what happens is very quickly we have been able to put the railway track within 36 hours into use and the Kandla port which suffered great damage on Friday…

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the port.

NARESH CHANDRA: The port very near that. Kandla… that is operational, it was operational on Sunday. And we have been able to make the airfield … operational, which is at the center of the disaster area. As you know, Bhuj, which is 12 miles from the center, has suffered the maximum damage.

MARGARET WARNER: The city of Bhuj that we’re showing on the map — Bhuj.

NARESH CHANDRA: Bhuj was shown, Bachau was shown but at Ahmedabad, which is a city of about 4 million, tremors caused a lot of damage there too. But at Ahmedabad it is easier to provide relief and mobilize heavy earth-moving equipment.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the largest city.

NARESH CHANDRA: That’s the largest city. Actually it’s mainly the business capital of Gujarat, although the capital is about 16 miles away from Ahmedabad. But this is a shock, you know, of 7.9 intensity. It’s about the maximum that takes place.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s about the same, just to give people an idea, of the earthquake in El Salvador and the San Francisco earthquake.

NARESH CHANDRA: That’s right, that’s right. It’s caused almost as much damage as it did in Turkey. We didn’t have something like this in the last five decades. We had one in Asam, in the northeast, but in this part of the world, a bad earthquake was almost 120 years ago.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell me, since you are familiar with this state, Gujarat, how well equipped is it to deal with something like this? What are the big difficulties in responding to a situation like this?

NARESH CHANDRA: Gujarat is a well-administered, prosperous state. The people are very hardy and industrious. Those are the plus points. But the main disaster in India in Bhuj has been inaccessible because of inhospitable terrain. And it is a relatively backward area…

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about some of the villages.

NARESH CHANDRA: On the west towards the coast, the land is marshy and highly saline so you don’t have fertile land there. It’s sparsely populated and people have to work really hard. These are very hardy people but then it’s inaccessible. The level of economic activity cannot be very high because it’s in one corner and communication is difficult. That’s why we didn’t have a whole lot of equipment readily available. But we have been able to rush supplies by aircraft and land them at the… airport and then take them. Today the need for helicopters for dropping relief supplies and other things is very great, and that is being attended to. The armed forces have done a great job, the local officials are back, and the state has a great tradition of volunteering and doing very well. They are all working around the clock.

MARGARET WARNER: But when, for instance, your prime minister went to the state today and he did say that the villages were having a hard time getting relief. Is that because of these difficulties you just described?

NARESH CHANDRA: See, there are only so many workers which have been mobilized . More are coming. But it’s very difficult to spread out to… to all the locations that are affected. People have to wait their turn. So some who feel they are neglected, they have a genuine grievance. There is something inherent in the situation, the decentralized nature of the disaster and the difficulty in communications. But we are able to make people move and bring them to shelter. We have also rushed blankets, building materials, a whole lot of financial facilities have been given. The prime minister’s relief fund has immediately advanced cash. That’s 200 million rupees — close to $4 million. They have been promised another 500… of rupees for shelter, which is $5 million rupees — so equal to $100 million. The finance minister has made a special request to World Bank for a soft loan of a billion dollars and… for half a billion. So our idea is to have a restoration and rehabilitation program in place fairly quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: What kind of help are you getting from other countries and from international relief agencies?

NARESH CHANDRA: They have been supportive. We have slightly deviated from our policy and very quickly accepted all the help that we can get.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain that India often does not accept help from the outside.

NARESH CHANDRA: Because we find that we are able to manage. But this is a natural calamity of unprecedented proportions, and the welfare of the people comes first. Basically the help has to be mobilized locally, and we have to quickly rush doctors and generals and other officials and experts. But this time the scale was so much that very quickly the prime minister said that we accept whatever help is coming. We got some experts to come. The first priority was to extricate the unfortunate victims who were trapped in the debris. We got teams with the sniffer dogs from Switzerland, from other countries, England. The USA landed an aircraft full of supplies in India with equipment, which will be very useful, medical supplies and safe drinking water supply, and they are looking at further ways and means to render assistance. USAID is expanding its program to about $5 million to provide immediate relief.

MARGARET WARNER: There has been some confusion about Pakistan, your neighbor, with whom you don’t have the best of relations — what have they offered and what have you accepted, if anything?

NARESH CHANDRA: Well, in these matters of national calamities, we help each other out because we don’t allow political boundaries to stand in the way of making a humanitarian gesture. So the Pakistan government offered sympathy and support, and whatever help comes, it’s all right. We can work together in these cases. You will notice that whenever calamities have occurred in India’s neighborhood, we have always offered and provided assistance, and it’s in the same spirit that we will deal with the offer from Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: And if people or viewers or anyone wants to help, what should they do? What do you need most?

NARESH CHANDRA: Well they’ve been a great help. I must say Indian-Americans and others in this country have been helpful and made very encouraging moves. We have, of course, explained that material – to carry material from the United States all the way to India may not be the best way to deal with this situation. We have upgraded our Web site, the Indian embassy Web site. It can be checked at www.indianembassy.org, all information is there. We have found the quickest and the best way….

MARGARET WARNER: And we’ve also put up, I think if they want to make donations, they can.

NARESH CHANDRA: So we have the major source for funding is the prime minister’s National Relief Fund. That is the quickest way, either to the embassy or the banks and organizations that we have listed on our world… Web page is the fastest and most effective way.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for coming in and good luck with all of this.

NARESH CHANDRA: Thank you. I appreciate that.