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April 26, 2001 - April 26, 2001

Special compensation for ill-fated soldier Thursday, April 26, 2001

Ahmedabad: The Gujarat government is considering a special compensation package for a soldier from the state who died in a road accident in Jammu and Kashmir on the same day that his wife gave birth to twin girls.

"Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel has asked additional chief secretary I.P. Gautam to look into the matter and see if there any possibility of providing some relief to the soldier's family," a senior official in the chief minister's office said Wednesday. Patel is currently in Delhi for a meeting with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Vishnupal Singh Bhadoria, a junior commissioned officer with the army's Rashtriya Rifles regiment, died April 20 when the vehicle he was driving skidded off a road in Kashmir. News of his death came as a major shock for his wife Rama who gave birth to the twins the same day.

The families of Indian soldiers who die while on active duty receive insurance and pension benefits, including a death gratuity. The governments of some states provide land or financial assistance to families of soldiers who die in counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir or the northeastern states.

The next of kin of soldiers who die in accidents, like Bhadoria, do not usually receive any help from state governments. The official in Chief Minister Patel's office said a decision on helping Bhadoria's family would be taken late Wednesday or Thursday.

A day before his death, the 25-year-old soldier and sole breadwinner of his family, called his home in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's principal city, to enquire about his pregnant wife and told his father Ravinderpal Singh Bhadoria that he would come home for a visit the following week.

But destiny willed otherwise and his body arrived at Ahmedabad airport April 23. "He died without knowing that he had fathered twins," said Ravindrapal.

"Some local soldiers came here April 21 and gave us the news about Vishnupal's death. The soldiers said the vehicle being driven by him skidded off the road in Jammu and Kashmir and he died in the accident. That's all we know," he said.

Bhadoria's wife is in a state of shock. Rama has not spoken to anyone in the family ever since the news of her husband's death was broken to her. The only occasion she showed any emotion was when the body arrived and she broke down.

Ravindrapal settled in Ahmedabad 40 years ago after migrating from the city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh. He was employed with Sonu Mills, which closed down recently, rendering him jobless. His second son, Rishiraj Singh, has appeared for the secondary school certificate examination, while his third son is only 10.

"We don't know what to do now. We were dependent on Vishnupal till now. But I have decided to send my second son, Rishiraj Singh, to the army," he said.

"My brother died in the service of the country. I will do the same," Rishiraj said.

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Three months on, conviction keeps quake-affected going Thursday, April 26, 2001

By Pradeep Mallik, India Abroad News Service

Anjar, Apr 26 - "Three months ago I wouldn't have offered you this price. Today I have no overhead and my price is a rock bottom one," Vinod Rathod tells a middle-aged woman bargaining the price of a ready-to-wear outfit.

Rathod trades in readymade garments. His shop is a handcart stationed near the main bazaar of this quake-devastated town, about 50 km from Bhuj. He stands under an umbrella to protect himself from the scorching April sun.

His lot was much better three months ago. His new business was picking up and his store had an air-cooler to beat the heat. The January 26 destroyed it all, along with entire towns and villages and killing about 25,000 people.

Three months later, Rathod, like thousands of others in quake-hit areas, is still uncertain of his future.

Rathod started his business in the main bazaar some months ago after borrowing money from his father, who works in the local municipality. "It was picking up. People took note of my collection. Now the shop is gone, but you have to carry on," he says.

"Yes, it is a bit embarrassing to do business on a handcart, but the entire town has suffered. Most people are still on the streets. The thought of going back to the tent in the evening does haunt me, but if I keep thinking of the past, of our big ancestral house, of my shop, I will never be able to come out of it," he says.

Rathod and his family's resolve to fight on is the only source of inspiration for them, amid the all-round ruins and inordinate delays in the announcement of government rehabilitation packages. The announcement was made Tuesday, but many were unaware of it.

Like scores of others, the Rathod family does not know whether they will be able to rebuild their house or if Anjar town will be shifted lock, stock and barrel.

Like in Anjar, people in other towns in Kutch region are also in a bind. Local tradition bars people from building houses where deaths have occurred. "Such places become 'timba' (crematoriums) and you cannot build houses there according to Hindu tradition," says Umakant Acharya, who runs a small restaurant here.

The state government first toyed with the idea of relocating the four big towns in the region -- Anjar, Bhuj, Bhachau and Rapar but dropped the plan following protests, mainly from trade and business.

While the government quickly announced a rehabilitation package for villages, nothing was done for the towns until April 24. The delay forced Anjar's people to launch a 300 km march to the Gujarat capital Gandhinagar, embarrassing the authorities.

The government persuades the marchers to end their protest on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, about 30 km from Gandhinagar.

But by then the marchers had made their point: They wanted concrete steps, not tall promises like the one Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel made about building 800,000 houses by June-end when the monsoon sets in. Patel said last week that he had only referred to constructing temporary shelters for the quake-hit.

Sick of living in the open, many people have returned to their damaged apartments, particularly in Bhuj, knowing well that they can collapse. Many are, however, still sweating it out in makeshift tents.

One such man is Bhavesh Machchar, who has resumed his job in a private firm, but is still too traumatized to talk. He lost his mother and elder brother in the quake.

His sister-in-law says, "We just lie down in the tent, but it is difficult to keep the children under check. It is warm inside the tent. Children tend to run out and risk suffering sunstroke. I don't know when our misery will end."

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Quake-hit people reject Gujarat government's rehabilitation package Thursday, April 26, 2001

Ahmedabad, Apr 25 - The Gujarat government's resettlement and rehabilitation package for the quake-hit people of four major towns of Kutch district has few takers.

"It is a cruel joke on us. We reject the resettlement and rehabilitation package. We have sought a meeting with the chief minister Thursday and we will decide the course of action depending on the outcome of our talks," Anjar Group-2001 leader Shyam Sunder told IANS.

"The package is misleading. First the government said it would build houses, now it says it will only provide building material," he added.

"It is hogwash, the government simply does not want us to relocate themselves. Though thousands of acres of land is available around the town, the government is offering each family a mere 100 square meters," Sunder said.

Anjar is one of the four major towns of Kutch district that bore the brunt of the January 26 quake in which 25,000 people died and which left tens of thousands homeless.

Congress Party legislator Udesinh Baria echoed Sunder's views. "The package has been designed in such a way that people will reject it, giving government the excuse to wriggle out of its obligation of rehabilitating the quake-afflicted people," he said.

The Gujarat government announced the resettlement and rehabilitation package for the four towns of Kutch -- Bhuj, Bhachau, Anjar and Rapar -- Tuesday night following a three-month-long controversy over the shifting of quake-devastated towns and villages.

The delay forced residents of Kutch to undertake a marathon march from Anjar to state capital Gandhinagar this month to pressurize the Keshubhai Patel government to end agonizing "uncertainties" over the rehabilitation program.

Anjar Group-2001 had led the long march that was called off on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, about 30 km from Gandhinagar, after the chief minister vowed to take their concern into account while finalizing a resettlement and rehabilitation scheme.

According to the Rs. 12.79-billion package, the old Anjar town will be shifted to a new site and Rapar will be rehabilitated at its original place. The people of Bhuj and Bhachau will be give time-bound options for resettlement and rehabilitation.

Going back on his earlier announcement of building more than 800,000 one-room houses and relocating the four towns, Patel said his government would assist the quake-affected people in cash and kind to rebuild their houses.

The package provides for 100 square meters of land to those who had less than that before the quake and 125 square meters to those who had more than 100 square meters.

"Most of the affected people belonged to the middle class. Under the new construction norms, we will not be able to build structures on more than 60 percent of the land. Do you think you can build houses on just about 60-70 square meters?" asked Sunder.

He charged the government with trying to help the builder-developers. "It is natural people will reject the package and then they will be forced to buy land from the builders-developers outside the town limits at an exorbitant price."

The package envisages setting up a separate urban area development authority for the four towns. They will each be allocated Rs.5 million for town planning and to provide modern urban facilities in consultation with experts.

Official figures put the number of houses completely destroyed at 25,805 and the number of partially destroyed houses at more than 19,000 in the four towns.

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Urban authorities term new rules 'illegal' Thursday, April 26, 2001

AHMEDABAD: While the state government is poised to clear the development plan for Ahmedabad and Surat, the Gujarat Urban Development Authorities Association (GUDAA) has questioned the legitimacy of the post-quake Development Control Regulations announced by the government, on the grounds that it violated the Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act 1976, which governed the authorities.

A 'workshop' of the officials of the six municipal corporations and seven urban development authorities held on April 12, a fortnight after the state government declared the DCRs for structural safety, raised several objections to the DCRs which was drafted with specific compliance measures directed against natural hazards especially seismic compliance.

A copy of the proceedings of the GUDAA meeting made available to TOI not only criticises the provisions of the DCRs declared on March 27, calling them at times, "unreasonable" and times "repetitive", but also state that the government had not conducted the necessary procedures for drafting such rules as directed in rule 19(1) of the Town Planning Act "and hence it would be inappropriate and illegal to implement these rules at this point of time", GUDAA concluded.

Sources in the Urban Development department say that Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA) chairman Surendra Patel, in a letter to urban development minister Parmanand Khattar dated April 16, 2001, sought clarifications on the points raised, at the earliest.

But, when asked, Patel declined to comment on the letter saying, "it is confidential and not for the public". Asked who all were present at the meeting of the urban local bodies, he said, "only a few officers were present".

Further, GUDAA has sought clarifications on several aspects, regarding issues about sharing of responsibilities and credentials of the persons slated as 'experts' in the DCRs for structural safety. The general feeling at the meeting, according to an official, "was that the government had shirked off all responsibility in the new DCRs and was not even willing to equip us with the required staff for its implementation".

Without mincing any words, the GUDAA members have suggested that the government take up a part of the responsibility of ensuring the compliance of these DCRs. For instance, it notes that structural design, soil testing, quality control and such aspects do not come under the jurisdiction of the urban local bodies as per the town planning act, "and hence the state government form a special cell which could ensure the regulation of the these tests".

Further, they have pointed out that since, ensuring structural safety required a constant scrutiny, the government take up this task because the urban local bodies were not equipped for it, staffwise.

"It is not clear as to what action should be taken, and on who should the responsibility be affixed, if at any point, a deficiency is noticed in the building", GUDAA members pointed out. Some of the issues raised at the workshop were: If there is a difference of opinion among the experts, structural engineers etc whose opinion should be upheld? And if determined that the designated experts have failed in their duty, what action should be taken?

They have also demanded that the definition of an 'unsafe' building be made clear and since the urban local bodies were ill-equipped in finances, the state government should do something about the staff strength, in order to help gauge the exact responsibility of the urban bodies.

When contacted, Khattar denied that the document published by the state government in a hurry to overcome the post-quake agitation, "was illegal". "Everything is being worked out with the experts", he told TOI, but did not hint at any amendments being made in the DCRs after the consultations.

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Demolish dangerous buildings, say Ahmedabad's residents Thursday, April 26, 2001

THE newly developed Rani Jhansi Park in the upmarket Satellite area looks like a campsite. Parents are sitting and children playing in the open. But it is no picnic.

They are among a large number of families who have been living virtually without a roof over their heads since the January 26 earthquake devastated Gujarat, leaving some 25,000 people dead.

The quake flattened entire towns and villages and rendered tens of thousands homeless across the state. Many of the victims are still struggling to get back what they had always taken for granted -- shelter.

These are summer months, and the heat can be scorching in this part of India. The busiest of roads look deserted during the day because people prefer to stay within the cooler confines of their homes and offices.

Those residing at the Rani Jhansi Park are former residents of the high-rise Shikhar Complex, a part of which crashed in the quake, killing 98 residents. To the survivors, it is a do or die situation.

"It is better to die of sunstroke than to live in an apartment block you don't know when will crash," says Viren Shah.

"The pillars, the walls and the staircase are all damaged. There are huge cracks. Any extra weight or a small shake-up, and the building will come crashing down," he says. "And the government says it is repairable!"

"The state government has played a cruel joke with us. First it said these blocks are not liveable and now it says they can be repaired. The quake demolished our houses, now our protests will demolish the government," adds Muktaben Patel, another Shikhar Complex resident.

Shah tries to pacify Patel, but adds: "Even if the government gets the remaining portions of the complex repaired, none of us is going to live in it."

Shikhar residents are angry that the High Court, based on an official report on the condition of 17 badly damaged buildings, ruled that Shikhar blocks could be repaired and people could move back into them.

Those camping at the park are questioning the validity of the report prepared by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority. But some say if experts find nothing wrong with the basic structure of the building, then it is better to repair them rather than raze them.

Mukul Desai, who lives in the upscale Sangemarmar Apartments, says the basic structure of the building is safe. "I can tell you this as I am a civil engineer by training," he says. Eleven people died when the building's marble facade collapsed.

In contrast, Himgiri Apartment residents want their building demolished. "Almost all occupants are for demolition of the blocks," says Viraj Modi, who has an apartment on the fourth floor. The quake killed 17 people in the apartment.

Akshardeep Apartment residents are angry with the government. "The government doesn't want to pay us Rs.175,000 as part of the relief package announced. That is why it says the building can be repaired," said resident Dilip Gondaliya.

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