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India Devastated by Quake

by Bill Lascher

One of the most striking aspects of life at Oberlin, at least for some students, is its insulation from the rest of the world. Many students go for days or even weeks without watching television or picking up a paper. So the news was unexpected when sophomore Purvi Patel's parents called to inform her of the disastrous earthquake that hit the Gujarat region of India Jan. 26, where members of her family, and many close friends live.

Damage from the tremor, which measured a devastating 7.9 on the Richter scale, was of an incomprehensible scale. Entire towns were leveled. Relief crews have yet to reach many areas because they can't get past the debris. Tens of thousands of people have already been reported killed; more are expected as towns remain cut off from the outside world. Meanwhile, the stench of death lingers in the air as bodies decompose under rubble yet to be cleared and funeral pyres burning for days continue to smolder.

A population still in shock refuses to return home, whether due to fear that apartment buildings and homes that were spared by the initial quake will succumb to aftershocks (which have registered as high as 5.9 on the Richter scale), or because the debris and shattered infrastructure have made it impossible to get back.

In the city of Ahmedabad, where Patel's father is from, undamaged apartment buildings stand next to the remains of others that were decimated. A recent upsurge in people moving to flats has led to the use of more sand in concrete to hasten construction of new apartment buildings. These new buildings sustained the most damage, Patel explained, while older buildings generally escaped fared better.

Although she now lives in the U.S, Patel explained that her family was still affected by the quake. "When people in the U.S. think about being affected," she said. "They think about the immediate family. Even if the extended family was affected it affects us."

Although the news made headlines in much of the U.S, some students who had remained in Oberlin during Winter Term were unaware of the quake until days after it hit. Patel felt that coverage of the quake in the Cleveland area was insufficient. "Cleveland papers don't do it very well," she said. "They're very locally oriented."

Even Patel didn't initially realize the extent of the disaster. "When I heard about it from my parents I thought they were joking at first," she said. After complaints were raised on an online message board that CNN was ignoring the earthquake for less important stories, the news organization renewed its efforts to cover the disaster on its website. The message board was frequented by many anxious to learn about their friends and family in Gujarat, Patel said. Eventually some inhabitants of Ahmedabad who were able to escape damage and get internet access began logging on to the site and attempted to help figure out what happened to these individuals.

Earthquakes are not as common in Gujarat as they are in India's Himalayan north. Consequently, nobody was really prepared for it. "India wasn't ready," first-year Julie Dulani said. "It is so devastating because progress has been insanely slow."

"Some have been criticizing the Indian Government," Patel said in reference to delays of relief supplies in reaching some affected areas. "But the reason is that the devastation has been so massive."

Dulani lived in India for five years, but not in the region where the earthquake occurred. Although the news was reported by newspapers in Pittsburgh, where she was when the earthquake occurred, Dulani said there was a sense that some of the people she spoke with did not seem to understand the full scope of the tragedy. "It was almost like it was expected," she said. "Like people were saying ‘Oh, more tragedy in a third world country.'"

Dulani expressed concern that a request for donations that was sent to the South Asian Student's Association was not more widely publicized on campus. "I don't know why that was only sent to us," Dulani said.

Because the infrastructure is in so much disarray, monetary donations are being sought over material goods. Locally, there are numerous organizations that are collecting donations. Information can be found by accessing, or by conctacting SASA. Now that the new semester has begun, efforts have been begun on campus to raise money, and members of SASA will be dancing at the Colors of Rhythm concert on March 7 to help raise money for earthquake relief funds.

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Copyright © 2001, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 129, Number 13, February 9, 2001

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