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Rebuilding Bhuj - one year on

Reconstruction - India earthquake: One year ago this week, a massive earthquake devastated Gujarat in north west India. Damian Arnold filed a series of reports from the region immediately after the event. This month, he returned to see how engineers are m

Hardly a single building has been allowed to be rebuilt in Bhuj city, which caught the worst of the devastating earthquake that shook Gujarat one year ago on Saturday.

When NCE visited Bhuj in the immediate aftermath, the thriving labyrinth of streets known as the 'walled city' was a sorry pile of rubble giving out the stench of death. Back in Bhuj one year later, the dead are buried, the rubble has gone and in its place are wide open spaces. The occasional isolated building still stands, incongruously.

Since the quake, the people of Bhuj have lived through a scorching summer followed by a monsoon season without the comfort of their perished homes.

They are now demanding to know why it has taken the Gujarat state government so long to start reconstructing the thousands of properties totally destroyed in the city.

Critics claim that the government has let the people down by its sluggish response to a major natural disaster. Locals are incredulous, for example, that it has taken nearly a year for a plan to redesign Bhuj's walled city area to be commissioned (News last week).

'People can't stay in tents, so they have started constructing on their own without permission, ' says prominent local architect Heman Twala.

He adds that half the village of Sukpur - a few kilometres from Bhuj - has already been rebuilt without permission, with locals waiving the government subsidy that they are entitled to. Many of the replacement structures are almost as shoddy as those that collapsed, he says.

The Bhuj authorities argue that careful planning has taken priority over rapid reconstruction in the first year. They say that this will ensure that when the next earthquake strikes, similar casualties of more than 17,000 dead and 167,000 injured can be avoided.

Gujarat's 12 months of post quake planning started two weeks after the disaster, with the rescue operation still in full flow.

This was when the Gujarat State Disaster Management Agency (GSDMA) was formed to coordinate the response to the disaster across as many as 40 government agencies. The creation of the GSDMA with the help of £650M soft loans from the Asian Development Bank and World Bank has been widely applauded. But its disaster management apparatus has taken a year to form.

GSDMA's first decision was to place responsibility for reconstruction with building owners.

They would be in charge of rebuilding their own homes and, in the absence of housing insurance, they would be helped by a subsidy on a scale ranging from 90,000 rupees for totally collapsed buildings to 3,000 rupees for minor damage.

By June, all properties had been surveyed. In total, 279,000 were to be retrofitted and 145,000 reconstructed mainly in the district of Kutch, which is about the size of Wales. Handling of building applications was outsourced to consultants Stup from Mumbai and Gherzi Eastern from Calcutta.

By this stage, temporary shelters for the displaced had gone up, although many people refused to move into them, preferring to fashion their own temporary shacks on the ruins of their homes. Meanwhile, in May, a contract was signed with consultants to redesign the worst affected urban centres - Bhuj, Bachau, Anjar and Rapar - with wider streets and more open spaces. Consultation with the community took months and the plans were not accepted by the authorities until the end of year.

Only then could reconstruction begin in earnest.

By August, agreements for rebuilding in rural areas had been reached with 600 villages of the 900 which were badly damaged. These included 450 which were totally destroyed. In 271 villages, the government has agreements with non government organisations (NGOs) to jointly fund reconstruction. By the end of the year, 30% of buildings in rural Kutch had been rebuilt.

The authorities can certainly claim to have not been idle in the last 12 months, but critics counter that the quality of reconstruction is suspect. Twala claims that familiar corrupt building practices are still rife.

These include bribery by contractors to win jobs and more bribes to ensure that the authorities turn a blind eye to shoddy building and cheap materials.

British based Arup Geotechnics engineer Dinesh Patel, who has returned to Gujarat to promote his design guide for building to seismic codes, observes that much of the reconstruction is still short of the standard needed to withstand an earthquake.

The GSDMA says it is boosting the region's engineering skills base to raise building standards.

Before the earthquake, municipal building departments were so depleted that houses would get the nod on the basis of an architectural design rather than one with engineering input. And what few engineers there were to supervise construction were only diploma qualified.

The GSDMA has since recruited more than 2,700 engineers and 40,000 masons and the National Council for Cement & Building Materials (NCCBM) has been hired to audit the quality of reconstruction.

The GSDMA readily admits that its engineering force is inadequately trained to oversee what it calls 'the largest housing reconstruction programme in the world today'.

Workshops have been organised to at least induct them in simple seismic engineering techniques such as tying columns and beams. In the longer term, seismic engineering is likely to be included on all undergraduate engineering courses by next year.

Lack of skills has led to the GSDMA slowing rebuilding. Subsidies are being paid in up to three instalments with engineers signing off each stage of works before the next payment. It will push through building applications quicker once armed with tougher new regulations, but these will not be enshrined in law until May at the earliest.

In the meantime, there will be a block on building higher than ground plus one level.

In each town a technical think tank of structural engineering experts has been set up and in the villages engineers have been organising workshops to teach local builders earthquake engineering techniques.

Local people have been bombarded with pamphlets and posters produced in a folksy style, reminding them of the need to consider the effects of earthquakes when rebuilding their homes. Simple analogies are used to show how columns and beams should be tied.

By the end of this month, a vision for long term disaster management in Gujarat should be drafted. The two year £75M scheme will create disaster preparedness for events such as burst dams, cyclones and nuclear strikes as well as earthquakes.

Under the plan, being prepared with the help of UK consultant Babtie and Cranfield School of Management, five emergency response centres will be built in Ahmedebad, Surat, Rajkot, Bhuj and Barodo.

The cost of rebuilding An estimated £2bn will be invested to rehabilitate Gujarat after last year's earthquake.

Here is a breakdown of some of the costs from Gujarat State Disaster Management Agency.

l£1bn estimated to have been spent already on immediate relief l£360M on reconstruction of houses l£130M on education including 200 new schools l£75M on long term disaster management l£75M on roads and bridges l£60M on temporary household kits l£60M on hospitals l£60M on water supply l£55M plus on dams and irrigation l£50M restoration of power in the region.

l£45M on public buildings

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