India: Earthquake and Free Market Devastation

Revolutionary Worker #1091, February 18, 2001, posted at

"No doubt this earthquake was a natural calamity. We can expect some damage, but nothing like this."

Father of a missing boy in Ahmedabad outside his school that collapsed
during the earthquake

On January 26, a large earthquake, measuring 7.7 in magnitude, struck the Indian state of Gujarat. Gujarat lies on India's western coast just south of Pakistan and has a population of 42 million. At least 30,000 people were killed in the quake and estimates of the number dead are as high as 100,000. Hundreds of thousands were injured and over one million people are homeless as a result of the quake.

Funeral pyres and incinerators are operating around the clock. People carry wood from collapsed houses to fuel the funeral fires. An electric crematorium in Ahmedabad was so overloaded that the hinges on the furnace door melted. "The bodies keep coming in. Sometimes entire families, other times three or four members of a family," said the operator of the Ellis Bridge Crematorium in Ahmedabad.

Whole towns have been literally destroyed. Bhachu, a town of 25,000, no longer exists. The hillsides are expanses of demolished concrete and the bodies lie beneath the jumble. "Not a single house is left," said the emergency coordinator there. "Oh, maybe one is still OK." Only 2,000 residents remain. "We are struggling for food and water," said Bajgat Bahdur, a watchman. "We cannot even think of houses right now."

In Anjar, a town of 35,000, between 300 and 400 children were killed when buildings along the lane in which they were walking in a Republic Day parade tumbled down on them. The public hospital in Bhuj collapsed, crushing the patients and depriving the city of its primary medical center.

The stench of still unclaimed bodies beneath the debris hangs heavy. There is no electricity, no running water for bathing or cooking. There are too few tents so most people have to sleep out in the open. The homeless are everywhere. Many people may have to live in tents for several years. In one encampment in the city of Bhuj, 26 people share a 15 by 12 foot tent--24 tents house 800 people homeless from the quake.

Disease is a rapidly mounting threat. No outbreaks have been reported yet, but malaria, cholera and severe diarrhea are a threat to the homeless who are packed into camps with no running water or toilets and are relying on communal kitchens for food. There is a threat that decomposing bodies will contaminate the water supply.

Disasters: Natural and Man Made

Earthquakes are a natural disaster. The plates that make up the earth's crust slide against each other and the pressure is released when the earth moves violently during a quake. But the extent of the horrible devastation caused by the quake in Gujarat is anything but natural. When earthquakes (even of the same magnitude) strike the developed capitalist countries of the west, while there is destruction and loss of life, it is never on the scale of what has just happened in India.

When a big earthquake strikes in a Third World country--the oppressed nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America --the results are horrific. On August 17, 1999 an earthquake in western Turkey killed 17,000. On June 21, 1990, when an earthquake hit northwest Iran 50,000 died. 25,000 died in the September 19, 1985 quake that hit Mexico City.

India, with a population of one billion, is the world's second most populous country. It has a long history of being dominated and oppressed by imperialism and colonialism. From the 19th century until it received formal independence in 1948, India was ruled brutally as an outright colony of the British Empire. During this period India's economy was structured to provide cheap raw materials like cotton and spices to England. The result was huge profits for the British while the Indian people were some of the poorest on the planet. In 1948--when India was called "the crown jewel of the British Empires," life expectancy of the Indian people was less than 30 years.

Today, 50 years after formal independence, India remains a country oppressed by imperialism and marked by extreme poverty. Over one third of the population--more than 300 million people--live below the poverty line, which in India means that they cannot even afford the amount of food necessary for themselves and their families. 200 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. 600 million people lack basic sanitation. Income disparities in India have increased tenfold since independence.

India's ruling elite and economy are completely dependent on and subservient to imperialism. (Maoists call the ruling elites in these countries compradors because their role is to serve imperialism.) India's pharmaceutical industry has grown rapidly and exports over $500 million in drugs each year. But two-thirds of all Indians cannot afford to buy its products. India's rulers have turned India into a dumping ground for toxic waste from the imperialist countries. In 1993 alone, the U.S. shipped more than 7.8 million kilograms of plastic waste, 26.8 million kilograms of tin waste, 917 billion kilograms of lead ash and 14,500 kilograms of lead-acid batteries to India. India leads the world in child labor and estimates of the number of child laborers in India are as high as 100 million. Gujarat is known worldwide as a center of the diamond industry where tens of thousands of children are exploited alongside hundreds of thousands of poor workers. (See sidebar "Diamonds and Death in India.")

Before its collapse in 1990-91, the Soviet Union had been India's largest export market and principal supplier of energy (much of which went to enterprises in the state sector). When this relationship shattered, India found itself facing a severe foreign exchange crisis in 1991. The U.S. imperialists stepped into the breach, pouring huge amounts of capital into India. Within two or three years, U.S. capital inflows to India exceeded the total of U.S. investment in India over the course of the entire preceding post-World War 2 period. Through this, U.S. imperialism tightened its grip on the Indian economy. At the same time, the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund began forcing India to implement Structural Adjustment Programs as a condition for loans.

These SAPs imposed: a devaluation of the rupee by 23% (which makes Indian exports cheaper and imports more expensive); new industrial policies allowing more foreign investment; privatization of key sections of the Indian economy that had been controlled by the government; and cuts in social services and other non-profitable government enterprises.

In addition the World Bank now monitors India's public expenditures and gives detailed instructions for cuts in specific sectors of the economy. Health care has been hard hit as the World Bank has pushed India to make heath care a profitable commodity, available only to those who can afford it. India's 1994-1995 budget allocated just one-half of one percent for health care.

These Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) have only deepened India's problems of intense poverty and debt. And at the same time, SAPs have been extremely profitable to the imperialists. India now pays more to the World Bank each year in interest and repayment installments than it receives from it. According to the World Bank Annual Report, in 1998 India paid the Bank $478 million more than it borrowed.

The incredibly disastrous effects of the January 26 earthquake is a searing indictment of the extreme lopsidedness of the world--where poverty and primitive conditions make oppressed countries like India completely vulnerable to natural disasters.

"From the government, nothing"

"There is no help from the government. There is no coordination. There are so many pieces of equipment but they are not working."

Member of a community group
that has set up a shelter for the homeless

"There is no confusion. Everything is under control."

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee

The response of the Indian government to the earthquake reveals a comprador regime that serves imperialism and doesn't give a damn about the lives and suffering of the masses of people.

According to an Associated Press report from Anjar, a town of 80,000 leveled by the quake, many of the now homeless residents say the government has all but deserted them. "People have been very good bringing food and water, said Sutar Danji, 30, a carpenter who has lived at a dusty campsite since the January 26 earthquake destroyed his home. "But from the government, nothing." Trucks carrying rescue equipment have sat for days outside the office of district administrator. A 20-year-old man said that politicians visiting the town "have had to face the wrath of the people."

According to an article in The Times of India, it was only on January 31, five days after the quake, that the government dispatched a team of officials to Bhuj. An estimated 30,000 perished in Bhuj city alone. Most died in the old town section and it wasn't until almost a week after the quake that officials started making it to these sections. Survivors who did not die waiting in the rubble were lucky if they received medical care of any kind.

When Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Bhuj after the quake, roads used by rescue teams were closed and emergency flights were suspended for several hours. Indian newspapers reported that officials overseeing rescue operations were pulled off the job for hours, so they could be at the airport for Mr. Vajpayee's red-carpet arrival.

Imperialism develops countries like India in a very lopsided fashion. Certain sections and regions that are profitable to the imperialists are developed while others are left to rot. While the imperialists need roads and other infrastructure in industrial areas, this is not needed in many villages engaged in agricultural production where the majority of India's peasant population lives.

According to the New York Times, "World attention has so far focused on the devastation the earthquake caused in Ahmedabad and Bhuj as well as Anjar and Bhachau, but officials say much of the worst destruction is to be found in 450 villages scattered across the scrubby dun landscape here in the Kutch district of Gujarat."

"Food material is reaching only Bhuj town and the main camps situated close to the main road. Other relief camps are not getting anything. Consequently, able-bodied men from these interior camps are waiting on the main road and pouncing on trucks with relief materials," said a social worker who just returned from Bhuj.

The heroism and sacrifice of many sections of the people stands in stark contrast with the government's inactivity. In a typical example that was repeated many times over, a student was in a data processing office in New Delhi when he heard about the quake. He and six friends immediately left their classes and traveled for three days by train and bus before arriving in Bhuj with food, goods and a little money to distribute among the victims.

In another instance, a man climbed a three-story leaning building that was about to fall and rescued seven people including a seven-month-old baby. Others people dug in the rubble with their bare hands to rescue neighbors. Everywhere people worked together to set up communal shelter and food. There were instances of Hindus, Muslims and "untouchables" working together to claw through the rubble for survivors.

Twisted Priorities

But the government had concerns other than saving lives and meeting the needs of the people. It was preoccupied with maintaining the economy of the region, tightening security and preventing any upheaval in the wake of the disaster.

Gujarat is one of India's most prosperous and industrialized states. Gujarat's coast is dotted with 41 ports. A large amount of India's exports go through the Gujarat ports to Western, Middle Eastern and African markets.

"Gujarat's business friendly policies have attracted a number of multinational companies drawn by an excellent road network, uninterrupted power, and incentives," according to an article by Agence France-Presse. They include big names such as Sunitomo, Matsushita, General Electric, General Motors, Glaxo, Siemens, AT&T and Unilever.

"Any slowdown in economic activity in Gujarat will have an impact on various aspects of our national life," said India's Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. In the aftermath of the quake there was intense concern in the financial pages about whether the Kandla-Bathinda oil pipeline that runs through Gujarat was damaged in the quake and whether the ports in the region would be able to operate.

As the search for survivors was still going on, the Indian government announced major privatization initiatives, saying that it would sell major state-owned enterprises to private companies. In particular, the government announced it would sell over one half of its assets in VSNL, a state-owned overseas telephone provider, and that it would seek a "strategic partner" for CMC Ltd, a government-owned computer software and hardware company, and would also invite bids for a sale of a 51% stake in Bharat Aluminum Co.

VSNL and CMC stock prices rose sharply after the government announcement. "It inspires confidence among investors and people will now start speculating about the next privatization candidate," said the chief investment officer for an asset management company.

So while over a million suffer, capitalist vultures  look for ways to profit from the situation. The owner of a refinery in Ahmedabad put it this way: "Calamities mean that the government will have to spend money on this region for development. Calamities bring opportunities which you have to seize."

In the week after the earthquake, if you did a Yahoo news search on the internet for "India + earthquake," about half the articles were about the Dow Jones and how the earthquake might affect the price of various stocks. One bank wrote of the impact: "Local government bonds will maintain their winning streak throughout 2001. The devastating earthquake in Gujarat will hurt India's fiscal balance... and near turn export performance...but it must not be used to pronounce an end to the onshore bond market bull run."

Maintaining order was the other major concern of the state officials. "We are tightening security all over the place and increasing patrols on highways," said Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya. In Anjar, according to Associated Press, police and soldiers stood sentinel over the excavation work and kept watch over the town's tightly packed market streets. But residents say they have seen few signs of any other official activity.

Even after a week, major western relief agencies were being delayed for up to two days in obtaining clearance from Delhi to fly chartered planes loaded with tents, medicines and food into Bhuj airport. Because the airport, about 30 miles from the Pakistani border, is reserved for India's military, officials said the planes should fly to Ahmedabad, nearly a day's drive away, where backlogs were already causing several days' delay.

"Death Traps"

"There has obviously been an attempt to curb costs at the expense of safety. Most of the buildings were death traps before people moved into them."

Calcutta newspaper.

Many of the deaths in the Gujarat earthquake occurred when some of the newer, modern high-rise buildings collapsed during the quake. There has been widespread outrage at the building contractors who cut corners and government officials who did not make sure that buildings met even minimal safety standards.

According to an article in the New York Times, "Some of the most important failures occurred before the quake." The Times reported that townspeople said local officials had been breaking building codes for years, allowing influential contractors to throw up multistory apartment complexes and offices in defiance of rules limiting the height of buildings and without any of the earthquake strengthening required by Gujarat's laws.

It was well known how vulnerable many buildings in India were to collapse in a major quake. "Disasters don't kill people, buildings do," said a 1998 report prepared for the Indian government. "The number of unsafe buildings is growing every day." The report was ignored.

Greedy construction companies and bureaucrats have been blamed for the construction of substandard housing in India that has cost thousands of lives. But there is also a bigger criminal here at work. In today's global economy capital is highly flexible, moving in and out of regions with the click of a computer key. Certain regions, like parts of Gujarat, are subject to breakneck growth while other regions stagnate. The high-growth regions are driven to provide an infrastructure for imperialist investment on a foundation of a Third World economy or risk losing investments to another region. The result is the kind of substandard housing found in Gujarat's major cities.


As many as 100,000 may have perished in Gujarat, India. But behind the huge death tolls from this "natural disaster," the brutal social system--capitalism, class society and the world imperialist system--is once again revealed as the cause of enormous and unnecessary suffering.

Our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters of India--who have lost many thousands of loved ones, and who are now seeking to rebuild their lives amidst the rubble of their former homes. And we pledge our firm support for the revolutionary struggle of the peoples of India against imperialism, the common enemy of the people of the world.

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