The day the earth didn’t stood still

I was going through the account I wrote on the Gujarat Riots sometime back. It prompted me to write about my experiences of the earthquake which shook Gujarat an year before the riots burnt the city. This will be probably the first time in last 11 years since the disaster that I’ll be sharing the complete experience.

‘The Day Before’ (25th Jan 2001)

This was a special day for me back then. The plan of going to school on my bicycle for the Republic Day the next day had just been approved by my mum. I would be riding my bicycle to school for the first time in my life! I prepared my cycle for the special occasion that awaited me. We used to live on the first floor of the apartment back then in Ahmedabad. I hadn’t cycled for a while and it had become quite dusty.  I brought the cycle to my floor and spent about an hour and a half cleaning it thoroughly. My cycle was all cleaned and oiled up for the 3 km journey from my house to the school (a big distance for a first timer!). I had planned to make the journey with one of my school mate early in the morning. The function was to start at 8 am and we were planning to leave an hour earlier.

‘D Day’

I left home and went to my friend’s apartment on a chilly January morning. He used to live adjacent to my society. He was accompanied by his younger brother. All three of us made it to the school early and spent time chatting with our mates. The stage was getting set and we were all excited for the function to commence.

It started at exactly 8 am after the morning prayers ended. All the students were grouped together according to their respective classes and were made to sit on the ground facing the stage. Our school used to have two shifts. The secondary students used to come in the morning and we primary students used to study in the afternoon. That day, because of the special occasion there was a mixture of both the students. Not everyone came to attend the function though (which turned fatal for some).

‘And it shook’

We must have been 15-20 minutes into the program when it happened. We were sitting on the sand watching the function when all of a sudden I started feeling dizzy and could feel the ground beneath me shaking. I looked down and saw that it was moving violently making the sand jump up and down. I couldn’t believe my eyes! That was the moment when I felt the world was coming to an end. I thought we will be gobbled by the Earth! The students around me panicked and started running here and there. Our science teacher started shouting “earthquake earthquake”. I ran towards the end of the ground where my cycle was parked. When I looked up, I saw at a distance a building going down and there was a huge ball of smoke. The building disappeared in the smoke. Horrified, I took my cycle and rushed out of the school premises. Meanwhile, from what I saw from the last few glances at the chaos on the school grounds – the students at the stage had started singing the national anthem to a terrified looking bunch of students who were all over the place. I took off from the school with some other students. I remember getting an overwhelming feeling of patriotism as I furiously cycled my way back to home. All the people on the road became my brothers and sisters at an instant. I have never ever experienced such a feeling again!

Back Home

I reached home to find my parents standing outside the apartment block with other people. They were waiting for me and were relieved to see my face. The earthquake sparked rumors those days. Somebody heard on the radio that another quake was on its way towards the city. People panicked and rushed out of the apartment. Even me and my family were scared so we went out on a car ride. We saw damaged buildings on our tour of the city. The road leading to the building which I saw collapsing earlier in the day was filled with people witnessing the rescue operations. It was a 10 storied apartment. Almost 100 people lost their lives in their sleep in that building. That night we slept in our car. Stuff at my apartment was tossed up here and there. On 27th night we slept at a party plot along with other families from my locality. The party plot was (it still exists and brings back the old memories!) a large hall and was single storied (so safe!). Families huddled up together on their mattresses. It was a weird feeling sleeping with so many people. It gave a view of a civilized refugee camp! We were woken up the next morning by a strong aftershock measuring a good 6.2 on the Richter scale. My parents woke me and my little sister up and we rushed outside into the chilly morning air. That rush sent shivers down my spine!

We left Ahmedabad that afternoon for my aunt’s place in Indore as my family couldn’t take it any more. We made a 10 hr car journey to Indore, a city situated 350 kms away from Ahmedabad in the state of Madhya Pradesh. We took a wrong route on our way to Vadodara which made our trip longer by a couple of hrs. When we were crossing Jhabhua district that night, we had to stop at a police check post with other vehicles. It was too dangerous to cross the stretch that lay ahead on our own as the route was infested with bandits! An armed police constable accompanied us for the next 45 minutes. There was a moment when the constable took out his gun and pointed it outside the window. We saw some people running at a distance. They were probably the bandits from whom we were being protected. It was one hell of a ride! I’ll never forget it!

So we took a week’s break away from the state of Gujarat which was rocked by one of the deadliest earthquakes of all time measuring at 7.7 on the Richter scale. I was too terrified to go back home. When we returned to Ahmedabad, we were greeted by another aftershock which hit us on the 8th Feb at around 22:30 at night. It measured 5.7. The fans in our apartment were swaying! The students of my school hardly went to school that term. The entire period between Feb and May was spent away playing cricket with my apartment mates.  Everyone of us were promoted to the next grade. I made it to the 6th grade that year! Some students lost their lives in the disaster and some lost their relatives. It was a catastrophic disaster that struck my state. Over 20,000 people lost their lives. Cities in the Kutch district, which was the epicentre of the earthquake, were literally razed. The whole district was pulled back to the stone age. It took Gujarat almost a decade to recover economically and emotionally. Gujarat did bounce back strong thanks to its resilient and hard working people and a forward looking administrations whose efforts, its critics, who never saw the death and destruction, would never be able to understand.

How my city turned into a battlefield 10 years ago

I remember on the evening of 27th Feb 2002 I was playing cricket with my friends. During drinks, one of my friends told me about this incident that took place in the morning, where a goods train carrying milk was burnt down in Godhra. My first reaction on listening to this was why the hell would someone want to burn down a milk train? That night I joined my dad to watch the daily news to confirm my friend’s story. The news was indeed showing images of a burnt train! It didn’t seem to me like a goods train though. It was a passenger train! Almost 58 people had lost their lives. I was shocked!

What followed next was a series of violent events across the state for the next 2-3 months which literally turned my city Ahmedabad into a battle zone. I was an 11 year old kid whose final exams were approaching. I remember reading one horrific story every day before going to school. The front page of our newspaper used to be splashed with images of vehicles & buildings burning, shops being looted and terms like ‘pitched battle between groups’, ‘stone pelting’, ‘arson’, ‘riots’, ‘police firing’, ‘tear gas, ‘mob’, ‘burning’ etc became very common.

In the first week following the Godhra burning when the riots were on full flow, a curfew was imposed barely 500 meters from my locality where I used to live back then. I remember almost around 50 men from my locality used to wake up all night and patrol with sticks. People had started stocking their homes with essentials like flour, sugar and salt to name a few. Schools and colleges were closed and so was my dad’s office for some time. There were days when the evening sky used to be thick with black smoke coming from a building being burnt somewhere in Vejalpur or Juhapura some kilometres away from our place. There were moments when gun shots were fired behind our house at night to scare the rioters away from the area. A picture of C.G Road, which is the most expensive street in the city, being looted by the rioters was splashed across the newspapers. The topic of gossip in my school turned from cricket or football to a Honda showroom being burnt to the ground on S.G Highway or a Muslim dry cleaner’s shop (whose clients included many of our students and teachers) burnt in Memnagar (the area where my school is located). The atmosphere in Ahmedabad was filled with fear. The only Muslim students (brother and sisters) in our school of 1200 students had to leave the school at the end of the academic year of 2002 as their families had to migrate to another city. Going to the eastern part of Ahmedabad used to be considered as very dangerous in those two months. It is the region having the densest population and it has a mixture of Hindus and Muslims in high numbers as compared to the western part of the city which is dominated by Hindus with the exception of areas like Juhapura (one of the largest Muslim ghetto in Asia) and Sarkhej. There was a riot every now and then in these regions. In 2003 when I was passing through Godhra on my way to my home city Chandigarh I saw the S6 coach of the Sabarmati Express which was burned down in the attack.

If you come to Ahmedabad in 2012 you won’t be able to believe whatever I’ve written above. If you’ve lived outside the state and have relied on the newspapers to create an image of the state in your mind based around the riots you’ll pleasantly surprised. The state of Gujarat is not new to witnessing riots. There used to incidents of violence every 4-5 yrs before 2002. However, since 2002 there hasn’t been a single case of rioting in the last 10 years. This shows that the focus of people has indeed shifted towards the development and the betterment of their society. Part of this shift should be attributed towards the efforts of the government for bringing in projects and investments from across the world. The results are showing. The city has transformed from the debris of the earthquake and the ashes of the riots to become the fastest growing city in the country and the third fastest in the world according to Forbes. Its probably one of the safest city to live in the country. The people are so friendly and are willing to go the extra mile to help you.

However, there is still a question mark upon the rehabilitation of the people affected by the riots. The local government is being repeatedly maligned by people across the country for its handling of the situation. They could’ve done much much more to control the situation. But they didn’t. How can you let such thing happen in your own state? The government’s efforts in the development of the state is often overshadowed by the violence of 2002.

The city had hardly recovered from the earthquake when the riots happened. It was pulled to the ground in 2001 earthquake and burned back to the same ground in the 2002 riots. The years 2001 and 2002 will go down in the history books as perhaps the worst ever in the 602 years of the city.

Why Indian roads are the world’s most unsafest

Today morning I hit the Ahmedabadi road after a long time. I went for a medical checkup which is necessary for meeting the admission requirements of my new college. It was 9 am in the morning and the office rush was at its peak. When I reached the Shivranjini Char Raasta lights there was a bus standing just in front of all the two wheelers. It was moving with the flow of the traffic and just after 500 m distance there was a bus stop. The bus stopped all of the sudden at the bus stop and the heavy traffic just behind the bus came to a screeching halt. It was a terrible ordeal for me as I was right behind the bus and had I not slammed my brakes on time I would have smashed into the back of the bus! This close encounter made me realize once again how dangerous the Indian roads are for its own drivers.

More people are killed on the Indian roads than anywhere else in the world thus making them the world’s most dangerous. This adds up to the threat level to one’s existence in our country.
There are plenty of reasons why the Indian roads are dangerous for its own citizens. Here I’ve compiled the following reasons:

1. Traffic rules are not followed strictly by the people.
2. Negligence in traffic management by the traffic cops.
3. Bad roads.
4. Encroachment of roads by hawkers, fruit sellers, small roadside stalls and other such shops.
5. Width of road not good enough to accommodate the density of traffic at many places.
6. Bad vehicle maintenance.

Explanation:

1. Traffic rules are not followed by the people in a strict manner:
Many drivers in India don’t give much importance to the traffic rules. They won’t think twice before driving on the wrong side of the road, over speeding, not stopping for the pedestrians while they’re crossing the roads, parking cars on the zebra crossing when waiting on the traffic signal, not stopping on the red light etc. Almost half the traffic accidents can be reduced if the rules are strictly followed by the people. Children should be stressed upon the importance of following the traffic rules right from their primary schools. That’s the time when they’re usually travelling by bus or by whatever means and by learning the rules at this stage will help remember them for a long time. Punishments for breaking traffic rules should be made stricter. Besides taking a hefty fine the driving license of the defaulter should be withheld for a particular period of time say for eg 3 months and in that time the driver should be ordered to learn the traffic rules all over again. After the expiry of the 3 month suspension he should be made to write a traffic exam once again before being given the license back. He shouldn’t be given his license back till he clears the test again.

2. Negligence in traffic management by the cops:
Traffic cops should be much stricter while managing the traffic. They shouldn’t just focus on collecting the fine but should also make sure the driver is made realize his/her mistake. The traffic police should be equipped with proper equipments to assist it in doing the same. They should also be provided small rooms for resting after doing the duty in scorching heat. Usually, because of the heat factor and other extreme climatic conditions like rain etc the efficiency of traffic cops in India decreases as they’re directly exposed to it without any protection on the streets. Japan provides oxygen rooms to its cops which are usually situated on the road sides. Such small rooms/cabins must be provided.

3. Bad Roads:
Indian bad roads are hard to define. Firstly, there are no roads at all at many places. Secondly, the roads which have somehow been constructed are badly maintained. Also, after rains we see that the upper layer of the roads get damaged easily because of the use of cheap materials or that the final protective layer is missing. Once that damage take place the authorities usually cover the damage up by putting another layer of tar on that particular road without paying attention to the fact that the additional layer hasn’t been synchronised properly with the existing level of the road and thus increasing the level of the road and making it uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous to drive on high speeds. Sometimes the lump is really big. Pot holed roads are very common and they aren’t repaired for months apart. Bad roads mean excessive breaking. Excessive breaking on high speeds can be fatal. This is one of the most important reasons for the high accident rate on the roads together with the non-compliance of the traffic rules by the people.

4. Encroachment of roads by vegetable vendors/hawkers etc:
This is a serious issue in our country. The hawkers encroach the roadsides and thus make the road shorter for vehicles to drive on. They also take over the parking spaces constructed for parking near big shopping junctions and create huge traffic problems during the weekends and peak hours. All these makes the roads very congested and unsafe for commuting. When the existing parking places are taken over by hawkers, people have to resort to parking the cars on the road sides where the parking is prohibited and thus adding to the space problems.

5. Insufficient width of the road:
The width of the road is not enough at many roads. It seems that the roads are not constructed keeping the density of traffic in mind. There are strips of roads that can hardly accommodate two cars at the same time despite being a two lane road. Also, a narrow road is a nightmare if it is also the path of a local bus. Imagine a bus stopping at a bus stop right in the middle of traffic. From my personal experience I can tell you that this is pretty scary!

6. Bad vehicle maintenance:
Bad vehicle maintenance leads to more chances of accidents. The brakes, accelerators, steering wheels, tyres, engine etc should be regularly checked by a qualified person. These are the major components that are handled directly by the driver and thus these needs to be in perfect working conditions. The air pressure of the tyres should be checked every week and should be maintained at the specified levels. The brakes should be in proper working condition. All these little checks can do wonders. They will not only ensure a safety but also give you a comfortable ride.

7. Underage Driving:
Underage driving is a big failure of the traffic administration. It has been noted that majority of rash driving and rule breakers are underage drivers. Students as young as 13 years of age are zipping through the traffic these days. Such leniency on the part of their parents will only lead to fatality. Parents are ignoring the big fact that by letting their young ones ride the scooter they are not only tightening the noose around their own children’s neck but also making roads unsafe for other motorists. Traffic police needs to get stricter with the drivers.

The biggest threat to India right now is not Pakistan, not Global Warming and not the Naxalites but the roads which kill more people for no reason at all everyday. We just need to follow these small and simple steps to curb this menace and be a bit more responsible to our fellow citizens. It will not only work wonders but will also help save innocent lives daily. So, let’s strive to follow the traffic rules and start the process of making our roads much more safer for everyone of us. We need to initiate this as it’ll be us who’ll benefit from this whole process.

Ahmedabad – A mega city?

I wrote this article last year after getting frustrated by the condition of my city Ahmedabad after just a couple of weeks of heavy rain:

‘”Ahmedabad – India”s first megacity.”

Till about three years back I would have agreed with this newspaper  clipping. However if one visits the city with this impression in his  mind he”ll surely get disappointed. Ahmedabad is in ruins right now. It  just needs one big spell of rains and lots of construction work to spell  doom to the infrastructure of the city.Flashback two years back when the work on the much hyped started. The roads were pretty descent if not perfect. They were as wide  and smooth as the mouth of a Mumbaikar on his first road trip in the  city. But things have gone from bad to worse in the coming years and  that too because people here ignored the basics. It just needs one spell of heavy rains to wreck havoc in the city.  Lack of a proper drainage system means water logging is frequent and  stretches on for weeks. The top layer of the roads got badly damaged (I  read in the newspaper that a certain final coating of the roads was  missing – wtf?). Then there were huge cave-ins (5-15 feet deep and don”t  ask me how wide :-o) on the roads. The look it gave was as if the city  was just hit by meteors of different shapes and sizes. Power cuts have  become quite frequent especially in the suburbs like Bopal etc. The  equation goes like 1 hr of rains = 3 hrs of power cut. The roads were  damaged during the construction of the BRTS corridor. Then they were  again opened up when some telecom company were putting their cables  inside, then they were dug open again when the drainage pipes were being  inserted. I read somewhere that roads are the veins/arteries (or god  knows what!) of your city. Imagine your wrist being slit open again and  again because of injuries – its painful for you, similarly it is painful  for the development of the city to be humiliated in such a manner. The problem with most of the Indian cities is that they”re made to  look  attractive on the surface no matter how much rotten they”re on the  core.  We Indians love to show off and that”s what we are trying to  reflect through our cities as well. Sudden growth of swanky buildings,   glittering malls, multiplexes, flyovers doesn”t necessarily mean you’re going all hunky-funky modern types. A city will be considered modern   only if the administration sticks to its basics like providing excellent   roads, a modern drainage system & a good development plan. Because  people need to have the basics to make their lives comfortable. Without the roads they won”t be able to visit that Iscon Mall on anyway. Town planning can be compared to the preparations for  entrance  exams like etc. The stronger you”re on your basics the  more easily  you would be able to crack the exam and move to the next  level of the  selection process. Similarly, the better the basic  infrastructure  facilities of a city the smoother will be its transition  from just another  city to something new age like a ”Mega City”.