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Gujarat Earthquake

Volume 621: debated on Monday 29 January 2001

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3.49 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Her Majesty's Government's response to the earthquake in Gujarat which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development. The Statement is as follows:

"At 03.16 GMT on Friday 26 January, a major earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale occurred in western India. The epicentre was located 50 kilometres north-east of the town of Bhuj in Gujarat state in India. It affected an area as large as Wales. It was also felt in Pakistan, Nepal and southern India.

"Latest estimates are that over 20,000 are presumed dead, thousands more are missing and some 50,000 people are reported injured. Initial reports suggest that 500,000 people have been left homeless. As serious after-shocks continue, hundreds of thousands of people are living outside their homes. After-shocks are also hampering the search and rescue and relief effort. Provision of water is a particular problem in Bhuj. Aerial assessments carried out by the Government of India, in which staff from my department participated, described the situation in many areas as "utter devastation". According to the Indian authorities, 95 per cent of the buildings in Bhuj are no longer habitable.

"Infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railways, communication systems and electricity lines have been severely affected, and an oil slick is affecting operations at the oil terminal at Kandla port. Communication with Bhuj is gradually being restored using satellite. Indian police are leading the search and rescue effort, aided by 5,000 Indian military personnel. Priorities are water, shelter, blankets and food. The Indian authorities are mobilising significant resources to address these needs. This is being supported by international relief assistance, which has started to arrive.

"I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in expressing our deep sympathy and concern to the people of Gujarat and their relatives and friends in Britain and elsewhere. The Queen and the Prime Minister have sent messages of sympathy to the Government of India.

"The Department for International Development's emergency response centre has been working round the clock since the earthquake struck. We dispatched a UK search and rescue team of 69 personnel, made up of 25 UK Fire Service volunteers from Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Greater Manchester, Chester and Leicestershire, and specialist NGOs. The Ministry of Defence provided a plane at a cost to my department of £98,000. Officials from my department led the team. They arrived in Bhuj at 8 a.m. UK time on 28th January and started work within 15 minutes. They are presently targeting some of the worst affected buildings. They are working in close co-operation with the Indian authorities and have so far managed to rescue four people alive.

"Also, in a joint operation with my department, 75 search and rescue personnel from the Russian Ministry of Emergency (EMERCOM) arrived in Bachau on 28th January and have rescued eight persons to date. They also have with them an airmobile hospital. A second Russian aircraft, part-funded by my department, is awaiting clearance from the Indian authorities to bring in 3,280 blankets and 45 family tents.

"A United Nations disaster assessment coordination team (including one UK member) has also been despatched and will commence operations as soon as possible. Two disaster assessment experts from my department have helped organise the NGO disaster relief co-ordination meeting and helped with aerial reconnaissance.

"The effort is now moving from a focus on search and rescue to organisation of relief. All existing systems have broken down. People lack housing, blankets, clothes, food and water. We must ensure that those who survived the earthquake are cared for until normal systems can be restored.

"My department has spent £2 million on the provision of immediate relief. Another £1 million will be allocated today. The Chief Secretary has agreed to make available £9 million from the reserve so that we can allocate a total of £10 million to support this emergency relief effort without reducing our spending in other parts of India. We shall also work in Brussels and elsewhere to ensure that other development agencies make available appropriate funding.

"The Indian Government are well organised and are providing food, army personnel, heavy lifting equipment, mobile operating theatres and medical supplies, but the scale of the emergency is such that some of the resources needed cannot be supplied in the region. We are therefore also arranging to fly out three aircraft carrying 1,200 tents and other shelter items from the Department for International Development's emergency stockpile in Staffordshire. A fourth aircraft will also be dispatched today from Ostend via Brindisi carrying 10 sets of trauma equipment and plastic sheeting.

"This is a very serious disaster. Organisation by the Indian Government is good. But international help is needed to ensure that all who survived the earthquake but have lost everything are provided with health care and other basic essentials until such time as they can rebuild their homes and livelihoods".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.55 p.m.

My Lords, I am sure everyone is grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement on this tragedy. It is an unspeakably tragic event. It is difficult to find words appropriate to describe the size of the horror and the scale of death and destruction that has taken place. Whole villages have been wiped out; large towns have been 95 per cent destroyed. These are things which are almost impossible to imagine from this distance; yet they have occurred to this great nation and are imposing the most dreadful suffering upon it.

It goes without saying that we on this side of the House join totally with the message of sympathy expressed by the noble Baroness for the people of India as a whole, for those in the Gujarat region, in the towns and villages affected and for all their relatives and friends. It goes without saying, too, that we express our full support for everything that the Government have done already and are swiftly doing. From what the noble Baroness said, the agencies of government are moving fast and in a commendable way. This is good—although I fear it is only the beginning of a vast amount of work.

I am sure that the noble Baroness will bear in mind that India is a fellow Commonwealth country and that we have a special responsibility to do everything we can to help in this moment of misery. We have enormous technical expertise in search and rescue in this country; we have our British charities and our great non-governmental organisations, which have immense skills in providing medical care, water, food and so on. I hope that they, too, will be given full support and that their needs—about which we may hear from noble Lords who are expert in these matters—will be met very swiftly.

Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness three brief and broad questions because it seems to me that everything that can be done at this moment is being done. First, as the Minister rightly indicated, hunger and thirst are already very big killers. I heard one suggestion that hunger and thirst will kill almost as many as the falling concrete which crushed schools and homes; that it will be the new horror after the gigantic earthquake and the after-shocks. Tents are being flown in from various sources, as the noble Baroness described. However, what more can be done not only to provide shelter but also somehow to meet, short-term, the hunger and screaming thirst which will destroy many more lives even while we discuss the matter?

Does the Minister have any news—anecdotal or otherwise—at this early stage about UK nationals who were in the region, who have been involved and who may have vanished in the holocaust? What are the first thoughts she can share with us about the longer-term organisation of what will be a huge relief operation, which will continue for many months— indeed, some sources have suggested years—so great was the earthquake?

This is a blow imposed on a nation which, in many ways, has been moving fast into the modern world and taking the lead, particularly in new technology. A new, dynamic India is arising. But it has now been caught by the hand of fate and by natural disaster in a dreadful way and it has been shaken to the core. We will provide whatever support we can from this side. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for explaining the position so far.

3.59 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Only two weeks ago I was in Gujarat. I was in an area no more than 150 kilometres from the devastation. This area has had a number of tremors during the past few months—some of which I experienced—but no one imagined that an earthquake on such a scale would ever take place. The situation is more serious because the area of Gujarat has not had any rain for about three years. There is an acute shortage of water.

I should like to thank the Department for International Development for its commendable action, which was taken immediately the news of the earthquake was announced. The financial support mentioned by the Minister, amounting to almost £13 million, is very much welcomed. The Government of India expect that it will cost billions of pounds to restore normality to that part of the country. It is also commendable that the world community has responded to this particular disaster.

For the people of Gujarat, particularly those living in the desert area of Kutch, the devastation is frightening. The epicentre of the earthquake on 26th January was in the area of Bhuj and wiped out the entire city. It is a human tragedy on an unprecedented scale—an earthquake of the highest recorded magnitude in the past 50 years. The information supplied to me by His Excellency the High Commissioner for India, confirmed by a large number of e-mails that I have received, suggests that until yesterday at least 188 after-shocks had been recorded. No one can rely on official figures of death and destruction. Suffice it to say that the final figure may well exceed the five figures that are presently anticipated. It has been reported that over 14,000 people have been injured to date. There is a crucial need for facilities to care for the injured people.

It is a credit to the state government of Gujarat and to the Government of India that they are meeting the emergency more or less on a war footing. Reports reaching the community in England suggest that the entire country has been galvanised into action to help with relief and rehabilitation. The army, navy, air force, paramilitary forces, the civil administration, NGOs, as well as the communities in the UK and in Gujarat, are engaged in assisting the relief work. A number of charities in the United Kingdom and the DfID have worked to provide immediate help. Great credit should be given to those already assisting in Gujarat and others doing similar work in this country.

I should like to make a number of suggestions that may help. First, perhaps the Minister can inform the community in this country how medicines and other emergency supplies could be sent to Gujarat. I understand that Air India has already announced plans to lift some aid free of charge. I understand that other airlines may take the same course. As it is still winter, any assistance that the Government can give to ensure that a supply of warm clothes and blankets reaches the area would be very much welcomed.

Secondly, a substantial number of Gujarati minorities are settled in this country. Communication is almost non-existent in the earthquake area. The transport infrastructure is in a very perilous state. Is there some way in which the DfID could co-operate with the High Commissioner for India in a joint effort to provide people in this country with information about what is happening in Gujarat? It is almost impossible to obtain first-hand information, although I understand from the High Commission that in certain key towns telephone numbers are available which could provide information to the community in this country.

Will the Minister also thank all the international agencies, including charities, for the way in which they have responded to this crisis? The world community can take comfort from the fact that as far humanity is concerned we shall all stand together to assist those who have suffered.

4.4 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Howell and Lord Dholakia, for their expressions of support for the work so far done by the Government. The staff of the Department for International Development who have been involved in this relief effort have worked tirelessly round the clock. Our response has been immediate and effective. I am sure that the words of support from this House will be very well received.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked three questions. With regard to the first question about the issue of hunger and thirst, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia said, this is exacerbated by the fact that there has been a drought in the area for the past few years. One of the NGOs with whom we are working, OXFAM, has a great deal of expertise in this area and will be considering the question of water and sanitation. Support has also been given by other NGOs and other governments in relation to considering, as a matter of priority, the supply of food, water and sanitation.

The noble Lord asked, secondly, about UK nationals. I am aware from press reports that one person from the UK, a doctor, died in the earthquake. I am not aware of any others. However, I shall keep the noble Lord informed of any further news we receive about UK nationals.

There will be need for a huge, immediate relief operation, and the scale of longer-term reconstruction will be enormous. For example, 95 per cent of the housing in Bhuj is uninhabitable. That means that donors will have to work together. It will be an issue for the World Bank and for the Asian Development Bank. The noble Lord will be aware that India is our biggest bilateral partner. We currently have a programme there amounting to £100 million per year. When matters have settled down, we shall obviously consider how we can support that programme and the reconstruction effort.

Some general questions were raised by both noble Lords about British charities and NGOs. A number of British charities and NGOs, including OXFAM and Save the Children, are already active. The Association of Medical Doctors of Asia and International has despatched a multinational medical mission from Japan to provide humanitarian assistance. The IFRC, in partnership with the Indian Red Cross, is deploying blankets, tarpaulins and large tents. It has also donated units of blood plasma. Other UN organisations will have roles to play. For example, the World Health Organisation will be concerned with the health issues that emerge.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, raised three specific points. The first concerns informing the community in this country about how essential supplies can be sent to Gujarat; the second concerns communication. I shall deal with those two questions together. The department has had a great deal of experience, particularly following our experience in Kosovo, of building communication links and ensuring that families and communities are able to talk to each other. I shall certainly consider the noble Lord's suggestion about working with the Indian High Commission in this matter. I shall also consider the question of medical supplies and ensure that assistance is given to the communities in this country who want to send urgent supplies to Gujarat. In addition, I shall certainly thank all the international agencies that have mobilised quickly and effectively in responding to this and other disasters.

4.9 p.m.

My Lords, I believe that mention was made in the Statement that the earthquake also affected Pakistan. Can the noble Baroness give the House some clarification as to the situation in Pakistan, which, of course, is another Commonwealth country? As I say, although there has been mention of Pakistan, all the detail has centred on India. I should be most grateful if the Minister could provide some clarification in that respect.

My Lords, as we understand it, the earthquake was felt in Pakistan, Nepal and southern India, but the epicentre was just 50 kilometres north of Bhuj. The greatest elements of the disaster were experienced in Gujarat.