HT Correspondents (Gandhidham, February 28)
The Hindustan Times
March 1, 2001
OUR MPs can learn a lesson from the people of Gurdaspur and their Lok Sabha representative. They have created a sanctuary for the traumatised people of Kutch, which probably is the only model relief camp in the entire region.
And the catalyst behind this remarkable experiment is none other than actor-turned-MP Vinod Khanna. He has shifted base from Punjab and has been camping here in this ravaged port-town near the Arabian Sea for a month.
This camp houses 200 families who are slowly trying to weave meaning into their lives amidst filth, dust and alienation. This is like a sudden tent-refuge in a war zone, with little solar lamps in closed tents, Osho’s music in the backdrop, children playing in the open, an amateur touch therapist practicing collective healing and people across the caste and class spectrum living a shared life.
For the shattered people here, the aura of the place is balm to their wounds. Somebody is distributing ice cream. Khanna tel-ls him, “Give kids only one scoop, or else they won’t eat dinner.”
Dinner is made in a collective kitchen. Women cook a simple but multi-cuisine Gujarati meal. In the small dining space there are little paper flowers which twinkle, as music floats in the darkness.
“Drinking water is no problem,” says Khanna. “We have truckloads of mineral water—enough for six months.”
Every tent has a garbage can. There are clean toilets, wash basins and urinals. A quick drainage system has been laid out. A makeshift water tank has been installed. Throughout the day there are volunteers counseling people, sharing moments of solidarity in pain. “Beneath the normalcy, everybody is on the edge. They cry and laugh at the same time. But, this is one camp where people at least have found a place where they can mourn in peace. This helps them recover,” says Kumud Tyagi, peer counselor from Dignity Foundation, Mumbai.
How did the idea strike Khanna? “I felt the tremors in Gurdaspur and then heard about the devastation. We started mobilising relief. But that was not enough. We had to somehow reach the people, not just dump relief and go away,” says Khanna.
Khanna reached Bhuj with supplies collected by people of Gurdaspur. There were too many relief workers, too much official apathy.
He decided to find a place where relief had not reached. After travelling a lot, he arrived in Gandhidham—where every building had been damaged, almost everyone a victim. “The first thing that struck me was that people needed temporary shelters.” So the hunt for tents started and ended in the prisons of Punjab.
The inmates in all the jails of Punjab are known for making quality tents. “The prisons of Gurdaspur are especially famous for their special canvas tents,” says Arun, Khanna’s secretary.
“The idea is to set up a self-sufficient model camp, which can be run by local people,” says Arun.
Thus, the generator, music system, telephone and fax machine in the ‘control room’, the ‘operation theatre and OPD’ made of wooden planks, almost everything here is locally arranged.
“We want to sustain this for at least a year or till the time they homes are re-build,” says Khanna.