Help for the victims of the calamity in India

Earthquake: Aid must be provided, without knowing where in the world it will be needed next.

January 30, 2001

THE UNITED STATES was slow and small in its offers of aid to India after the devastating earthquake in the state of Gujarat on Friday.

By Sunday, this had grown to $5 million and an emergency team of seven experts, smaller than rescue teams arriving from Britain, Switzerland, Turkey and elsewhere. Canada committed roughly half the funds that Washington did, with one-tenth the economy.

This U.S. reaction can be attributed to the changeover of administrations. It came at an awkward moment. But if the United States wishes to be seen as the world leader, the dominant economic power and a country made up of people who care about the wellbeing of others, it must lead in helping others cope with catastrophe. This time, it did not.

The Gujarat catastrophe resembles the earthquake in rural western Turkey in August 1999 that took an estimated 17,200 lives. Both missed their nation's great population centers, yet killed wantonly. The Indian toll was officially estimated yesterday at 20,000.

The epicenter was 12 miles from Bhuj, a city of 150,000 people where the damage was greatest. Much of the surrounding area is barren salt flats called the Rann of Kutch. So strong was the quake, 7.9 on the Richter scale, that substantial damage was done 200 miles away in the state capital, Ahmedabad.

As in Turkey, this quake targeted modern urban buildings constructed to cheap Third World standards. In both countries, public grief turned to outrage at the builders and government.

The greatest provider of aid is India itself, a modern state and dynamic economy inside a larger state of Third World poverty. Its military posture against Pakistan provided an immediate fleet of cargo planes and rescue crews.

Nongovernment organizations rush help to distant emergencies, often more nimbly than governments. Two national organizations accepting contributions for India are based in Baltimore, Catholic Relief Services and Lutheran World Relief.

Where Washington will be asked to help again will be in India's request to the World Bank for $1 billion and the Asian Development Bank for $500 million, to spur reconstruction.

Earthquakes are no respecters of nations. Today, India; tomorrow, who knows?

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