Astonishing rise of Kutch from rubble of 2001 quake

Tuesday 20th January 2015 14:42 EST

On 26th January 2001 a huge earthquake razed many parts of Gujarat, especially Kutch. The place has now transformed from a pile of rubble in a neglected backwater into an economic powerhouse.

Kutch is a remote region in the arid borderlands of India. For centuries life was brutally tough - rains often failed, there were few jobs and the enterprising would emigrate.

Then in January 2001 a magnitude seven earthquake struck, devastating a huge area, flattening cities including the district capital, Bhuj, and wrecking over 8,000 villages. Twenty thousand people were killed and more than a million others made homeless. Those who witnessed the devastation at the time must have thought this would set back development by decades.

There was an outpouring of sympathy from around the world, much of it from Gujaratis living abroad. Some $130m (£80m) of aid poured in. The Indian government was spurred into focusing on this much-ignored region in a way it had never done before. The army was sent in to help with the emergency and $2 billion of reconstruction money was allocated to the region.

Contrary to what many feared, aid and government grants were put to good use. In the first two years after the quake, nearly all the damaged villages were rebuilt. Mithapashvaria, near Bhuj, is a small village that was completely destroyed. It was re-built with donations from the UK. The new houses were light and airy with running water and toilet. The village also had a medical centre, a temple and communal areas it hadn't enjoyed before.

Navin Prasad, of Sewa International, a non-governmental organisation, said that in village after village the reconstruction had produced a leap forward in development. "We have taken people out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world," he said. This progress was repeated all over Kutch, and it is most noticeable in Bhuj.

After the earthquake it was a sea of rubble. It took several years to implement plans for a completely new city. Houses had to be destroyed to make way for wider roads. Ten years on Bhuj has been reborn. It has two new ring-roads, an airport, parks and thriving shops. The success of the reconstruction effort could never have been sustained without economic recovery. This was triggered by the Indian government creating new tax-free zones, which sparked a boom in private investment.

Business boom

Some 300 companies have established their businesses in Kutch and many more are queuing up to follow suit. Mundra is a microcosm of the scale of development. It was a small fishing port in the middle of a salt marsh before the earthquake. Now it's an industrial hub, handling hundreds of tonnes of goods every day.

Once a tiny fishing outpost, Mundra's port is expected soon to be bigger than the one at Mumbai.

The Adani group which owns the port is now worth $ 7 billion. Now there are thousands of new jobs and Adani is taking over the work of aid agencies.

Jobs revolution

"Our own budget for social development in this region is $ 6 million a year, so you can imagine how we are trying to change the lives of people to live in better way," an Adani official said. Near Anjar, a city that was devastated by the earthquake, the biggest towel factory in the world was set up by Welspun in just nine months. Its vast mechanised looms weave 250,000 towels a day. The chairman of Welspun, Balkrishan Goenka, says good local governance was key in choosing Kutch. "There were no local taxes for the first five years and no excise duties. Nor were there indirect taxes to government - they were exempted for five years," he says.

"Those were the primary benefits. More than that there was huge support from the local government so industry can come faster." Since the earthquake, over 110,000 new jobs have been created in Kutch, and there are thought to be hundred of thousands more on the way.

With two years of good rainfall and with the 400-km (250-mile) water pipeline from the Narmada River, the population is now increasing as the job opportunities increase. The region is now a cornerstone of the Indian economy, a fact almost unthinkable 10 years ago.

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