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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Nearest settlement to the Epicentre of 2001 earthquake: Chobari still bears scars of devastation

The devastating quake of January 26, 2001, which measured 7.7 on the Richter scale, killed 13,805 people and left 1.67 lakh injured.

Written by Avinash Nair | Kutch |
January 26, 2021 1:31:03 am
Manji Meriya (centre) digs the foundation of his old house that had collapsed in the 2001earthquake. (Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

Manji Meriya (50) and his family members are digging the site where their home got buried 20 years ago in the earthquake in Chobari village of Bhachau taluka, the nearest human settlement to the epicentre, determined to be nine kms from here. The devastating quake of January 26, 2001, which measured 7.7 on the Richter scale, killed 13,805 people and left 1.67 lakh injured.

As Meriya strikes the foundations with a mattock, the soil clears revealing old stones in the debris. “We were five brothers living together in this house. We were basking in the sun that cold morning when the earth shook violently and reduced the entire house into a heap of rubble, burying alive my brother’s eight-year-old daughter who was inside,” Meriya says as he digs out the buried sandstones.

“I am trying to rebuild the house. Perhaps I am the last one to do so in this village. All the houses that you see around were rebuilt after the earthquake that flattened every standing structure in the village, except the Ram temple,” says Meriya.

Around 3,200 houses in the village were rebuilt during the massive rehabilitation exercise carried out after the earthquake where 88 per cent of those killed were from Kutch district. Meriya’s family moved out to the east side of the village after they bought a new plot of land. “We five brothers still live together,” he says.

Till 2001, Chobari was a close-knit village of Bhachau taluka with 3,200 houses of Kutchi, Sindhi and Gujarati speaking families. It is 120 km from Dholavira, the Indus Valley Civilisation site, which is the last accessible point near the Indo-Pak border. The main source of livelihood is farming where the main crops are cumin and isagbol.

A seismological device inside the post office; Children play in the narrow lanes. (Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

The village lost 648 of its people. Chobari, one of the 890 affected villages in Kutch, was flattened. For few months after the earthquake, villagers in Chobari said they lived in tents provided by Indian and foreign relief providers. Reconstruction and rehabilitation began after the Gujarat government distributed cash doles worth Rs 73 crore to 9.11 lakh families across the state. This was in addition to the death and injury compensation of Rs 121 crore and Rs 17 crore respectively.

Chobari, which was once a unit connected by narrow lanes with the Ram temple as its pivotal structure, is today scattered across seven different areas.

“Before the earthquake, the village was restricted within an area of one square kilometre. Today it is spread over 4 kilometres and has seven settlements, including Kabir Nagar, Madina Nagar, Ekta Nagar, Ghanshyam Nagar, Krishna Nagar, Chamunda Nagar and Navi Chobari. People migrated to their farms because there was so much debris that rebuilding houses on a immediate basis was not possible. However, all these new settlements are ruled by one panchayat,” said Velji Dhila, sarpanch of Chobari.

According to Dhila, the earthquake put the little known Chobari village “in the world map”. “Massive reconstruction efforts to rebuild 3,200 houses destroyed at the epicentre was carried out. Government gave aid ranging between Rs 60,000 and 90,000,” said Velji who was 21 years old back then.

The rising cost of land boosted by the piped drinking water connection in the village after the earthquake were incentives for Meriya to reconstruct at the same location. Just 50 metres away from Meriya’s old house is the old bus stand and the street that housed a bustling main market of Chobari.

Mohanlal Gosai relaxes outside his shop, the oldest kiosk in the village. (Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

Now the street is covered with a thick vegetation of babool (prosopis juliflora) grown on the remains of the shops that once stood here. Both the market and the bus stand have moved to the main road that connects Chobari with Bhachau town.

Mohanlal Gosai, who has a kiosk selling daily essentials, says his shop was on the outskirts before 2001. “Today the rebuilt village has grown all around and now my shop is in the centre. We never thought we will recover (from the quake impact). Today we have round-the-clock electricity, Narmada canal, piped drinking water, five primary schools, and now people own a lot of four-wheelers,” says Gosai, 68. The village had electricity before the earthquake, but there were frequent power cuts.

Gosai says, “Members of Jains, Khatri and Thakkar communities who owned shops in this village and were largely involved in trading, have all moved out of the village to larger cities like Mumbai.”

The new Chobari village of over 1,800 houses with a population of 8,000-10,000 still does not have a police station. One of the streets from the Ram temple that was at the centre of the village before the quake, leads to a double-storey building that used to be the police station. Now it is covered with tall babool trees. It is one of the few concrete structures in the village that reminds visitors of the intensity of the quake.

“The police station was newly built when the earthquake happened. It has not been reconstructed and the village with over 10,000 population remains without a functioning police station. Over the years, the doors and windows of the police station got stolen too,” says Bharat Ahir, who owns the farm adjoining the police station where he grows cumin.

Assistant sub-inspector Harjiba Gadhavi from Bhachau police station who is in charge of Chobari, says, “I have to travel all the way from Bhachau town (25 kilometres) whenever there is an issue,” says Gadhavi who rides a Maruti 800 car.

The ripple effects of the quake centred at Chobari were felt in 16 districts, as far as Navsari (17 deaths) in South Gujarat and Porbandar (10 deaths) in west. With schools open that day to celebrate Republic Day, 971 children died and 1,051 others were injured.

Once densely populated, the old centre of the village near the Ram temple is largely empty. “The survivors have bitter memories of losing their loved ones and have chosen to rebuild their houses near their farms further away from the village. They, however, built small shrines at spots where their homes were…. you can see a lot of hut-like structures with saffron flags over them. The family members light lamps here everyday,” says Ramji Meriya, who runs an outdoor camp for tourists visiting the region that had Dholavira and Flamingo City in the vicinity.

Sulaiman Majuti, a survivor and clerk who handles official records at the village, at the new panchayat office where a plaque lists the reconstruction details of the building. (Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

The broken summit of a Jain temple is covered in a thick layer of soil and vegetation, while only the foundation of the panchayat building near the Ram temple is visible.

Sulaiman Majuti, 55, who is a clerk in the village panchayat and got saved as he was in the compound, says, “It (the panchayat) was an old building that fell down killing a number of children and adults who had gathered for flag hoisting to celebrate Republic Day… About 45 bodies were found under the collapsed panchayat building.” He sits behind a stack of files in the reconstructed building, 50 metres from the old one, musing how his earlier workplace had “more facilities” while the current one is “basic”. The room he occupies has a plaque containing the reconstruction details of the building.

Close to the panchayat, seismographs have been installed inside a “skill development centre” by the Gandhinagar-based Institute of Seismology Research (ISR) to study seismic activity in the region since 2005.

Officiating director general of ISR, Dr Sumer Chopra, says, “Due to the 2001 earthquake in Kutch, all the faults have become active in the area. The maximum activity being recorded is 4-5 on the Richter Scale. We record 300-400 earthquakes every year, in the Kutch region alone.”

The Kutch mainland fault, South Vagad fault, North Vagad fault, Allah Bund fault are among the major faults that are active in Kutch today. ISR has set up 80 seismographs in Kutch region to study and monitor the seismic activity. They are linked through the satellite and give real-time data. In Vamka village, around 20 km from here, ISR has set up a multi-parametric geophysical observatory which monitors seismic activity.

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