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Earthquake (India)

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): On Friday 26 January, a major earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale occurred in western India. The epicentre was 50 km north-east of the town of Bhuj in Gujarat state. It affected an area as large as Wales and was felt in Pakistan, Nepal and southern India.

The latest estimates are that more than 20,000 people are presumed dead, thousands more are missing and some 50,000 are reported injured. Initial reports suggest that 500,000 have been left homeless. As serious aftershocks continue, hundreds of thousands of people are living outside their homes. Aftershocks 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 buildings in Bhuj are no longer habitable and many villages are completely flattened.

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 those needs. That 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 people comprising 25 UK fire service volunteers from Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Greater Manchester, Chester and Leicestershire and specialist non-governmental organisation personnel. The Ministry of Defence provided a plane at a cost to my Department--I thought that the House may want to know this--of £98,000. Officials from my Department led the team. They arrived in Bhuj at 8 am UK time on 28 January and started work within 15 minutes. At present, they are 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 Emergencies arrived in Bhachau on 28 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 co-ordination team, including one United Kingdom member, has also been dispatched, and will commence operations as soon

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as possible. Two disaster assessment experts from my Department have helped to organise the non- governmental organisations' relief co-ordination meeting, and have helped with aerial reconnaissance. The focus of the effort is now moving from search and rescue to the 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, and a further £1 million will be allocated today. As the House knows, what is important is not general pledges of money but disbursing the money now, and providing services on the ground in Gujarat now. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has today agreed to make available £9 million from the reserve, so that we can allocate a total of £10 million to support the emergency relief effort without reducing our spending in other parts of India. We will also work in Brussels and elsewhere to ensure that other development agencies make appropriate funding available.

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's emergency stockpile in Staffordshire. A fourth aircraft will 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 they can rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I thank the Secretary of State for coming to make the statement, and for letting me have a copy earlier.

Let me underline the deep shock and sadness of Conservative Members, and express our sympathy for all who have suffered in this major disaster. The tragedy is brought much closer to home for all of us by the certain knowledge that all over the United Kingdom there will be British citizens who have lost family and loved ones in India--perhaps even in Pakistan--and who are waiting desperately for news of missing relatives. I pay tribute to the Department's rapid response in releasing resources and supporting the dispatch of the British specialist search and rescue teams that are now doing such impressive work in Gujarat, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State's hard-working officials.

I emphasise that Conservative Members will support any reasonable steps taken by the Government to deal with either the short-term crisis or the longer-term need for restoration work. I know it is early days, but can the Secretary of State say anything at all about the part that Britain might play in the longer-term regeneration that will be necessary? Will the Department support the Indian Government's request to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for substantial help?

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The Secretary of State mentioned the need for shelter, blankets, clothes, food and water. Can she say a little about her assessment of the scale of those requirements--especially in the more remote areas, some of which have not yet received any help at all? Can she also say something about her Department's assessment of the risks of disease? What support can we give to help with medical supplies?

Does the Secretary of State agree that as we enjoy a very close and special relationship with this Commonwealth country, it is right and proper for Britain to be at the forefront of the humanitarian aid effort? I welcome the co-operation between her Department and the Ministry of Defence in making aircraft available.

Can the right hon. Lady say a little more about how the £3 million of aid that we have made available will be disbursed? May I repeat the concerns that I mentioned during discussion on El Salvador about the pumping of our aid through United Nations agencies? I suspect that the right hon. Lady has not done that this time, but does she agree that, more often than not, NGOs and charities based on the ground are the right vehicles for British taxpayers' funds?

Does the Secretary of State agree that although earthquakes are inevitable, death on this scale is not? Does she agree that much more needs to be done the world over in terms of earthquake preparedness? Given that India is by far the largest recipient of British aid, does she ensure that disaster management forms part of the on-going dialogue between our two countries? During her recent trip to India, did she have discussions with Indian Ministers about disaster management? If so, can she say a little about that?

I again thank the Secretary of State and her Department for their rapid response--which is made on behalf of all of us--to a very serious disaster.

Clare Short: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him very much that the British people can feel proud that we--with some of the fine officials in my Department--are among the fastest in the world in responding to this type of emergency. We can be proud, too, of the fact that British fire fighters and others working in search and rescue operations will drop everything at a moment's notice and fly around the world to try to help people in distress. I think that we are all proud to live in a country that can make such an effort.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman--we are very aware of this--that the families of very many British citizens originated in that part of India. As telephone and other systems have broken down, people here have been unable to receive news of their family in India and are deeply anxious. They are of course devastated and we feel very deeply for them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the part that we will play in the longer term. As we tend to move faster than others and can get on site very quickly, we will probably make a lot of the early, up-front provision. We can then ensure that organisations such as the European Community make resources available. It will be some months before the big reconstruction effort can begin. People have lost their houses and absolutely everything else, and they will have to be provided with health care and food before the reconstruction effort can start.

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It is the reconstruction effort that the IMF and the World Bank will have to help with. I met World Bank authorities recently when I was in India, and they are hoping and planning to increase their support and lending to India. We have also been talking about assisting the bank to be able to deploy more resources in India. I think that we can continue those conversations to ensure that Gujarat receives help for the reconstruction effort.

The hon. Gentleman is right that, in some villages, everything has been destroyed. An aerial reconnaissance has been conducted, but no help has yet been provided to people in some smaller communities which have lost everything. The relief effort has to spread very rapidly. We should remember, however, that very considerable territory--an area the size of Wales--has been devastated and that some of the villages are remote.

There is always a risk of disease after a major disruption, when water, sanitation and health systems are affected. That is why the big relief effort is now focused on ensuring that those who survive do not become ill and perhaps--after surviving the earthquake--die because of a lack of support.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that all United Nations agencies are inefficient. UNICEF, for example, is an extremely efficient agency that is particularly good at water supply, which is an issue in this case. We shall use whatever agencies are already present and able to operate in the locality. That is what we always do. It is no good giving grants to non-governmental organisations that are still in the United Kingdom and not in the country concerned. We have to see who is already in the country and provide to them.

The Red Cross was the fastest to the scene and we provided it with the first grant. Blankets are needed, as it is quite cold in that part of India and people are sleeping outside their houses. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall provide to those agencies that are efficient, already at the scene and can get material through to people. However, only the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs can do the co-ordinating job. It can get in there, assess the situation and make calls around the world to ensure that the effort is co-ordinated and resources are not unnecessarily duplicated.

I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman's final point--we are working on the matter throughout the world system--that earthquakes and other disasters are acts of nature or of God, and that perhaps there will be more of them because of greater global warming, atmospheric turbulence and increasing world population, which forces people on to more marginal land. However, people's chances of surviving a disaster depend on local disaster preparedness. Systems in countries around the world have to be strengthened so that people are always there, ready to move instantly. When people are under rubble, it is no good waiting for people and materials to be flown in from elsewhere in the world. We need to have local people who can move very rapidly to the rescue.

As I said, the Indian Government's efforts are very good and organised. However, it is a phenomenal disaster.

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