Latur (Maharashtra), Jan 23: Life has this uncanny habit of springing surprises when you are least expecting them. And nature never quite goes along with us. She is sombre at weddings, sunny at funerals and she frowns on ninety-nine out of a hundred picnics. So they say.
Sample this: Circa 1993 -- It was the small hours of September 30 and all revelry and jubilations surrounding the ten-day-long Ganesha festival were coming to end, people were immersed in devotion and religion, all were dancing to the beats of drums -- oblivious of an unmitigated disaster that was waiting to strike them within minutes inflicting a tragedy that altered the course of destiny of tens of thousands of people as life was never the same after a trail of destruction left by the 6.3 killer temblor, which killed more than 8,000 people and left 16,000 injured in 52 villages of Latur, Osmanabad and eleven other districts of Maharashtra, besides causing substantial damage in Karnataka also. The number says it all. An estimated 16,000 livestock also perished in the tremors.
It was nature at its madness best, so to speak.
And after the storm, the lull.
An eerie quiet had enveloped a warren of streets in the region.
As far as ironies go, it could not have got starker than this. The dichotomy was more than unmistakable. The ruination had played the perfect foil for the Ganesha Mahotsava.
Latur by then had finally woken up to a catastrophe. A catastrophe which surpassed any wild imagination.
Mr Jagdish Patil, then Additional District Collector, Latur, who was the first administrative official to reach Killari village, the focal point of the quake, while talking to UNI, said,'' I received the first information at 0415 hrs, soon after we were almost through with the Ganesha immersion festivities. My first reaction was that of shock. Though I was almost 50 km away from the focal point of the quake, I also felt the tremors and that very moment I had realised that something terrible had happened.
'' When I reached the site of the quake, there was nothing else except destruction, demolition, rubble, clouds of dust and the bodies of the dead. Then only did I realise that the enormity of the tragedy and understood it was something more major than I had expected.
''Tens of thousands of onlookers had gathered at the scene and nobody knew what had struck them. But I must say one thing had the onlookers instead of watching the scene with their mouths agape had started removing the wreckage, I think it would have taken only three days to clear the entire ruins,'' he lamented.
By the afternoon, the entire Maharashtra administration had battened down the hatches, then Chief Minister Sharad Pawar reached the spot and the rescue and relief operation was in full swing, he informed.
And so started the battle, which promised to restore to Killari and scores of other villages what they had lost. It was going to be a journey of toil and dedication.
Several NGOs joined forces and volunteers were roped in to undo what the quake, which is described as nature's wicked idea of joke, had inflicted on those ill-fated villages.
NGOs like Apala Ghar, Halo Foundation and SOS villages, in collaboration with the Maharashtra government, in an exemplary show of solidarity did a commendable job as they took it upon themselves to restore what they thought was possible. Batches of volunteers belonging to different organisations flocked to the scene and got engaged in tasks like pulling out bodies, clearing the roads, erecting rehabilitating centres and distributing eatables. They also urged the authorities to construct sheds for schools on a priority basis.
Apala Ghar, an organisation working towards secular nationalism and democratic socialism, was started on December 24, 1993 to coincide with the birth anniversary of Sane Guruji (Pandurang Sadashiv Sane), famous Marathi author and social activist. More than 250 children were admitted to the temporary residence that was housed in the Recreation Hall of Naldurga Nagar Parishad.
Mr Pannalal Surana, superviser of Apala Ghar, told UNI that it was a tragedy of gigantic proportion and more than anything grit, willpower and determination were needed to restore any semblence of normality, which then had seemed like a herculean task.
''But we did whatever we could in our capacity. Those who had ....lost their kin in the quake and those who got injured had a major scar on their psyches, and we knew it would take years and years together to alleviate their agony and woes,'' he recalled.
Apala Ghar also provided education and shelter for the hundreds of orphans from the Latur area and ever since the project is still continuing.
''Due to paucity of funds, we cannot educate these children after the tenth standard. Every year 20 to 30 students leave the orphanage after completing their SSC. The seats are then filled by admitting orphans or half orphans after a proper screening of the applications, '' Mr Surana added.
He said those who passed out of their school still come once in a while and contribute in whatever way they could.
The NGOs also played matchmakers when the children in their orphanages grew up and only this Sunday Rukmini Deshmukh, rendered orphaned by the killer quake, and Yadav Waghmare, who lost his parents in an accident, tied the knot in a ceremony organised by Apala Ghar.
Another NGO, Halo Foundation, run by a couple, Shashikant and Subhangi Adhikari, trained its focus on the health of those women who were affected in the killer quake. It trained its members to raise awareness among women about health issues -- like pregnancy, delivery and keeping the surroundings neat and clean.
''Though we initially faced some hiccups, we knew we had to do it as the war had only just begun. We were determined to defeat the destruction the quake had inflicted. And what started as a fight against the tremors finally turned into a crusade,'' she averred.
Another NGO, SOS village, taking a cue from others, also chipped in and pooled in their resources to provide succour to the affected in whatever way they could. SOS village brought some children to their premises for shelter and education and also provided clothes, food, water and others to those rendered homeless and orphaned by the giant temblor in Latur.
As far as the state government is concerned, it was, no doubt, caught unawares at the time of the tragedy, but it made a resolve to do whatever it could and once again make Latur one of the best cities.
Talking to UNI, Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said: '' It has been long since the tragedy struck. But no effort has been spared to restore whatever the affected villages lost. It is our dream to once again see Latur prospering and thriving. A majority of the work has been done, and whatever little remains will be done on a war footing and the day is not far when Latur will be considered among the top ten cities of the country.'' Today, Latur has made quantum leaps in terms of development and both bullock-carts and Mercedes ply on the roads of the district at the same time. The people there have resolved not to look back on the tragedy and instead move ahead.
It has been more than 14 years since the tragedy struck. At present, many of the villages have got back whatever they had lost, except for their near and dear ones, and it is business as usual there.
But the memories and ghosts of the Killari tragedy still haunt the people. These are the memories which refuse to die and scars on psyches remain embedded.
They say the past is intrinsically linked to the present. No matter how far one has moved on in life. However hard the affected people try to fend off those pleasant memories, they refuse to budge, they dig their heels in and keep reminding them that once occurred a killer quake there, making a mockery of the lives and the man-made infrastructure and shoving down in their sub-conscious the supremacy of Mother Nature above all other things.