Written by Art Lindfield, Project Manager of New Horizon in Pune, India, who also acted in the capacity of IDR India Coordinator
I received a phone call from the States on the 21st of July, filling us in on the latest developments with Family Care Foundation's worldwide relief effort, the Immediate Disaster Relief (IDR). George Fastuca, a retired CFO, undertook the Immediate Disaster Relief program in cooperation with Family Care Foundation in 2001.
Over 36,000 kilos (80,000 punds) of humanitarian aid was scheduled to arrive in Bombay via UPS cargo planes, and I was to meet an IDR representative at the airport. The humanitarian aid was destined for the flood victims in Orissa, a 40-hour train ride away, on the opposite coast, where severe flooding had recently displaced 8 million people!
So we dropped everything and went to the airport. This was the maiden voyage for the IDR so it was very important for everyone concerned, including the donors of the more than 30 tons of goods, which included water, blankets, food, clothing, tents and tarpaulins medical and hospital supplies.
Partnering in this venture, UPS had agreed to ship everything for free from the US but only as space became available, so a lot of supplies were held up in Louisville Kentucky. It took 6 days total for all this material to get to Bombay, which worked out well as we needed time to work out the customs formalities.
The Orissa floods haven't yet been declared a national emergency by the Indian Government so exemptions from customs duty and charges were not in place to bring in relief aid for Orissa. We decided Jeff would go to Delhi and work there with the Ministry of Finance and the Customs, and the Department of Civil Aviation, the airport authority of India who together controls everything that comes through customs from abroad.
After working for a week with the Customs of India, and then the Airport Authority of India, thousands of dollars of charges were wavered, a total miracle. (Some items, like flashlights, for example, carry 45% duty and we brought in 2,000 flashlights.) Our import agent pledged to pay taxes on items like flashlights out of his own pocket as a donation to the Orissa work.
Meanwhile I was working in Bombay on transportation, coordinating efforts with Jeff up in Delhi, and working with the UPS office with a very helpful manager Sunil, who said, his part of the donation to Orissa was all the phone calls we made to the USA and to Delhi and other places. He donated that from his own pocket. I spent 8 days in the UPS office in Bombay working on NGO permits and other paperwork.
A friend of a friend, who runs a trust called the Devalibend Mohanlal Metha Charity, also undertook to help us. When George Fastuca, the IDR director arrived from the US, we decided that we couldn't wait for all the shipments to arrive and so decided to go to Orissa with what we had by Tuesday morning.
On Monday, we worked all day and all night nonstop and got everything together, paperwork, permits, materials, pallets, trucks and labor that we had been preparing for the whole week. That was just an amazing miracle: In the morning we had nothing in our hands but by 11 o'clock at night we had permission to bring everything out of the airport!
You may not be able to visualize how much 40 tons is; it's a lot of stuff! We loaded the 12 trucks through the night until 5:00 in the morning and at 6 a.m. we headed off to the main train terminal in central Bombay. These trucks were 10 feet deep with goods and by 6 o'clock in the morning; George was leading the convoy to the station. We had received permits from the railway authorities to transport the goods because the Orissa government had notified us that the railways would ship relief supplies for free.
We got to the train station and they were only going to give us one container about 12 feet by 8 by 8, about the size of one of our twelve trucks! Additionally, we had to convince the railway authorities to put two extra passenger cars on to the train, which brought the train over the legal limit. Only twenty train cars are allowed total and they put up twenty-two cars on the train! And the last two cars had more than thirty tons on it, which was way overweight. Another miracle!
Some highlights from this loading adventure at the train station:
Before we could get the trucks to the train, we had to remodel the roof over the station! Because there was a roof hanging over from the generating station, we had to climb up on the roof and remove the roof tiles and the trucks just got through under there by a fraction of an inch but we got the truck right up to the train and thus saved a lot of time when unloading and loading.
Amongst the foodstuff, we had two large cardboard boxes full of grains & cereals that weighed 550 pounds each and there were just huge boxes like 4 by 4 full of loose grain and we were tromping down the platform full of people. Imagine there is a train full of people in the boarding process. The engine is off the end of the platform of the other end so it was over 1,300 feet long train. It felt like half a mile long and as we were pushing it down the platform this huge box burst in half and there was puffed rice cereal all over the platform in big heaps!! Little kids came from everywhere grabbing it, dogs came and we were trying to get it back into the boxes it was a really scene and we were already past time.
We got to the station with the trucks at 7:00am and we were still loading when 3 o'clock came which was when the train was supposed to pull out! Thankfully, the train was 15 minutes late leaving which just happened to be enough time to finish up!
Additionally, we had to book 7 seats on the train for the people that were traveling with the aid, and the station master got seven seats together right out of the blue! This is no small feat in India, without reservations. Anyway the train pulled out at 3:15 and everything was on board. So there we were, dirty, and sweating in the heat, tired after being up all night, and mighty glad to be relaxing on this train!
So then we had a relaxing time, caught up on our sleep and relaxed till the next big push. Bubhaneshwar is a 40-hour trip by train and is over 1,000 miles from the west to the east of India, via Hyderabad and all the way south and then it cuts north. Incidentally it goes through beautiful countryside, it just looks like southern California.
We got to Bhubaneshwar and we found that our receipts from the railway were made out to the Orissa government and we could not legally unload the train because to ship it for free it has to be given to the Orissa government on the receipts. However, Jonathan with foresight had added his name to the receipts as the one who did it so they accepted him as their agent for the Orissa government.
We had one hour to unload before the train had to go to the shunting yard to get washed to turn around for the afternoon trip. We just got it finished and they pulled the train out and we then loaded up trucks right there at the siding. By this time it had starting raining and we were getting soaked!
We had 5 trucks loading at the same time, two were medical, one was food, one was water, and one was tents, blankets and everything else. In total we loaded 11 trucks. We hired some locals to help us load and they worked hard non-stop for five or six hours.
Once loaded, we headed the trucks to Bhubaneshwar and we took off for a place called Cuttack, which was about 35 kilometers north in Orissa where we stayed at the YMCA for the night.
Everyone was up at 5:30 am the next morning and at 6 o'clock we rented a jeep so we could get around with our luggage because we had all our valuable bags with us. Then we all climbed into the trucks. The drivers and what they call the cleaners, the assistants and everyone was complaining because they were tired, they hadn't worked so hard for a long time. We were just a team of seven with all these trucks and drivers.
More FCF volunteers arrived from Bangalore and caught up with us on the road. We drove 135 kilometers north out into the boonies where the floods were the worst to a place called Jajpur. We were on the first team and we divided into three teams. We had 4 trucks full of medical stuff and 3 trucks of tents, food and water and so we were 7 trucks on our team and the other team had the rest.
We divided up the trucks and decided what we were going to do and where we were going to go. We had decided to take the medical supplies last of all because there was no distribution needed, we were just going to go to medical centers that we had been suggested to us from the Orissa Disaster Management Director, Mr. Behra as being very needy.
My job was to get the paperwork completed by the Orissa government, the collectors, so there was a legal stamp on it of an official to say that we distributed to the needy free of cost and without any respect of caste or religion so that the trust can get their paper work in with the tax collectors. Otherwise they would have to pay the import duty on all the materials.
So we were climbing slowly up this hill, all five trucks. I was in the second truck. Suddenly the third truck blew a tire and it was so loud and the pressure was so great I could feel the shock wave in the second truck, it was like a bomb going off! I thought it was our truck but it was the truck behind.
As soon as the tire blew, all these villagers came running up and they saw the sign "Relief Aid for Orissa". Now the Orissans are not renowned for their good manners, in fact they are pretty wild! Many live in grass huts and they wear a loin clothe. So George made the call, "Ok, let's distribute right here, this is it."
We backed up some trucks side by side. We just happened to be right by a village and so we took the first tarp off and we were just covered with hordes of people! There must have been 3 or 4 hundred people who came to jump on the trucks and started fighting each other for stuff; it was pretty frightening to tell you the truth. It is a relief aid syndrome, they say. I recalled this during my earthquake relief experience in Gujarat too.
After unloading, we continued on with the trucks of medical supplies. Every time the trucks slowed down people converged, so we decided to unload a third truck in one of the villages and that attracted them all. While that truck was being unloaded and supplies given out, my job was to get the other trucks through the next two villages to a safe haven on the main road about 20 kilometers down the road.
It was now dusk by this time, and getting dark, so I pulled off all the labels from the trucks, which read "relief aid", and we tied up the tarps and roped them up again. Everyone reconvened and we all piled into the two medical trucks to go to two different medical facilities. We drove on a dike for 40 kilometers to a place called Kindrapura where we arrived at about 8:00 at night and here was the area's medical center.
After some further hassle and red tape, we decided to first clean up the storage facility ourselves, which was so completely messed up with boxes, you couldn't even get into the door. So we unloaded the trucks, cleaned up their medical storage facilities and unloaded one truck completely. Finally we got a line of people to help unload.
All these boxes had been loaded and unloaded 11 times since it was first loaded in Texas, and then went through the monsoon so gallons of water spilled and broke all over the place and some of the boxes were damaged. We unloaded these big boxes which are worth 10s of 1000s of dollars of all brand new drip stuff, catheters, injections, needles, equipment washing bowls, wash up liquid and all sorts of stuff. Band-aids, towels, pads for beds and all sorts of items virtually non-existent in this facility.
These hospitals by the way look lot different that what those coming from the West are used to: people laying in the corridors, on the stairs and the beds, 4 inches between each patient, everyone jammed in. Most people had no sheets, no blankets.
Anyway by the time we unloaded the second truck and had gone back around to the hospital, the administrator had gone home. We finally found someone who knew where the administrator lived and she was able to sign the forms and then we had to get the collector, the local customs guy to do his part.
It was now 10:15 pm. We have been going since 5 o'clock in the morning. By midnight all the paperwork was signed. We were so happy!
Next the trip back! We made our way back to the trucks, and the driver of my assigned truck was so tired he was falling asleep. We were on a dike and he was going from side to side! I kept him awake and made him stop for a cup of tea. Plus there was so much play in the steering wheel and to keep it straight you had to go from side to side. At times the truck was practically going off the edge. It was scary.
So anyway we got the other relief driver, who been sleeping for about 2 hours by now, and he got up and drove like a wild thing, down the dikes going about 50, past all the sleeping policemen. We got back about 2:00 in the morning and hadn't eaten all day.
When we got back we heard that one of the other 2 teams had a similar experience as us.
They got two trucks unloaded and they had two more left to unload when the police came, and made the villagers back off. They unloaded with 100 police there to keep the villagers at bay and they organized everything properly.
We put in a request that all the untouchables would be the first one to get their portion of the supplies. These dear untouchables have nothing, they live with the rats. So they had 100 families of untouchables come and they all wrote their names down, and they were less pushy, they were very humble and broken and they were very thankful. The police let them in one at a time and they got what they needed from the big pile of supplies and then went.
On the train home, after personally delivering 40 tons of supplies to the neediest of the needy, we pretty much slept almost all day. Phew!!
A couple of days later we went to the airport and tied up the loose ends of the whole business and reiterated our thanks to the valiant crew at the UPS office. And so ends another chapter of our India Odyssey.