For the people of the state of Gujarat and, in particular, the Kutch region, life changed dramatically at 4.30pm on January 26, ironically a day of celebration and commemoration – India's Republic day. A massive earthquake – 8.1 on the Richter scale, far higher than previously thought – inflicted major damage in a line running north-west from the city of Mumbai to the Pakistan border. During the following 12 hours there were at least seven aftershocks of up to 6.5 on the Richter scale. Between January 26 and February 1 a further 147 separate tremors were felt throughout the region. This is the same strength earthquake that virtually destroyed Mexico City in 1985.

Loss adjusters Ashworth Mairs Group dispatched a team to assess the overall damage. A report from the team leader, Paul Greenaway, was one of the first to come out of the troubled subcontinent. Reporting from Ahmadabad he says: “The epicentre of this earthquake has almost totally destroyed the city of Bhuj, which one local official described as having been ‘pancaked'. The city, which was last hit in 1956, has become a mass grave with an estimated 40% of its population killed. Every family has lost somebody; some people have lost their entire family.

“The regional city of Ahmadabad is also badly affected – 80% of the survivors have fled the area to live with friends, relatives, anyone. The other 20% remain so fearful of further widespread building collapse that they are now either sleeping in the open on makeshift beds or are sheltering wherever they can. Literally hundreds of tent cities have sprung up on every piece of open ground throughout the city. A sense of uncomprehending disbelief and shock prevails everywhere. People sit around not knowing what to do.”

Need to blame someone

Psychiatric damage in the form of post stress syndrome affects nearly all survivors, who are forced to ask themselves: “Why am I alive when so many are dead?” International crisis counsellors will have an extremely heavy workload in the weeks and months to come. While, intellectually, all accept that earthquakes can not be prevented, the emotional need to blame someone has resulted in a growing groundswell of criticism towards the Indian government at every level – particularly bearing in mind that the region is well known as being at risk from earthquakes.

Greenaway says: “The city of Ahmadabad was originally coastal and now stands on the dried sediment banks of the Sabarmati river. The sand content of the soil is exceptionally high and therefore particularly susceptible to erosion in times of heavy rain – and more than 20in of rain fell in the days preceding the earthquake.

“The state of Gujarat is criss-crossed by the Cambay rift, the Kutch rift and the Aravalli-Delhi ridge, which makes Gujarat one of the highest-risk states for earthquakes in the entire sub-continent. In the city of Ahmadabad, fault lines predominantly run in an east/west direction and, indeed, it is rapidly apparent that most of the damage follows such an east/west course; buildings lying in a north/south orientation are mostly unaffected.”

Gujarat is, arguably, the most prosperous state in India, accounting for some 15% of all national exports, predominantly handicrafts, carpets and textiles. None of these businesses will be returning to any kind of operation, let alone normality, within the foreseeable future.

Greenaway adds: “Environmental changes are also likely to be unstoppable. The river Indus appears to have changed its course and the water table has risen significantly, so many areas have hot mud oozing onto the surface.”

Hardly any of the domestic buildings are thought to have insurance cover of any kind. Commercial buildings are covered, mostly by the government-owned local insurance sector with heavy commitments by international reinsurers.

Rescue teams and aid workers from Russia, Hungary, Germany, Japan and Britain have had their best efforts thwarted by difficulties in gaining access, a lack of a co-ordinated damage management programme and a general inability to prioritise the rescue and aid programme.

For the people of Gujarat, the priority remains simply surviving each day.