October 2015 | Cynthia Rodrigues

Helping humanity

Tata employees volunteer their skills and competencies to extend a much-needed helping hand to earthquake survivors in Nepal

One of the first international teams to reach Nepal in the aftermath of the massive earthquake that rocked the Himalayan country in April 2015, the Tata group's relief efforts were crucial in helping the survivors tide over the calamity. In all, 33 Tata employees from 10 companies volunteered their skills and competencies for more than 450 person-days. The Tata relief machinery provided 158 tonnes of relief material to 12,500 individuals. About 4,800 patients were treated in medical camps while trauma counseling was provided to 1,500 families.

Here is a look at the experience of four Tata volunteers who were deeply committed to the relief effort.

  • Deepak Sethi

    Tata Teleservices

  • Major HJ Gurung

    Tata Power

  • N Santhanu

    Tata Consultancy Services

  • Dr Rajni Bagai

    Tata Motors Hospital


Finding a true calling

Deepak Sethi

Deepak Sethi, from Tata Teleservices, who was among the 33 Tata employees deployed after the massive earthquake in Nepal, recounts his experiences during the relief and rescue operations in the Himalayan country

It's a well known adage that adversity brings out the best in man. Every individual has his moment of truth which helps him discover his inner strengths. Deepak Sethi, head — quality, compliance and excellence, mobility, Tata Teleservices, had his moment during the Nepal earthquake in April 2015.

Responsible for driving customer satisfaction measurement processes and leading change management, Deepak was fired with the desire to give back to society. He volunteered to be part of a select cadre of project managers who received intensive training in disaster management from the Tata Sustainability Group (TSG). "My self-nomination was followed up by a nomination by my organisation, and then by a round of interviews," says Deepak.

Deepak didn't have to wait long to put his newfound skills to use. When the earthquake hit Nepal in April 2015 leaving 9,000 dead, over 23,000 injured and causing widespread destruction, the Tata group was among the first to rush relief teams to the Himalayan state and Deepak was the first to be enlisted for the relief efforts in Nepal.

"I was thrilled to have been chosen, and it took me no more than 30 seconds to say yes," recalls Deepak. His determination to volunteer his time and skills is supported by his family. He says, "My family was an integral part of my decision to volunteer. They are completely supportive of my participation in the relief effort."

It is this enthusiasm that is the hallmark of the volunteers. Their willingness to serve total strangers in distress makes them true proponents of the Tata legacy of community service at all times.

The Tata group was among the first to rush relief teams to Nepal

Deepak served as part of the Nepal operations programme for 30 days, coordinating efforts from Delhi as part of the central coordination hub for the first 10 days This work was critical for the success of the relief operations. Deepak liaised with people across Tata companies, acting as the link between the various stakeholders, the teams procuring the relief material and the on-ground beneficiaries. His job also involved interacting with government bodies such as the National Disaster Relief Authority and the telecom ministry, to garner support towards mobilising essentials such as reverse osmosis plants, satellite phones and power supply equipment.

Once the resource mobilisation channels were streamlined, Deepak left for Nepal to take charge as the on-ground project manager based at Kathmandu. Empowered with the disaster management skills picked up from TSG, Deepak and the rest of the Tata team succeeded in extending much needed relief and care to the victims. "Aid was distributed to about 12500 affected people. We also organised medical camps with doctors and medical teams from various Tata companies," he adds.

The humongous scale of the tragedy fired Deepak to outperform himself, unmindful of the difficulties. "We were working in a dangerous area, and we used to experience at least one quake a day. But we were there for a cause and fear was not an option," he says.

The fluid situation came as a boon for Deepak who had to think on his feet and often rely on common sense to solve problems. He says, "The project manager's training had equipped us with the essential tools to handle certain situations, but we also had to improvise regularly. I also learned the hard way that one must always have a Plan B, especially when dealing with government agencies."

Deepak is grateful for the opportunity to make a difference and to help those who sorely needed aid at a very harrowing period in their lives.

The experience of serving in a disaster-struck region was one that Deepak will remember for a long time. He says, "The self-empowerment and the delegation that we received from TSG was a major enabler. I am also grateful for the opportunity to see first-hand not only the vastness of the Tata group but also the humility with which it regards itself."

Adversity, it is said, has the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant. Deepak says, "The Nepal stint made me realise that I was in my element in such a situation and probably have missed my calling."

Leading by example

When the earthquake ravaged Nepal, Indian Army veteran Major HJ Gurung cut short his vacation to join the Tata group's efforts to extend relief to the quake-hit populace

Major HJ Gurung is no stranger to danger. Currently working as the group head — Corporate Security at Tata Power, this brave army man has, over the course of a 26-year-long career, served in various locations during which he was called to display his courage in the face of fear and mortal peril.

These locations include such perilous regions as Jammu and Kashmir (along the Line of Control), the North East and along the international border with Pakistan in Punjab and Rajasthan during the Kargil War of 1999.

A second lieutenant in the Mechanised Infantry Regiment when he retired prematurely from the Indian Army, Major Gurung's life is inspired by the example of his courageous father, part of the Gorkha Regiment of the Indian Army, who fought in the Indo-Pakistan war in 1965 and died in Sialkot, Pakistan.

Maj Gurung's language skills proved very useful during the relief efforts. N Santhanu, who was also part of the Tata relief effort, looks on

Born and brought up in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, Major Gurung has his roots in the Dhading district in the west of Nepal. He was in Kathmandu, enjoying a well earned holiday and catching up with extended family members, when the first major quake struck. It was a powerful one, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale.

Major Gurung was at the home of a relative then. He had been coming down the stairs of the two-storeyed house when, he says, "I felt the whole house swinging like a pendulum. It threw me off balance. I could barely stop myself from falling."

With great difficulty, he managed to steady himself, before leading the household out of the house to the safety of an open area nearby. Those members of the household who were trapped inside managed to save themselves by crouching under tables and standing under door panels. "The houses around were still shaking," he says. Fortunately for his relatives, their house suffered no structural damage. But the furniture and the other items in the house were quite damaged.

On reaching the open area, Major Gurung felt an eerie silence in the air, with only the thud of houses collapsing breaking the silence, followed by a shower of dust. Two minutes later, he recounts, the tremors ceased as suddenly as they had begun.

But the nightmare was only beginning, as people began to grapple with a sense of fear and loss. Major Gurung reports, "People were clinging to each other for strength. Everyone was visibly shaken. I heard the commotion of people shouting on the streets. Mobile phones had stopped working. Soon we learned that Kathmandu's iconic heritage building, Dharhara, had collapsed, and that several people were trapped under the rubble."

The following day, the people witnessed the second biggest tremor, which caused half-cracked buildings to collapse, causing further loss of life and property.

Major Gurung mobilised his relatives to work towards gathering quilts, blankets and mattresses to enable family members to live in the open. Over the next few days, people continued to feel the tremors at regular intervals.

Cutting his holiday short, Major Gurung and his family returned to India. But the brave heart was determined to return and help the distressed, even though his family was concerned about him. Returning to Nepal, he offered his voluntary services, as part of the Tata relief effort, for more than 40 days. His local language skills proved to be very useful as he took on the mantle of head of distribution of relief material in the remote areas, working tirelessly with colleagues from group companies. It was a tough task, given the mountainous terrain and the continuous seismic activity, but the major fell back on his army experience and completed the work successfully, with the help of his competent team members.

He says, "I feel satisfied for having lived the Tata values and for having made the organisation proud by helping the distressed people of Nepal."

Help in a crisis

As part of the Tata group's disaster relief efforts in Nepal, Indian army veteran Captain N Santhanu played a pivotal role in extending relief in the quake-affected Himalayan country

When an earthquake struck Nepal earlier this year, it threw up some sterling qualities in people and the Tata group. It gave Captain Santhanu, senior manager, administration, Tata Consultancy Services, a chance to do what he had always wanted to — make a difference in other people's lives. Capt Santhanu volunteered to be part of the project management cadre of the Tata Sustainability Group (TSG). He says, "I am grateful for the opportunity to use the valuable leadership and management experience I had through my service in the Army to help people affected by the Nepal earthquake."

Capt Santhanu spent 34 days in Nepal. "My work involved leading the group response, coordinating with TSG and working closely with volunteers and other agencies and NGOs involved in relief activities," he says. "The TSG team guided and supported us, enabling us to provide relief material to the needy within the stipulated time frame."

N Santhanu looks on as Maj HJ Gurung helps survivors

The Tata group's response covered three themes — well-being, relief and shelter. While Capt Santhanu was in Nepal, the relief team set up medical camps in Kathmandu and in Makwanpur districts to tend to the injured and those vulnerable to disease. Four doctors, a pharmacist and a volunteer, all Tata employees, besides a doctor and volunteers from local NGOs treated 1,460 patients. The Tata group offered 1,500 families trauma counselling and psycho-social first aid. India flew in medicines and some were procured in Nepal.

The Tata group also conducted medical camps in Kathmandu, Makwanpur, Bhaktapur, Dhading, Dolakha, Kavre, Lalitpur, Nuwakot, Rasuwa and Sidhupalchowk districts. Eleven doctors, two nurses and four paramedics from Tata companies treated 4,800 patients. The relief distribution focused on the worst affected. The Tata group distributed water filters to 2,500 families and tarpaulins to 5,000 families. "We distributed relief kits, comprising tents, mats, blankets, raincoats, umbrellas, hygiene kits and solar lanterns, to 12,500 people," recalls Capt Santhanu.

At the time, infrastructure was virtually non-existent and communications had broken down. Besides, inclement weather and continuous aftershocks hampered aid distribution. "It was very difficult for us to get to the higher reaches of the affected districts," recalls Capt Santhanu. In trying to reach the worst affected communities, the team negotiated rough roads and the threats of landslides and tremors. Besides, trucks to transport material were scarce and they faced problems in locating places where the relief material could be safely stored.

Getting customs clearance and duty waivers for relief material procured and government approval for distribution was also cumbersome.

But the relief teams laboured on, spurred by the gratitude of the beneficiaries. "The people of the affected regions welcomed us, they praised the good quality of the material distributed and lauded the Tata group for its humanitarian response. The happiness on the faces of the beneficiaries on receiving the relief material brought us the greatest satisfaction," says Capt Santhanu.

Capt Santhanu was also grateful for the opportunity he had to interact with fellow-Tata volunteers. He says, "They were very dedicated and tried their best to uphold Tata values, wherever they were deployed."

The team's long, exhausting days ended in tents, exposed to the elements. Capt Santhanu's army experience helped. "How to make friends with discomfort is one of the things I learned in the Army," he says. "I look at adversity as a necessary part of life and work to focus on the positive, even in the most negative situations. All possible safety precautions were taken to ensure that the team remained safe and this enabled us to complete the mission without casualties or injuries. The Army also taught me how to forget fear and take pride in my accomplishments."

Those accomplishments included living up to TSG's faith, completing the aid distribution before the monsoons set in and the fact that every volunteer returned home safely.

Doctor to the rescue

Dismissing her family's concerns about her own safety, Dr Rajni Bagai extended medical care to the affected as part of the Tata group's relief efforts in quake-affected Nepal

As soon as Dr Rajni Bagai, gynaecologist with the Tata Motors Hospital in Jamshedpur and head of its Obgyn unit, learned that the Nepal relief effort needed an obstetrician and gynaecologist, she agreed to go. She was accompanied by a paediatrician, an orthopaedic surgeon and two nurses.

Dr Rajni Bagai, a gynaecologist with the Tata Motors Hospital in Jamshedpur, spent 10 days providing medical care to the survivors

Her decision to be a part of the relief effort was met with mixed reactions on the part of her family. While they were proud of the work that she was doing, they were naturally concerned about her well being and they kept themselves closely informed about her whereabouts throughout her stay in Nepal.

Dr Bagai spent 10 days in Kathmandu in all. Through the course of the time she spent there, she often found herself on the road, visiting various quake affected areas. She says, "We would conduct camps there, in association with our Nepal-based partners, and offer medical advice and basic treatment. We had come prepared for a variety of medical emergencies, but soon realised that our specific roles were more in the nature of preventive medicine."

The relief teams working in Nepal very quickly became aware of the intricacies of the situation facing the villages. A large percentage of the population had seen their homes destroyed. Confronted with the prospect of being homeless, they still had to tend to a standing crop in the field and the need to prepare to sow a rice crop following the corn harvest.

Given the situation, the team decided that building shelters at the expense of agriculture would lead to food shortages later. The plight of the people would also be aggravated through the tough Himalayan monsoon, autumn and winter, leading to an increased incidence of illness in vulnerable age groups.

Dr Rajni (in the centre with the bag) was accompanied by a paediatrician, an orthopaedic surgeon and two nurses

The medical teams went out of their way to provide medical assistance to alleviate the troubles of the people, while providing them iron supplements and tetanus immunisation for pregnant women. Additionally, the team, particularly the paediatricians, held sessions on subjects such as basic hygiene, nutritional supplementation, water sterilisation and how to care for newborn babies. They also advised the people on the warning signs to look out for, in situations in which pregnant women might require to be urgently hospitalised.

In villages where they found an accredited or a locally accepted health worker, the medical team shared tips regarding maternal and neonatal care, and the identification of problem signs that would require medical attention and assistance. Dr Bagai says, "Where possible, we left behind sterile birthing kits for pregnant women due to deliver soon. We also left behind some over-the-counter medicines with instructions on how to use them, to prevent villagers from walking miles to get medicines for minor problems. Our orthopaedic surgeon and physicians made quite a few trips clambering up and down hills to bring aid to people with problems such as spine injuries, since they could not reach the camp sites."

Frequent aftershocks had become a part of daily life for the people of Nepal and barring one night that they spent in the parking lot of the hotel, following a particularly severe tremor, Dr Bagai says, "I was much more nervous about the cheerful insouciance of our drivers on practically non-existent roads in areas where landslides often happened even as we watched."