BHUJ, India (AP) As their oversized pickup sped along a one-lane highway in western India yesterday, V.P. Patel and a dozen friends and neighbors stood in the back, tossing out plastic bags of water and cooking oil. Barefoot children raced behind them, retrieving the bags from the roadside dust.

Paul Wong
Indian soldier S.K. Biswas makes a loop to be hooked to a bulldozer as the building called 15th of August is brought down in Ahmedabad yesterday.<br><br>AP PHOTO

India faces the mounting challenge of distributing aid that has piled up since the Jan. 26 quake, which killed thousands of people and left more than half a million homeless in this parched desert corner of India”s Gujarat state.

But relief workers say that while well-meaning amateurs like Patel may be responding faster than disaster experts, their methods run the risk of putting too much aid in some hands while the neediest go without.

“It”s not enough just to hand someone a tarp” to build a makeshift shelter, said William S. Berger, head of a U.S. relief team in India. “You have to make sure 20 other people haven”t handed them a tarp, that they need the tarp, and that someone out in a village isn”t doing without while everyone living along the side of the road gets help.”

Aid has flowed into Gujarat state in response to the quake, but the magnitude of the devastation is still being measured. Death toll estimates range from 11,844 to 16,435, and state authorities say the total killed could eventually hit 35,000.

The number of confirmed dead was expected to surge today, when demolition crews clear away the ruins of larger apartment blocks and uncover the bodies of more victims. The injured numbered 66,758, Gujarat state officials said.

Authorities have cleared bodies from all but three of 400 villages in the region most affected by the quake, and nearly all of the remaining bodies were still buried in three larger towns: Bhuj, Anjar and Bhachau. The recovery of bodies was expected to end in two or three days.

The next challenge will be disease. There are more than 600,000 homeless who lack food, clothing or sanitation, and respiratory infections are spreading.

Relief workers are rushing to keep pace. On Saturday, U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes brought tents, blankets, water tankers and forklifts. A British Airways plane landed in Bombay with 36 tons of aid donated by Hindu temples in Britain.

A large amount of international aid is being distributed, along with more food, clothing and tents handed out by Indian organizations and individuals. But efforts have been criticized for lacking coordination and enough manpower, equipment and transportation. Aid officials said yesterday the major push was only just beginning.

Patel, a school teacher, collected money and supplies in his hometown of Modersa, in an eastern area of Gujarat spared by the quake. He arrived with his truckload of aid and friends yesterday and began his own distribution, attaching a red-on-yellow sign to the back of the blue truck declaring in Gujarati: “Earthquake relief, collected from villages.”

“I am helping the poor and the homeless,” Patel said.

Yesterday U.S. relief chief Berger, who”s with the U.S. Agency for International Development, met with representatives from CARE and Catholic Relief Services to determine how to get the aid to the needy. They expected distribution of aid that arrived on Saturday to begin in a day or two.

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