Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sharp Contrast in Response to Disasters

THE contrast could not have been sharper. Thousands of lives were saved due to timely intervention, accurate forecasting and rare administrative efficiency in the devastation caused by the cyclone Phailin. This cyclone was of a greater intensity and hence had a greater potential for destruction than the one that struck Odisha in 1999, which left behind nearly 10,000 people dead.  On this occasion, the death toll due to the impact of the cyclone was 21, and rose to 25 with four people being killed in the post-cyclone floods.

In sharp contrast to the natural disaster of the cyclone was the manmade disaster that left at least 115 people dead in a stampede at Ratangarh temple in Datia, Madhya Pradesh. The rumours that the bridge on the Sind river leading to the temple had broken, when there were over 25,000 people crossing the bridge leading to the temple, led to panic and resulted in the gruesome stampede.  This was an entirely avoidable situation.

The former shows how the state apparatus and the administration can deliver and the latter shows how they can be rendered ineffective and helpless and often criminally corrupted.

Sardar Patel had once described the Indian administrative structures as the ‘steel frame’ that not only kept the country united and functioning but also delivered. Of late, it has been legitimately felt by many that this ‘steel frame’ has become corroded --- and so much corroded that it has been rendered hollow. However, the manner in which the central and the state governments of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh worked, the coordination between the central agencies and the state administrative apparatus in handling the potential devastation that could have been caused by the cyclone shows that this ‘steel frame’ has not been rendered completely hollow yet.

The Indian metrological department, technologically updated during the course of the last few years, fairly accurately predicted the movement and location of the cyclone. This helped to undertake the colossal effort of evacuating over a million people from the danger zone, thus saving thousands of precious human lives. The efforts of the central agencies like the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), its state level counterparts and the National Disaster Rapid Action Force (NDRAF), working in close coordination with the state administration, have ensured the success of such a massive human exercise. This experience shows that for the ‘steel frame’ to deliver, what is required is a benign political leadership that takes the important policy decisions in time and gives the necessary directions for the administrative apparatus to deliver.

In contrast, a malignant political direction and confused policy decisions not only pave the way for inaction but also create a situation that permits the system to degenerate and corrode with the rampant spread of corruption. This was in stark evidence in the Madhya Pradesh temple stampede. Confused political directions and policy decisions emerge not only from ineptitude alone. They are the natural outcome of a policy of deliberate doublespeak. The BJP state government in Madhya Pradesh, while pursuing the basic objective of communal polarisation to further their agenda of creating an RSS version of a ‘Hindu Rashtra,’ goes around projecting itself ostensibly as a government for ‘good governance’ and ‘development.’ Under the current BJP chief minister, Madhya Pradesh was seen as giving a good competition to Gujarat under the government led by the current PM aspirant. As this temple stampede testifies, there has been no good governance. As the statistical data put forward by various agencies, including the recent index of ‘backwardness’ of states prepared by a Committee under the chairmanship of the RBI governor, shows, the record of development of both Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh falls in the last quartile of the all-India ranking of states.

Being the great votary of neo-liberal economic reforms and its god – the market – the BJP is seeking to reduce politics as an act of salesmanship. First entice people through an advertisement blitz, then do the packaging with seductive wrappings and thus attract votes. The promised product, however, is never delivered. In the name of delivering ‘good governance’ and ‘development,’ the BJP continues all along the plotting for advancing their ideological project of the RSS variety of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ by sharpening the communal polarisation.

If the allegations in regard to the Ratangarh temple stampede are true, then this is a shameful record of how inhuman and corrupt the administrative apparatus in Madhya Pradesh has been rendered under the BJP. It is alleged that the rumours that the bridge was collapsing were spread to permit some tractors to illegally cross the bridge upon payment of graft to the police personnel. There are allegations that the police, in the name of clearing a path for their movement, caused the death of many people by forcing them to jump off the bridge into the river. There are allegations that the police personnel were searching the dead bodies for valuables to loot. It is, indeed, a shame that despite a previous history of such stampedes in religious places in Madhya Pradesh, no lessons have been learnt and no administrative measures have been put in place to prevent such tragedies. This is the natural corollary of pursuing the objective of advancing the communal agenda.

Lakhs of pilgrims visit this temple on the occasion of Dussehra, every year. Despite this, no arrangements for regulating the flow of pilgrims was undertaken. Such is the callousness of the administration that even elementary steps such as the installation of a public address system to control and warn the gathering was not installed. The result is the death of 115 odd people, officially declared, while unofficially various agencies have put the toll at a much higher figure. This is, indeed, a shame. It is clear that the pursuit of the communal agenda indeed reduces the ‘steel frame’ to a hollow one.

While the potential damage that the cyclone could have caused as it hit Odisha was minimised, its aftermath continues to ravage the state. Nearby states like Bihar and Bengal, apart from Andhra Pradesh, are also in the grip of severe floods caused by heavy rains in the aftermath of the cyclone. It is estimated that nearly two crores of people have been affected. The Odisha government has stated that 14,514 villages in 12 districts have been affected and a total of 2.34 lakh pucca houses have been destroyed or severely damaged. Thousands of hectares of agricultural land have been submerged. Relief efforts on a war footing are underway with the NDRAF and the Army, along with the help of helicopters, are working overtime to reach food and drinking water to lakhs of the marooned people.

The whole country needs to extend its support and materially assist in the efforts to overcome this massive human challenge to protect the life and livelihood of the affected people.

Editorial, People's Democracy 20-10-2013

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