Govt apathy toward disaster victims



Kuldip Nayar

Published — Wednesday 10 July 2013

Last update 10 July 2013 3:23 am

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Not long ago, a disaster in any part of the country would elicit national response. People would go door-to-door to collect money, clothes, utensils, medicines and many other things of daily use to transmit through agencies which were voluntarily engaged in relief and rehabilitation work.
The attitude has changed in the last few years. People are, no doubt, concerned and sympathetic. But there is no countrywide effort to organize help. The atmosphere is no more animated with the zeal which I recall used to be there. Take the example of Uttarakhand. The devastation has been on a massive scale. More than 5,000 people have reportedly died and the material loss runs into billions of rupees. Yet the reaction has been tepid. Efforts are visible on individual scale. But the nation as such is not concerned. Particularly, the states in the south and the east have shown less involvement.
The governments, both in the hilly state of Uttarakhand and at the Center, were too late to respond and had no clue what to do. Even after 10 days of the disaster, 20,000 people were stranded at different places. What dominated the discussion was not the scale of assistance but whether it was man-made or the nature’s fury. Of course, it was man-made. The reasons are obvious. The trees to accommodate the ever growing bureaucracy were cut. The desilting of river is out of any government’s agenda. The National Disaster Management Board was tried for the first time and found wanting. Political parties have done nothing concrete except politicizing the tragedy.
The official appeal to contribute to the Prime Minister’s Relief fund has been issued as a matter of routine. Surprisingly, no foreign country has offered help to evacuate the stranded people, much less any material assistance. Pakistan has missed a golden opportunity to befriend the common Indian. Islamabad should have sent trucks of food and medicines to the Wagha border. New Delhi would have lost face if it had stopped the aid. If one were to analyze the tragedy, one would come to the conclusion that the nation has lost sensitivity. Different states have over the years become islands by themselves and there is hardly any tragedy which transcends the border. When it came to rescuing the victims, states like West Bengal and Gujarat preferred to evacuate the inhabitants of their own area.
The absence of national feeling may well be the reason that every state is putting up dams in catchment areas. They think that the consequential loss is to other states not to them. And so many dams have come up that they are counterproductive. Of course, the money spent has enough leeway for corruption at political and official levels. The land and timber mafias have played havoc at the expense of the nation. The countrywide coordination is possible at the level of environment ministry. It can also ensure that ecology is not disturbed. But the ministry is so much under pressure from different lobbies and state governments that it has become only a signing authority.
The area around Uttarakhand is so fragile that the central government did not want to disturb the ecology. But both political parties, the Congress and the BJP, joined hands to have the proposal scuttled. And the behavior of the people in Uttarakhand itself was inhuman. There are instances to show how shopkeepers charged exorbitant prices for things of daily use. A biscuit packet was sold for Rs. 200. A loaf of bread was priced at Rs 100. There are instances of looting and even molesting of women. One woman required medical help. But her gold chain was pulled from her neck and she was left bleeding. Even Hindu sadhus made most of the situation, robbing money and ornaments from the deceased.
The only bright side is the work done by the army and the air force. They evacuated thousands of people stuck at different places. The survivors in fact narrated the difference between the government which did not do anything and the army and air force which rescued them and gave food and shelter. One air force helicopter, engaged in rescue operation, crashed because of bad weather. Twenty lives were lost. India is a heartless state. Over the years, it has deteriorated in values. There is not a semblance of idealism left to talk about social justice or to lift the lower half to the level where it can lead a viable living. Poverty, unemployment and malnutrition, signs of a decaying society, are increasing day by day. We are, almost back to the Hindu growth rate of 4 percent. A dollar fetches Rs. 60. In fact, the rupee is in shambles.
Today’s spectacle of poor growth and the dismal future is because political parties have catered to their fiefdoms without keeping before them the picture of India on the whole or the growth of every sector or every area. Unfortunately, the parties have not realized that their politics may feather their nests but would not take the country forward. Both the Congress and the BJP, the two main parties are most to blame. They have seen to it that they do not compromise even though a bit of cooperation would have done wonders. Parliament has been more or less standstill. No business has been transacted session after session, creating a new record of inactivity. The parties admit this and some leading members have no hesitation in saying so in private. Yet they do not cross the line even word-wise in the house lest it should harm them.
India does not have much leeway. The speed with which we are going down the hill indicates a ruin of great magnitude. There is every reason why the two main parties should come together to take the country further. They should at least have a joint action on the rehabilitation of victims. But that would require a stand above party line. In today’s approach to occupy the kursi, it is difficult to imagine that any political party would place the national interest first. Even several disasters like the one at Uttarakhand cannot change the thinking of political parties. It is tragic, but true.

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