February 2, 2001


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Saisuresh Sivaswamy

No, Mr Prime Minister

A calamity is not the time to point fingers or apportion blame, but time for the nation to unite as one and do everything possible to mitigate the agony and anguish of those affected. Comfortingly, the week since the Republic Day earthquake has shown that despite scrapping among ourselves being our second nature, Indians unite in times of tragedy. This, despite the fact that one national calamity strikes us a year on an average.

If it is the Orissa super cyclone one year, it is the Gujarat storm the next, and killer earthquake the year after. Through all this sorry tale, if there has been one constant it is that the government of the day -- of whatever and any persuasion -- is rotten to the core, incompetent to boot, and is very clearly part of the problem, not the solution that it is meant to be.

Gujarat's tragedy is doubly compounded. It is the the Bharatiya Janata Party in power in both Gandhinagar and New Delhi, and any faith that this was the natural party of governance should be interred along with those dead in the earthquake. That is, if the families of the latter don't object to it.

Is that a harsh commentary on the ruling party? Diehard supporters may think so, but a week later, when reasonable distance has been put between the tragedy and an assessment of how the government agencies coped, that seems like a rather charitable overview.

Weeks ago, the prime minister described the building of a temple at Ayodhya as "national sentiment." One is not sure how he arrived at the conclusion that one billion people desired this, but if his and his party's mass base are what it is reputed to be, he should be in no doubt that the true national sentiment -- among the entire population, barring, of course, the politicians who have brought the nation to its knees -- is one of outrage, dismay, and shock.

Deep emotions, aroused at the way a natural calamity has exposed the ineptness of our administrative machinery.

The grim irony in this is that the expose came about on the 51st anniversary of the nation opting to be a Republic, of us choosing to be masters of our destiny, by electing our leaders to serve us better.

That hope, it is now obvious than ever before, has been given the lie, by the very people in whom we reposed our trust. Over the last 51 years they have done nothing but bleed the nation, sap its life-force by their ineptitude, and fatten themselves on the common weal. Tragedy after tragedy provides them fresh opportunity to cream off wealth to their personal fiefdom.

The national sentiment as reflected in a cross-section of reportage from the quake-hit areas is telling. Not just's coverage, spearheaded by my amazing colleague, Sheela Bhatt, but other publications too report a none-too-rosy picture.

The Indian Express reports the case of Girishbhai Sangani, who returned his ex-gratia payment to the prime minister, unable to take the humiliation he was made to suffer by the official agencies. Talking about the 'humiliating screening and frisking' by the security agencies which made him a 'showpiece' and treated him as if he was 'a terrorist in the guise of an earthquake survivor', the Express quotes him as saying he will 'never hanker after financial help even if he may need it.'

All of this, mind you, happened in the prime minister's presence.

Why do VIPs visit calamity-hit zones, when they know that with their security and other detail they will only hinder the official machinery that is already struggling to cope with the dimensions of the tragedy? Simple, their minders will tell you, these are terrific photo-ops, to be seen commiserating with the victims in their hour of need. A politician who doesn't exploit the situation clearly has no desire to contest the next election.

The Express further tells us about the team from Unite Legere d'Intervention et de Secours from France which reached Vondh in Bachchau 24 hours after they left Ahmedabad, 36 hours after they reached the city, thanks to bad planning and non-existent coordination.

Mid-Day reported that despite substantial relief material pouring into Bhuj, its residents were without any medical assistance, food, water, clothing and shelter five days after the tragedy. So where do you think all the material has gone? Keep tabs on your local bazaar, there's no saying when what will turn up on sale where, just as it happened with Orissa's super cyclone.

The Asian Age mentions Gandhidham where the local elected rep and rescue teams were conspicuous by their absence four days after the quake. Satish Shetty, a resident, says, "We did not wait for the government teams to step in. Contractors and businessmen used their own dumpers to clear the debris and rescue those trapped." The real chilling words are from the Godhra MP, Bhupendrasinh Solanki, who blamed the 'poor channelisation' of rescue and relief operations for the steep number of victims.

The Hindustan Times correspondent found during a quick round of the affected areas in Ahmedabad that citizens were angry with the government for not having any relief, four days after the tragedy, and whatever aid was forthcoming was from non-governmental organisations like the RSS. If that was the condition in Ahmedabad, one can well imagine what the state must be like in the villages -- where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had once said India actually lived.

The prime minister stated while in the United States that he was the nation's swayamsevak, prathamsevak. If politicians actually exist to serve the population, perhaps it is time they were taken to the consumer courts for the singular deficiency in service they provide.

We have the money to have sophisticated arms and munitions to secure our borders, but the nation has not had the money so far to buy state-of-the-art equipment that will make a difference to the people at times such as these -- where we have Bangladesh offering us assistance. What next, food imports from Ethiopia for the Gujarat victims!? What use is our scientific pool, which we are told powers even American businesses, if it is of no use at times of need? Islands like Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore are not India. India is Killari, Erasma, Kandla, Bachchau, Anjaar -- all names that will vanish off our front-pages by Monday, to resurface the next time the tectonic plates grind together or when the skies turn angry.

The outrage among the public is while the prime minister and his finance minister will want the people to tighten their belts, get ready for sacrifices etc, there is no sign that such edicts extend to the political establishment. When elected reps contribute from their constituency development fund, they are not dipping into their own pockets for the Gujarat quake victims, which the rest of us will be doing. How many politicians declare their actual income on the basis of which their tax liability is calculated? Homilies, we have seen over the last 51 years, are meant for the electors, not the elected.

Maybe this prime minister, who it is believed has an avuncular image, that of a do-gooder, should cut the crap and get some things done. He could go by the real national sentiment and put systems and infrastructure in place where a natural calamity, or an artificial one, does not hobble the nation. The data has all been there, waiting to be acted upon, for the last 51 years. The seismic data, the weather data, all pointing out chinks in the nation's armour. Before he demits office, he could ensure that permanent defences are erected that will minimise the damage when calamity strikes -- these are the temples that the nation really *needs.*

His finance minister could tell the nation exactly how much relief has come in from all over for Gujarat, how much of it is in the form of loans that need to be repaid and how much humanitarian assistance, and also tell us exactly how it is being utilised, down to the last paisa, or leave us to form our own conclusions.

For months now the prime minister's spin doctors have been lecturing the nation on the need for natural-born Indians to govern the nation -- despite the mess they have made of the task over the last 51 years. Maybe, just maybe, this prime minister should show us the difference by deeds more than words?

The Complete Coverage | List of earthquake sites

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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