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The Rediff Special/Aditi Phadnis
January 19, 2005
The tsunami has conclusively proved that the management of a natural disaster is up to the state government.
How quickly relief reaches the wounded, how swiftly rehabilitation plans are put in place so that people can go about their normal lives, and how effectively relief is administered is the job of the state government.
And when you consider the efforts of Tamil Nadu, the worst hit by the tsunami, it is hard not to acknowledge the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government's authoritative handling of the disaster.
Images: Picking up the threads
The tsunami left some injured, but in most cases, the injuries were not life-threatening. The pressure on hospitals therefore, was less.
The dangers of cholera and other diseases caused by rotting bodies under debris were not as severe in tsunami hit areas as they had been in earthquake-stricken Gujarat. The tsunami caused hardly any damage to infrastructure and brick and mortar structures.
But even granting the difference between the two natural calamities, the response of the two state governments -- one led by Keshubhai Patel and the other by J Jayalalithaa -- has been dramatically different. After the earthquake, it took two days to restore power supply to Bhuj.
Because the Tamil Nadu state administration has been working on disaster-management for more than seven years, its response time was much shorter than Gujarat's, which was busy begging, borrowing and stealing earthmoving equipment from various agencies to dig people out from under the debris.
Tamil Nadu has, at any given time, mobile cranes and ambulances as part of a highway patrol project which were moved to the affected areas immediately. Jayalalithaa's sources of feedback were largely the bureaucracy and the television. But unlike Narendra Modi, she left rehabilitation to the district-level bureaucracy and where she found it was ineffective, she sacked/reshuffled officers immediately.
Images: Despair, anguish and hope
In 2001, when she came to power, she faced two major challenges -- a strike by the government employees followed by another by transport employees. Nine hundred government servants were sacked as the chief minister used every weapon in her arsenal to break the strike.
She even appointed replacements to the ones she had sacked when the striking employees refused to return to work. Later, after she'd dropped the cases against those she had sacked and reinstated them, she had to figure out what to do with the `replacements'.
But overall, she created a situation where not a single voice in the general public spoke in favour of the government employees -- despite, possibly because -- the ordinary citizen was put to grave inconvenience. A strike by the 35,000 Public Distribution System employees met the same fate.
Transport employees went on strike, demanding a Deepavali bonus and ex gratia. Nothing doing, said Jayalalithaa, there is no money. The strike went on for a month.
Like government employees, those in the transport department were arrested and the most oppressive methods used to end the strike. At the end, the workers took nothing home with them but their jobs.
From then till the Lok Sabha elections, Jayalalitha took a number of imaginative steps to run Tamil Nadu though they met with varied success.
The Tamil Nadu government took over the sale of Indian Made Foreign Liquor, earlier in the grips of a powerful liquor mafia. The sacrifice of small animals in temples was officially banned.
The sale of gutka was banned all over the state, and for a short time it was even effective because the police had orders to search and seize.
All government buildings were to mandatorily install rainwater harvesting systems. And after film director Mani Ratnam's brother G Venkatesan committed suicide because he had fallen in the clutches of a money-lender, pawnshops and private money-lending was banned by the AIADMK government.
But all this was in the pre-Lok Sabha elections phase when the party still had a handful of MPs in the Lok Sabha. After the party's resounding defeat in the parliamentary polls, most decisions taken by her since she came to power in the state were overturned by one stroke of the pen.
Tamil Nadu was the first state in India to propose a law banning conversions. This was withdrawn. Animal sacrifice continues in Tamil Nadu temples and instructions have been given to the police to look the other way.
Gutka sells openly. In undoing what she had set out to do, Jayalalithaa conceded that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had stolen a march on her and tacitly admitted that maybe her policies were at fault.
Then she messed herself up conclusively. In 2003, she ordered the arrest of the editor of The Hindu and almost all the opposition leaders. This turned out to be a big mistake.
It negatived all the other intelligent administrative decisions she took. When faced with the combined strength of all the supposedly marginal Tamil parties that rallied round the DMK, she found herself powerless against the DMK-led alliance in the Lok Sabha elections.
Was the forging of an alliance by the DMK the reason for Jayalalithaa's defeat in the Lok Sabha elections? Or were her policies responsible for the AIADMK setback? Certainly, of all the states in India, safeguarding liberty is a big issue in Tamil Nadu. So an attack on democracy -- newspapers, leaders of opposition parties -- was a turning point.
But equally, the DMK's ability to create an alliance of parties that control vote banks (like the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Marulmarachi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) has broken away sizeable chunks of votes from the ADMK.
These parties have vote banks but no growth. In that sense the DMK alliance replicates a perfect Kerala-like political equilibrium in Tamil Nadu.
The success of handling the tsunami will become irrelevant by 2006 when elections are due in Tamil Nadu. What will remain will be Jayalalithaa's capacity -- or the lack of it -- to break away partners from the DMK coalition and bring them to her own.
For that, she will have to think in coalition terms. Without that, administration or not, the AIADMK is likely to meet the same fate it encountered in the Lok Sabha elections.
So what works? Good administration or the ability to run a coalition of small caste-based groups? If between now and 2006, the DMK alliance breaks up, the AIADMK has a chance of returning in Tamil Nadu.
Otherwise, Jayalalithaa's voters will remember the ruthlessness of her tenure, not the good it did them.
Photograph: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty
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