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March 5, 2001
Wanted: A politically correct solution to natural calamities
What exactly is the connection between natural disasters and 'politically correct' solutions?
Show politicians a scheme and their first concern is: "How do I benefit from this?" Indeed, many meritorious schemes fall by the wayside because of their lack of 'marketing potential' to politicians. A 'politically correct' scheme may therefore be defined as one which benefits those wielding political power in addition to the real beneficiary.
India has been devastated by a number of natural disasters in the recent past -- the earthquake in Gujarat, floods in Andhra Pradesh, droughts in Orissa… it's a long list.
Is it possible that the whole family of natural disasters has been pushed aside because the benefits precluded they who always look for personal benefit?
Well, let us design a 'politically correct solution' to the phenomenon of recurring natural disasters in India.
The solution has to address the issue of relief delivery which has become as much of a disaster as the earthquake itself. Many reasons have been offered for the inefficient delivery of relief to the earthquake victims: A comparative study of relief teams in Latur (1993) and the recent Gujarat earthquake reveals an exclusive control by the chief secretary's office in the former as opposed to a division of responsibilities between the chief secretary and the director general of police in the latter. The result was confusion, providing ample opportunities to the babus for their favourite hobby -- pointing fingers at each other.
Another deficiency was the lack of involvement from the army in the earlier stages of the operation. Army-involvement is often the backbone in relief operations; its preclusion in the earlier stages is arguably the biggest blunder in the starcrossed relief operation.
Moreover, didn't anybody have an inkling of the looming disaster? A country which has made gigantic strides in technology should be able to develop prediction models which forecast calamities with some degree of certainty.
And horror of horrors! It turns out that there exists no mechanism in place to help victims of a natural catastrophe. Today's earthquake, tomorrow's cyclone and the next year's flash flood will have half-hearted relief efforts consisting of measures inefficient at best and impotent at worst under the present circumstances.
Based on the aforementioned findings, a generic model for providing relief may therefore be drawn up as:
Can the above model be sold to a politician? Of course no! After all what personal benefit accrues to the politician?
The above may be transformed into a 'politically correct' solution if the prospect of creating an exclusive ministry (called ministry for relief operations) be mooted, whose core duties consist of the steps listed above.
Now, the prospect of another ministry will sound like music to any politician's ears. A new ministry brings endless "benefits" with it: creating a new ministry results in another politicians realising his/her ultimate dream. The minister's favourite IASwallah can be made secretary -- just visualise the gleam in the IASwallah's eyes. The prospects for patronage are endless…
Living under the constant threat of being crushed by heavyweights (political or otherwise) like Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee, a coalition as fragile as the NDA would be amenable to the idea of a new ministry -- a fresh lease of life can be gained through dangling ministerships before troublesome politicians.
But then, politicians are adept at creating disasters, not resolving them. If relief distribution were left to the politician alone, we probably will end up with a dozen scandals and no relief for every calamity visited upon India.
How about appointing a respected academic (specialising in administration and technology pertinent to natural disasters) as 'advisor' to the ministry? The 'advisor,' who supervises the daily work of the department, may be provided direct access to the prime minister.
In addition to understanding the applications of science and technology better than politicians, academicians enjoy the advantage of performing their duties away from the glare of floodlights. Nor do they face the electoral guillotine every few years. These features allow for a steady and continuous thrust to resolve the issue of natural disasters.
This idea brings back to life the concept of appointing noted physicists Raja Ramanna and M G K Menon 'scientific advisors' by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 to spearhead India's thrust into the hi-tech age. India's flood of technological breakthroughs in the 1990s may be cautiously traced back to the groundwork laid by these gentlemen during their short tenures.
"Hmmmph! If the advisor is the de facto minister, would the minister sit by and do nothing?" You ask. Is there a mechanism for making sure that the minister will not turn out to be a pain in the advisor's neck?
Well, a new ministry with an ambitious mandate has to have access to enough funds to implement various schemes. Raising revenues through taxes isn't an efficient solution because of the poor viability of income tax structures in India. In addition, no politician would ever shoot himself in the foot though proposing income tax increases.
It is therefore necessary to conceive a different funding scheme utilising a hitherto untapped source of bountiful wealth -- the expatriate Indian community. The minister for relief-operations will be primarily responsible for fundraising from the prosperous expatriate Indian community, in addition to liaising with organisations such as the WHO and FAO in order to find much needed cash.
Such duties would go wonderfully with the known nature of ministers, who miss no opportunity to go on phoren jaunts. Fundraising may be frightening, but it sure is fun if combined with frolicking in Florida...
Just note that a Jayalalitha can be neatly removed from the scene of action by being sent half way across the world. The trick has always worked successfully -- in 1977 the Janata government sent the Socialist (cum-trouble maker) Asoka Mehta off to socialise in Mexico City as its ambassador. John F Kennedy held John Kenneth Galbraith at bay by packing him off to New Delhi primarily to prevent the former's interference in political matters.
With the gift that ministers possess for making money disappear, how can we be assured that the money raised abroad will result in relief operations as opposed to sitting in a numbered Swiss bank account?
Money raised through fundraising is different from public money; the fundraiser is automatically answerable to the donors while the latter is not accountable. Indeed, donors may even decide how the money is to be spent. A hundred watchdogs monitoring the situation should deter even the most brazen of Indian politicians from making money disappear.
Do we have a win-win-win then? Well, in theory, yes.
However flawed in practice, the scheme can only improve things since it offers a solution where none is available currently. Remember, something is better than nothing, the veracity of which stings whenever India faces a natural disaster.
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