between the lines
Not long ago, a disaster in any part of the country would elicit a 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 that 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 organise help. The atmosphere is no more animated with the zeal that I recall used to be there.
Take the example of Uttarakhand. There has been massive devastation. More than 5,000 people have reportedly died and the material loss runs into hundreds of crores of rupees. Yet, the reaction has been tepid. Efforts are visible on an individual scale. But the nation as such is not concerned. Particularly, the states in the south and the east have shown less involvement.
Governments, both in the hilly state of Uttarakhand and at the Centre, were too late to respond and had no clue about 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 the disaster was man-made or caused by nature&’s fury. Of course, it was man-made. The reasons are obvious.
Trees were cut to accommodate the ever-growing bureaucracy. The de-silting of rivers 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 politicising 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 Wagah border. New Delhi would have lost face if it had stopped the aid.
If one were to analyse 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 why every state is constructing 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.
Countrywide coordination is possible at the level of environment ministry. It can also ensure that the 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 behaviour of the people in Uttarakhand itself was inhuman. There are instances of shopkeepers charging 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 off her neck and she was left bleeding. Even sadhus and sants 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 life.
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 per cent. 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 realised that their politics may feather their nests but would not take the country forward.
The Congress and the BJP, the two main parties are to blame the most. 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 at a 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 plan 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 any political party placing national interest first. Even several disasters like the one in Uttarakhand cannot change the thinking of political parties. It is tragic, but true.
The writer is a veteran
journalist and commentator