January 27, 2001


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Krishna Prasad

It's a repeat of the same, old story

Now that yesterday morning's earthquake is last night's news, a familiar drama will be played out over the next few days.

The Gujarat government -- like all bankrupt state governments struck by natural calamities -- will make an exaggerated claim of death and destruction to extract just that little bit more from the Centre to pay a few more months' salaries.

The Opposition in the state -- "cutting across party barriers" -- will rally around the government and demand that the quake be called a national calamity, as if that alone will ease the burden on the heads trapped under the mountains of rubble.

Arundhati Roy -- and other Arun Shouries of the Left -- will say we told you so, and call for a renewed discussion on Narmada.

VVIPs from Delhi will descend like vultures and prey on the tragedy for a spot of reflected publicity, while their civic and other pet poodles ditch the rescue efforts and accompany their political masters.

Union ministers will come and offer vacuous condolences to the bereaved. One of them will even announce the formation of a "task force" -- we no longer appoint committees, only task forces -- to see how such tragedies can be avoided in future.

Television babes who have never stepped out of the municipal limits of India International Centre in Lodhi Estate will take great delight in screwing the happiness out of some hapless municipal worker in Mehsana.

The Prime Minister's Relief Fund will be reopened. Newspapers and magazines will invite donations in cash and kind. Some filmi-types will gather for a concert to raise funds. Soon, the "breaking news" will become a ticker, and Gujarat's calamity will be consigned to the dustbin of calamities that is 15 per cent India, 85 per cent Bharat.

Haven't we been there, done this all before?

Admittedly, there was no way even L K Advani could have guessed that the ISI and Lashkar e Tayiba would have decided to attack the Indian Republic on its 52nd anniversary by messing around with the Richter Scale in such a dastardly manner.

Admittedly, there was no way even L K Advani could have stopped the tectonic plates from doing their little tandav nrutya even if "intelligence reports" had suggested well in advance that the earth was going to open up and swallow up thousands like a glutton.

But there is a palpable sense of replay in all our national -- calamities. And that is the extraordinary lack of infrastructure among our civic authorities to tackle crises of this size and magnitude, and the complete lack of preparedness of their staff to handle such emergencies. And, worse, the extraordinary absence of any effort to rectify the picture.

As Republic Day tableaux go, nothing can come close to beating the one Gujarat put up yesterday, a tableau showcasing the true plight of 'We the People.'

Sure, we are all immensely wise after the incident. But we have to face the truth: as a nation we are repeatedly being shown up to be a bunch of big-talkers, for whom the word "people" means little if they are not prefixed by "very important."

Be it the earthquake in Latur seven years ago, or the supercyclone in Orissa two years ago, or the drought in Rajasthan early last year, or the cyclones and floods in Andhra Pradesh in the middle of last year or the starvation deaths in Orissa late last year, there is a common strand running through.

And it is one of neglect of and nonchalance towards the most valuable commodity known to humankind: Life.

By their very definition, natural calamities are not something we can predict or put a full stop to. But what have we done in the 52 years of our glorious Republic to put a system in place which protects not merely our VVIPs but the common man and woman too?

Cyclones are an annual occurrence in coastal Andhra Pradesh. Just how many villages and towns and cities have cyclone shelters that will house those who need them?

Drought has become an annual occurrence in Rajasthan. Just how many villages have evolved water mechanisms that will last them through the lean period?

We have had a fair share of earthquakes in the past decade. Just how many villages and towns and cities have been identified to be in the seismic zone and put on alert?

And so on and so forth.

Floods, fires, famines, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes, diseases, riots, you-name-it... we have been proved to be such doddering fools that crisis management should clearly be an oxymoron in the books of our political masters and administrators.

And so it is with the latest quake. There is not much joy in crying over spilt milk, but pictures of relatives waiting for hours for the rubble to be cleared so that they can retrieve the bodies of their near and dear ones shows what a mess our infrastructure is.

That is not half as arcane as it sounds. Do our cities have enough fire tenders commensurate with their populations? Are they adequately staffed? Are they on alert all the time? Do they do regular rehearsals?

Can our cities round up enough bulldozers and cranes at a pinch if a building collapses because of a quake or other reasons? Do our cities have enough ambulances and hospital beds in case there is a large-scale tragedy like a riot?

Are there enough volunteers who can be pressed into service to help? Do our building inspectors examine buildings for cracks on a regular basis? Are the lifts working in big buildings? Are the emergency exits in usuable condition?

No, is the simple but true answer.

Yesterday we saw it in Gujarat. Late last year we saw it in Orissa, the middle of last year we saw it in Andhra Pradesh, early last year we saw it in Rajasthan. Seven years ago we saw in Surat and Latur.

Whether it is Bhuj or Bongaigaon, the bottomline is simple, was always simple. Nuclear bombs cannot halt earthquakes, missiles cannot stop supercyclones, battle tanks cannot halt droughts.

But what is it that we as a people, they as a government, have been doing with all our money, all these 52 years, that when a natural calamity strikes in peace-time, about the only thing that can save us is a super-natural phenomenon?

Krishna Prasad

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