Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Uttr'knd: From VVIP Visits To Tourist Influx Has No Plans

By Ashok Chakraborty (Guest Writer)

If only the country had a well-designed plan, a well-equipped, properly functioning disaster management machinery on its toes, with a clear delineation of the hierarchy of commands between the states and the central outfit, you wouldn’t have had a Narendra Modi descending on Uttarakhand.

Nor a Rahul Gandhi, breaking a ban on VIP chopper flights and landings, to see if the relief material in 137 trucks from Delhi had reached the victims. If he needed to that, as suggest by the Congress spokesperson, Renuka Chowdhary, it speaks poorly of her party which was ferrying the material in trucks, flagged off by no less than the mother-son duo, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, their indisputable leaders.

Home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, in a rare show of common sense had decreed that there shall be no VIP landings in a region hard-pressed for flat lands, lest such visits interfere with the work on the ground and distract the personnel from operations on the ground.
But Gandhi ignored it, dulling the edge of all criticism against Modi government’s “interference”. Rahul’s was no less an intrusion.

These two factors– VIP disaster tours and absence of a working disaster management plan – are the country’s bane. Despite the annoying frequency of natural and man-made disasters, from floods to terror attacks, there just seems to be no attempt at getting the act right. The Indian Army and the Air Force have had to bear the brunt, of course, efficiently, of the first flush of action. But this is not the key part of the plan the country has been waiting for.

The lack of planning is evident even in major cities which can’t ensure that rain waters only keep flowing into gutters as they should. The usual excuse is that ‘the plan’ needed some more fine-tuning when the reality is, there is no worthwhile plan which can mitigate a crisis. Look at any recent diaster and you find that ad hocism is the mainstay.

This time around, the first stirrings of the lack of a sustainable plan was evident when prime minister, Mamohan Singh had to ‘instruct’ that speedy steps be ensured to reach food supplies to the affected.  Then a week later, the Uttarakhand chief minister, Vijay Bahuguna said they already had all the supplies and the issue was how to make sure it reached affected people.

The tragedy is that the trigger for a swift response has to be an ‘instruction’. Such responses should be immediate. It needn’t come from the country’s top leader.

Come to think of it, Narendra Modi, for his part, has also mishandled the ‘great rescue’ act in Uttarakhand where he purportedly evacuated 15,000 victims from the disaster struck areas. And that is by not sharing the details of how he went about it instead of simply doling out some round figures of the number of aircraft including helicopters, multi premium vehicles, and luxury buses.

He could do that by presenting a list of people, with their names and the locations from where they were evacuated. If he had done that, the disaster management plan would benefit by it. In the absence of such specifics, he would only be accused making claims, and with overactive and hyperventilating spinmeisters on the opposite side of the political divide, he has been described as a ‘Rambo’, more as a mark of ridicule than respect.

In a television debate, Bharatiya Janata Party’s spokesperson Nirmala Seetharaman insisted that neither the Gujarat Government nor the Bharatiya Janata party, or for that matter, even Modi had made such a claim.

Perhaps, Narendra Modi could have sat down with Vijay Bahuguna, his Uttarakhand counterpart in Dehradun, and offered not only to rebuild the Kedarnath temple but also shared ideas on swift rescue. If the claim of saving 15,000 Gujarati’s was indeed not a public relations puff from his team – it has far too many details, and the news remains uncontroverted – he may have made a bigger contribution towards mitigating the crisis in the Himalayan state.

If Bahuguna is a good administrator, and a good politician with a constant eye on the citizen as a voter, he may well have heard him out and even implemented the ideas. He may even have bucked the Congress party inclination of treating Modi as a pariah and earned brownie points. Both Modi and Bahuguna missed a great opportunity for bipartisanism.

There is a possibility that Modi did not want to be treated like he was by Nitish Kumar who had refused a contribution of Rs 5 cr to aid the relief of the people hit by unprecedented floods in the Kosi River in 2010. To Bihar’s chief minister, that was money from a tainted leader though he could do business with Modi’s party.

Maybe Modi did not want a repeat of that disdain for his intended relief contribution in Uttarakhand and decided to use the opportunity to show himself as a person who acts quickly, acts efficiently, and can also micro-manage stupendous tasks. If a Uttarakhandi Bahuguna finds the situation to be a ‘Himalayan Tsunami’, the calamity would have been harder for a Modi from another state of plains to handle on his own.

In that case, the bid to avoid a snub led to a public relations disaster, of being mocked and called a Rambo. However, it is unkind to the man to call his bid, whether successful or otherwise, interference. If Pondicherry’s N Rangaswami could fly down with food packets, and Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot, Maharashtra’s Prithviraj Chavan could drop by after aerial inspections, and eat into the time of a harassed Bahuguna, why single out Modi?

Either the visits by the several chief ministers were courtesy visits to a disaster area or a plain case of disaster tourism, it would be appropriate to criticise the snail’s pace at which the national disaster management authority, led by VK Duggal woke up to the realities of dimensions of the tragedy. They bestirred themselves quite late, much after the Indian Army and Air Force had done most of the work, anyway.

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