Floods, Rains and an Apathetic Administration  

- Arindam Sen

Has December come to mean devastation for Tamil Nadu? Last year it was the killer waves of tsunami, this year it is the latest blow of rains and floods that have been lashing the state for more than two months. In both cases, nature’s fury followed by administrative apathy made matters horrifying. Post-tsunami relief operations were delayed, inadequate and messy (not to speak of the rampant corruption); the current calamities have been accompanied by all these and, worse still, by pathetic stampede deaths.

Tragedy struck the residents of MGR Nagar in Chennai in the wee hours of 18 December. Starting from 3 a.m. , more than 4000 people had lined up outside a school doubling up as a relief centre. Around 4.30 a.m. there was a sudden rush towards the gate with some people noticing a movement near the school’s entrance. There were not enough policemen to control the surging crowds, and the stampede started. Most of those who were waiting were coolies, tailors and small time workers. As usual, among the 49 dead, more than half were women.

Why people gathered in the dead of night braving chilly rains is easy to see. With relief materials or coupons customarily in short supply, those who would come at the scheduled time ( 9 a.m. ) were destined to return empty-handed. Even if ‘rumours’ of short supply had a role to play, as alleged by the administration, adequate administrative arrangements, like alerting the masses over loudspeakers, could have neutralized that. But who cares?

The dereliction in duty appears all the more unpardonable when one recalls that only last month people died in a similar incident in north Chennai. Were the government sensible enough to take this as a warning, as a measure of the frustrating conditions people find themselves in, and taken corrective steps to streamline and revamp the relief machinery, the latest tragedy could have been averted. But the government is moving adamantly in the opposite direction. Even after the second — and more massive — stampede, it refuses to find out its own lapses and shows more interest in passing the blame on to others. This is clear from the terms of reference for the one-man enquiry committee hurriedly appointed by the Chief Minister. The committee was asked to see whether there were any deficiencies, and also to find out how “mischievous elements spread out the rumours that only few would be given the coupons as the flood relief materials were in deficit.”

This means the basic reason behind the stampede deaths is already known before the ‘enquiry’ is even launched; the only thing left to be done is to find out the conspirators who spread the rumours and provoked the stampede just to tarnish the image of Jaya Amma. The proclivity towards political vendetta Ms Jayalalithaa is infamous for here stands out in black relief.

Such criminal negligence regarding people’s — especially poor people’s — life and property is not, unfortunately, a unique quality of the Tamil Nadu administration. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, hundreds were killed this October in an easily avertable train accident that occurred because the tracks were washed away by a flash flood — a fact neither the railways nor the irrigation department took care to notice and act upon. Right now people in North India are dying in a cruel cold wave. The death toll has already crossed 30, waiting to take a quantum jump once the wave engulfs the poor of Bihar . In quake-hit Kashmir , relief and rehabilitation work is lagging miles behind what is needed. Thousands are suffering from disease, hunger and snowfall, many already in the throes of a slow, painful death. In the Indian far east, men, women and children of Karbi Anglong are languishing in deliberately under-supplied relief camps — under-supplied because the Congress government in Assam wants to push them back to their villages, where they are helplessly exposed to militant gunfire. And tens of thousands of “development refugees” in big cities and around anti-people projects like the Sardar Sarovar dam live in sub-human conditions year in and year out, barely noticed and never cared for.

Nowhere and never has the capitalist state been sensitive to people’s needs and aspirations. In the neo-liberal era marked by a model of development of the elite by the elite for the elite, it has come to regard the security and welfare of ordinary citizens as a bad burden and this anti-poor bias comes out most nakedly into the open during crises and calamities. From tsunami-ravaged South Asia and hurricane-hit Florida to quake-hit Kashmir and now flooded Tamil Nadu, people across the globe have witnessed this again and again over the past year and there is no reason to believe they are not taking their lessons.