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Sunday, December 26, 2004

Memories of another tragedy

A terrible tragedy is unfolding across Asia, and it takes my mind back more than a decade, to a place I don’t much like to go. On September 30 1993, an earthquake hit Maharashtra, the state where I live in India, and killed more than 10,000 people. I was in my last year of college then, in Pune, far enough from the epicenter to hardly feel the tremors, but close enough to get there within a day if I so wanted. There was a reason to go – an organisation from my college took the initiative to collect a substantial amount in relief funds, but did not want to give it to any of the organisations calling for donations, as it was unsure the money would be used properly (rightly, as it turned out). It was decided that three or four guys would go themselves to the affected areas and figure out there how best to use the money. I was one of them.

We travelled with a team of doctors in a mobile hospital, a cross between a mini-bus and an ambulance. I won’t bore you with a chronicle of what happened there, but here are some interesting, and instructive, snippets.

Snippet one – At one point we were in a village where virtually no house was intact, and a quarter had been flattened. Only one ration-paani ki dukaan – provision store – was open, and the prices of all the commodities there had gone up by about a factor of five. There were no other provisions left in the village, and there were enough buyers. A friend and I asked the gentleman running it whether it wasn’t downright wrong to raise prices at such a time. “Kya kare, apna bhi khyaal rakhna padta hai,” he said (“I need to look after myself, you see”). As we were speaking to him, we saw a motorcade – three Ambassadors and a Jeep or a Gypsy – drive in from the distance. Many villagers went and gathered around it, and so did we, to see what was up. A minister stepped out of the car.

All the villagers started speaking at once, pointing out different kinds of problems, asking for help. He looked right through them, his eyes scanning the horizon. Then he strode purposefully towards a ruined building and his minions cleared the way. It was here that I realised that a couple of journalists were part of his entourage, and one photographer.

The minister, in spotless white starched kurta-pajama, went and stood besides the building, and asked one of his aides, “Yeh theek hai?” Is this ok? The aide said it was. He then instructed the photographer to take up position. The minister stood besides a suitably demolished structure, and an expression of empathy swept across his face. The photographer got into position. A boy entered the frame, and was shooed away. Click.

Then they all went away, as the villagers looked around, bewildered.

Had I seen this in a Bollywood film, where politicians are so often the villains, I would have thought, “there they go again, caricaturing those poor guys madly.” But this had just happened in front of me! The earthquake as an opportunity for profit, and public relations.

Snippet two – Not long after this, we were at a municipal office, where I bumped into the mayor of a rich industrial township on the outskirts of Pune. I happened to know him because his son was one of my classmates in college. So I went and started chatting with him. I assumed that he must be here for relief work, to do what he could, and I asked him how things were going, what he was doing. “We have adopted a village,” he boomed. “We have adopted a village and its people, and we shall rehabilitate them. We shall leave no stone unturned. It is our duty, you see.”

I was impressed. Civic duty and all that. The man had seemed to me, in the past, to be just another crude, amoral politician, and here he had adopted a village. “Wow,” I said, “that’s amazing. Are you going there soon? Can I come along?”

“No, I am heading back home now,” he announced, “but all arrangements have been made. We have adopted a village.”

He flounced around and left. A few minutes later I was told, by an official in the know, that the village he named was far from the epicenter, and nothing had happened there. Not a thing. It was all just a public relations gimmick.

Snippet three – The team of doctors I was with went to a local hospital, figuring it a good place to base themselves. They found that there were hardly any medicines there, even basic ones. In fact, the people at the hospital were convincing them to hand over the ones they had brought with them. Wisely, they refused, and went on the road.

Later, I got to know through officials that tons and tons of medicines were reaching the area, but were being diverted at supply centers and hospitals. A booming black market had developed in these medicines – they had come for free, so anything you could sell them for was profit. They would come into Latur (the district where much of the “action” was) and they would pan out from there across the country. Many of the hospitals just didn’t have any medicines, and the doctors I was with, who had come prepared with stocks of medicine, were far more useful than even they had imagined they would be.

In fact, it wasn’t just medicines that were being traded this way. Many countries donated all kinds of emergency material, from food supplies to blankets and so on. An enormous industry opened around all these relief materials. Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime minister through the second half of the 80s, had once estimated that 85% of the funds allocated for rural development never reached their intended recepient. On the basis of what I saw and heard, I’d say that he probably underestimated the amount of wastage.

The government was hopeless, but there was reason for hope. Armies of social workers and NGOs swept into action when the earthquake happened, doing whatever little they could to help without thought of benefit to themselves. (In fact, a similar pattern took place during the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, when private organisations, run by people with passion and commitment instead of tenured government servants, did the bulk of the relief work.) The minister in the first snippet above was, in fact, typical of his breed; the shopkeeper wasn’t.

Interestingly, most of the Indian media did not mention the malpractices going on regarding the relief work. Sunday, that excellent, and now-defunct, news magazine edited by Vir Sanghvi reported it honestly and well, but there was little about it elsewhere that I noticed. (The Gujarat earthquake received better coverage, though.) Were the other journalists simply inured to this kind of callousness and corruption? Were they happy to just file the easiest story they could find, the ones fed to them by official sources, and meet their deadlines? Being a journalist myself today, I remind myself of Latur whenever I find myself getting cynical – and that is, sadly, all too often.

And now we have been struck again, and watching the news, reading about what is happening, I feel numb. When something like 9/11 happens, you can feel anger, and go out there and do something about it. When something like 9/30 or 12/26 happens, what the hell can you do? Who do you blame, who do you fight? What can you feel but despair? Those who are in the position to help out do all they can – and thankfully there are many such men and women across this country. But they know, too, that we’re helpless when it comes to battling nature. We might be on top of the food chain, but we’re as vulnerable as the rest of animalkind.

Update – The returning sea: Pankaj Poddar writes in with a touching Japanese fairy tale about a Tsunami. And in case you wondered if my experiences during the Latur earthquake were something unusual, read Dilip D’Souza on his experiences in disaster-hit areas.

Also, here are some bloggers across Asia who have been posting on this crisis: Jeff Ooi. Peter Tan. Rajan Rishyakaran. Nitin Pai. Links via Instapundit.
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