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Sunday, February 18, 2001

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Ensuring transparency

Aid has been pouring into Gujarat and there have been promises of money to redevelop. But as stories of corruption and diversion of relief packages emerge, the need for accountability cannot be over emphasised, says MARI MARCEL THAKAEKARA.

I AM in Gujarat, Ahmedabad, at the control room of the Janpath Citizens Initiative (JCI). It is two weeks since the earthquake rocked the State. After a fortnight of frenetic activity, things are in control here. The walls of the room are covered with messages, telephone numbers and lists of supplies, coordination efforts, inventories, movement control. It is like the General's headquarters during a war. But you realise immediately that this is a well-thought out, well-planned initiative. The JCI is a collective of 200 Gujarati non governmental organisations which decided to work together to coordinate relief.

We drove from Gudalur to Ahmedabad in a 10-year-old Trax filled with blankets and woollen clothes donated by the people of Gudalur. Five days later, we were standing at the collection depot watching an awesome exercise. Over 100 village people were packing food supplies into sacks to distribute 45 kgs of rations - rice, atta, oil, salt, dals and masalas. Enough to feed a family of five for one month. For five days, they had worked nonstop, putting into bags supplies worth Rs. one crore. Martin Macwan, director of the Navsarjan Trust and a key organiser in the JCI, explained: "A family cannot go on receiving food like a beggar. Even after a funeral, after the 12th day, we light the fires. Life begins again, the mourning has to end. So we needed a plan to restart the cycle. Once this package reaches a family, they will begin cooking and be taken care of for one month. The immediate relief is over. We have distributed 25,000 food kits in five days. We have included one tarpaulin and five blankets per family. Once this is done, we can start thinking about long-term rehabilitation."

The JCI has ensured accountability and transparency by giving receipts for every donation received and keeping its accounts open to all. Everything received is meticulously recorded. When a truck arrives, it is met and accompanied by a volunteer who stays with the truck till the relief is distributed. After every 100 kms, the volunteer is required to telephone the control room and report his location and progress. When the relief reaches its destination, the truck is logged in as delivered. Even business groups have started donating through NGOs. Martin reported that an industrialist from Mumbai was furious that a plane load of goods sent by him was received at Bhuj but disappeared mysteriously without trace.

In Orissa, truckloads of relief were diverted by politicians and local dadas. When the army opened fire on the looters, members of the Legislative Assembly objected to the army presence, overriding the local authorities.

This brings us back to the pressing need for accountability including punishment of the guilty. In the United States and other countries, when a national disaster takes place, an emergency is declared and the federal government moves in overriding the State machinery. The same needs to be done in India to get away from corruption, petty politics and profiteering. The army has done a good job. Yet we do not learn from our past lessons.

In Gujarat the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has worked hard and earned kudos. Its cadres worked with commitment in Andhra in 1977 and in Orissa after the super cyclone.

Yet it cannot rid itself of its petty communal leadership. Martin described how, at a planning meeting in Ahmedabad, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad announced that the main need was for spiritual centres all over Gujarat. The RSS showed its Hindu bias demanding that victims recite Jai Sri Ram each time they received aid. And the Chief Minister's planners outlined a package of three types of relief, for the poor, the middle class and the rich. Martin asked: "Why, when Nature has been a great leveller, should we reintroduce and reemphasise differences in society? The poor, in any case, have less capacity to bounce back than the rich. So who needs more aid?" Silence greeted his unwelcome question.

Aid has been pouring into Gujarat. Most people want to help. NRIs have promised crores to redevelop Gujarat. The problem is - and this cannot be over emphasised - accountability. Not just making sure the money reaches the right people but also punishing the guilty. Not letting politicians or governments get away with murder, often almost literally. The aftermath of the earthquake is also good business. But the public capacity for tolerance has changed and there is anger and moral outrage as corruption stories continue to surface. An example is Advani being advised to stay away from the Bhuj public. Can this Government take a hint?

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