Speed up relief efforts

Updated - November 16, 2021 03:59 pm IST

Published - December 07, 2015 01:51 am IST

Disasters bring out either the best or the very worst in people and organisations. Chennai, in the days immediately after the worst phase of the November-December floods, saw both in equal measure. Even as public-spirited individuals and voluntary organisations joined the administration in mounting rescue and relief operations to help the city recover from the shock of the flash floods, petty politicians and miscreants revealed a dark side of the city: where others saw threats to life and property, they saw opportunities for self-promotion and self-aggrandisement. Strangely, instead of helping the government in reaching relief material to the victims of the floods in good time, many of the lower-level functionaries of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam seemed more intent on gaining political mileage for the party and for their leader, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. >Images of Ms. Jayalalithaa were sought to be stuck on relief packages, leading to pile-up of relief materials and avoidable delays in their distribution; State transport corporation buses that were ordered to ply free of charge for four days greeted passengers with an image of the Chief Minister. Far from managing efficiently the humanitarian crisis building up, the administration’s efforts looked as if they were no more than a part of a public relations exercise in an election year. Of course, ruling party workers were not the only ones to blame. For every person attempting to convey essential information through the social media, there were at least two others spreading panic through misinformation and rumour-mongering. Criminals too took advantage of a city in crisis mode by cheating people and looting houses.

Worse, State government officials were often directionless in dealing with the crisis. There was little by way of coordination between the armed forces and the local bodies, resulting in deployment of personnel in areas where the flood situation was not serious, and in delay in reaching areas that required help the most. Some of the Army officers supervising the relief operations suspect that they were deliberately misled so that VIPs in posh localities could be rescued ahead of worse-affected commoners. Clearly, the administration was too centralised in its operations to be truly effective in a crisis situation. Power supply is yet to be restored in several parts of the city even after the flood waters receded as officials were waiting for instructions from political higher-ups. Ms. Jayalalithaa did an aerial survey of the city and periodically issued statements and made appeals to the Centre for help. But things were not moving on the ground, other than in terms of distribution of food. After having managed the earlier spells of rain remarkably well, the administration just folded up when the water channels overflowed after the full force of the rain was felt on December 1. As the crisis grew in proportion, the government machinery slowed down almost to the point of stillness. Somewhere along the way, the political leadership of the State must have decided it was easier to try to counter the negative publicity rather than manage the crisis. But without resolving the serious flood-related issues confronting the people of Chennai and the surrounding northern districts, there can be no public relations victory for the government.

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