Disaster Politics

Watching the television and reading newspapers over the last one week give me an impression that the terrible natural disaster in Uttarakhand is fast becoming a “political disaster”. In fact, it is only our armed forces who have come off with flying colours in the rescue and relief efforts in the hapless state. But then this is not the first time that the Indian soldiers, in all the three wings of the military, have made the nation proud. They had risen to the occasion in the 2001 Bhuj earthquake, the 2004 tsunami, the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, heavy rainfall in Mumbai in 2006, the 2008 Bihar Kosi disaster, the August 2010 cloud burst in Leh, and the September 2011 Sikkim earthquake. But, almost in all these disasters, most of our politicians had failed miserably. They did not realise, and they have not learnt any lesson from the past to behave responsibly this time in Uttarakhand, that natural disasters hurt all Indians—rich and poor, male and female and that these should be occasions to put aside their political biases and turn to government for help.

No wonder why we see physical fights between the Congress and Telugu Desam politicians at the Dehradun airport; the Information and Broadcasting Minister of the country stooping down to the level of a college-debater in castigating Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi; and Congress leaders defending Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the state even after the Union Home Minister restraining the VIPs, sensibly in my opinion, from visiting Uttarakhand, so that attention of the state machineries from the rescue and relief works is not diverted.

Invariably, Indian politicians, like their counterparts elsewhere, find the natural disasters as opportunities for increasing their appeals among the voters. It is commonly perceived that natural disasters damage the vote-share of the ruling party. While it is true to a great extent, evident from the past experiences, in recent years, smart politicians have proved that even while remaining in office they can enhance their vote-catching appeal to get reelected, provided they work sincerely in voters’ interests in the wake of a disaster. For instance, last year’s US presidential election showed what could happen when politicians come together to deliver real and measurable results, post-disaster. The destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 played a big role in the reelection of President Barack Obama in the United States. It also helped propel New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to frontrunner status in the race to be the 2016 Republican presidential nominee. On the other hand, Obama’s opponent Mitt Romney who had earlier called for the elimination of the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid a steep price.

I can cite two Indian politicians who have really done well and consolidated their political career because of their management skills displayed while handling post-natural crisis situations. One is the Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. He was the Chief Minister of Maharashtra when the killer Latur earthquake claimed nearly 8,000 lives on September 30, 1993. In fact, such was his good work that Atal Behari Vajpayee made him the Vice Chairman of the then National Council for Disaster Management with a rank of the cabinet minister, despite the fact that the Maratha leader was not a part of the then ruling National Democratic Alliance. Pawar’s party has got a strong presence in the Latur region even today, thanks to his contributions in 1993.

Another politician in this category happens to be Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. His critics may belittle him on many counts, but the fact remains that his government has done remarkably well in Bhuj, a word that almost became a synonym for devastation. The killer earthquake had razed this town to the ground in 2001. But thanks to Modi, Bhuj today is outstanding example of a town rebuilt from scratch. And mind you, Modi was supposed to be only a stop-gap Chief Minister installed by the then BJP leadership in Delhi to contain public ire against the then Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel’s inept handling of the Bhuj earthquake!

Be that as it may, India is prone to natural disasters of various types. In fact, India ranks second in the world for natural disasters after China, according to a United Nations survey. In recent years, while China witnessed 22 natural disasters, India came second with 16. Regrettably, both the countries have been poor in taking precautionary measures to minimise the impact of the disasters despite their proneness. In fact, with proper planning, countries can face and manage the disasters. For instance, take the case of Japan in managing earthquakes and the United States in facing hurricanes. They have not prevented—no country can—the disasters from happening, but they have prepared themselves well for facing them, ameliorating their effects, and limiting the casualties.

Take another example. On January 12, 2010, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that caused widespread destruction and killed approximately 222,000 people. The next month, Chile was hit by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake—approximately 500 times stronger than that in Haiti—but only 500 people died. Why? As the Foreign Affairs magazine explained, Chile rigorously enforces strict building codes; so there was less immediate damage to the infrastructure near the earthquake’s epicenter. The government of President Michelle Bachelet was also quick to act once the earthquake hit. It immediately began to coordinate international and domestic relief efforts to get supplies and shelter to those in need. In contrast, there is no national building code in Haiti, and the country’s government was barely functional even before the earthquake, let alone after. In the weeks that followed the quake, many officials seemed less interested in helping the hundreds of thousands of newly homeless than in enriching themselves. Several government officials have been accused of stealing international aid, and, even worse, some aid distributers have been charged with demanding sexual favours or cash in return for food and shelter. Dissatisfaction ran so high that police were breaking up violent protests by May 2010.

In fact, there is every possibility of the scenario in Haiti being repeated in our own Uttarakhand. None other than the state’s chief secretary Subash Kumar has expressed such an apprehension. By the way, before starting to write this column, I had just finished reading Kumar’s interview to The Times of India. As the state gets down to the challenging task rebuilding itself, Kumar is contending with fear that corruption, bureaucratic red tape and contractors’ cartel will hobble the efforts. “ Government departments have started coming up with exaggerated demands for funds and we have to address the issue whether money meant for reconstruction should be left at the discretion of tehsildars and local officilals”, Kumar said while acknowledging that the state will now have to deal with human greed.

In an article titled “Myopic Voters and Natural Disaster Policy” in American Political Science Review (August 2009), economists Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra provide evidence that voters reward politicians much more for disaster relief spending than disaster prevention spending, even though the latter is far more effective. Why this bias? Probably because disaster relief spending is far more visible to poorly informed voters than is prevention spending. After a disaster happens, the media constantly covers relief efforts, often in dramatic fashion. Many people watch, in part because the coverage is entertaining. By contrast, there is little media coverage of disaster prevention policy, probably because most viewers would find it boring, and rational ignorance ensures that few will follow the issue merely to become better informed voters. As a result, Healy and Malhotra argue that politicians have an incentive to misallocate public funds, thereby wasting resources and increasing the number of fatalities caused by natural disasters.

That, perhaps, is the reason why in India we have a situation where despite the creation in 2009 of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which is headed by the Prime Minister and has the responsibility for laying down policies, plans and guidelines for managing natural disasters (and coordinating their enforcement and implementation for ensuring timely and effective response to disasters), nothing concrete has happened. Many states have yet to create necessary State Disaster Management Authorities (to coordinate with the NDMA) and in some states, the department for disaster management is the changed name of the department of relief and rehabilitation, home guards and emergency fire services with ad hoc personnel.

In fact, if one goes by the rationale of the NDMA, the use of armed forces in managing natural disasters should be the second option (the primary responsibility in this regard is that of the state government concerned) unless the source and range of the calamity is beyond the national frontiers as was the case during the 2004 tsunami. But that is not happening, thanks to the political incentives that flow out of natural disasters.

By Prakash Nanda

prakashnanda@udayindia.in

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