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Sangh plays politics as Gujarat quakes
By John Dayal

State, Central administrations fail the Richter test in disaster management, unlearn lessons of the Citizens Report on Jabalpur rattle in 1998. No place for bigotry in human tragedy

Six days into the Gujarat earthquake tragedy, I received a plaintive email from friends in Mumbai: “Many Christians and secular NGOs in Gujarat are complaining that relief flights from all over the world are landing in Ahmedabad every one hour but most of the material are yet to reach the people and instead are piled up on the runway of the airport. The Gujarat administration does not know how to handle a relief operation of this magnitude and to make matters worse they are entrusting material mostly to RSS workers and politicizing the operation. They are creating a lot of hurdles for secular NGOs to carry out medical and relief operations. In view of the above circumstances I request you to inform the concerned Embassies in Delhi to route all remaining relief and medical material via Bombay so that secular and competent NGOs can take charge of these goods at Bombay Airport and deliver the same to the needy people of Gujarat...’

The tragedy is India’s worst ever in the years of its independence, though old timers remember that in undivided India, an earthquake had obliterated Quetta, a town now in Pakistan. No one remembers how many persons died in that North-west town in the early part of the twentieth century, but it does not matter. The dead are statistics, till one looks at the suffering of every individual who is still trapped, whose relatives hope the father, wife, sister or daughter is still alive, irreconciled to the fact that a week after the concrete slabs collapsed on their loved ones, there is little chance of survival for any one. And yet, everyone waits for a miracle, prays, and hopes. Miracles have occurred in Gujarat in the first month of the twenty-first century, many miracles. TV has flooded the airwaves with heart-warming pictures of tiny babes who survived seven days on the bosoms of dead mothers, and others who defied death with a prayer on their lips.

The biggest miracle is that some relief has actually reached the victims, that many have been saved by sniffer dogs and cutting instruments airlifted by Swiss and other international teams who did not bother to wait for invitations, did not care if visas were being delayed and landing permissions for their aircraft were difficult to get. Even Pakistan, designated archenemy, won hearts by dispatching planeloads of relief material. Its people too had suffered, in Sindh that adjoins Gujarat, and it too felt the pain.

This against the backdrop of the tragi-comedy of the Central and State governments, of the antics of Cabinet ministers and the conspiracies of leaders of the Sangh parivar, their khaki knickers forever looking for glory in the stench of the burning ghats, politicizing death as much as the struggle for life. Karnataka minister T John provided his own diversion to the tragedy, repeating some half-understood bigoted theology of an angry god punishing people for the sins of the Sangh of Gujarat, which had killed so many faithful in recent years.

Fr. Jacob Parapally, dean of the Faculty of Theology of JDV at Pune spoke for them all when he said in another email : “I was surprised to read in the Indian Express of Pune Edition that T. John, a Congress minister of Karnataka, interpreted the earthquake in Gujarat as a punishment of God for the atrocities on Christians and minorities. TVR Shenoy has a lead article in the same paper about this issue. You might have already read it. As Shenoy suggests will the Christian leadership come out strongly against the unchristian statement of T. John and distance the Church from such an attitude of Mr. T. John and assure the assistance of the Church through her organization and personnel to alleviate the sufferings of the victims of the earthquake. I have heard that many sister and brothers and lay organizations are going to Gujarat for relief work. This morning we are sending a group of volunteers from Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth to Gujarat. We shall not claim to know God's mind on such issues. We need to reach out to those in need whether they are friends or enemies, they are our neighbours.” T John has paid for his slip. He has submitted his resignation. 

The church has rejected such aberrant theological interpretations, quietly redoubling its financial and human contribution to the relief operations. The Catholic Bishops Conference of India, the All India Christian Council, national Council of Churches in India, CASA, CARITAS, Catholic Union and YMCAs, all pitched in.

BJP’s senior leader JP Mathur made the party’s political agenda in the state very clear in his statements in the capital on 31 January, saying it had decided to work independent of the Central and State governments while dealing with the relief work. Newspapers quoted him as saying “We are moving on our own because we want to ensure speedy relief to maximum number of people with minimum fuss. The BJP wants to avoid the red tapism of the bureaucracy and work independently.” Newspapers also noted that the BJP’s Sangh parivar including its various organizations at home and abroad also planned to mobilize funds independently. “We have no intention to hand over the funds to the Prime Minister’s relief fund.” According to Hindustan Time’s veteran correspondent Kalyani Shankar, the BJP has decided to collect Rs 25 crores in the next two weeks, working on a strategy to tap its four crore members who are asked to chip in with Rs 100 each. “Rattled by the recent panchayati poll results in which the party was completely routed, the BJP is keen to refurbish its image in Gujarat.’ 

And therefore, while NGOs and rescue experts were criticizing the convoys of political VVIPs who were making a nuisance of themselves in the main streets of Ahmedabad and Bhuj (No one really wanted to go to the hinterland where the stench was the strongest, because most of the uncounted dead where there, still unattended days after the disaster), the BJP big wigs saw it as a political opportunity. Wrote several papers, including the Hindustan Times “While home minister Advani has been camping in the state from Day One, other top leaders have also arrived. Party vice president Jana Krishnamurthy, in charge of the state, is on a five day visit.’ VHAI, the leading voluntary health NGO in the country, sarcastically pointed out that in this age of instant TV images, politicians did not have to spend money and time to personally see the damage. All they needed to do was to look at the TV screen, read a few reports.

It is a moot question how much of funds diverted to relief actually go the surviving victims. There are many reports in the papers these days how the earthquake victims in the Uttarkashi and Chamoli region are yet to get the meager Rs 25,000 they had been provided as relief after the earthquake in the Himalayan foothills. Rajiv Gandhi’s estimate of a mere 16 per cent of all government funding actually reaching the grassroots is as true of quake relief as of other governmental developmental work in a panchayati raj where the purse strings and the developmental plans are in the hands of politicians in Ahmedabad or New Delhi.

This is perhaps the appropriate time to talk of the Politician-Builder nexus – no less strong than the mafia-politician-bureaucracy nexus – which in its own way has contributed to the tragic loss in human lives and property. Many of the survivors have lost a lifetime’s savings in houses built on bad foundations with substandard material, their structural plans cleared by the greasing of many a palm.

In Ahmedabad, where land prices touch the sky, nature’s violence seemed targetted at he best multi storied structures. And thereby hangs a sordid tale of high corruption in which few senior political leaders can claim innocence. Ahmedabad builder mafia is particularly notorious, at par with that of Mumbai and New Delhi. It remains to be seen if any one of them will be investigated and arraigned. One fears not one may ever be indicted for criminal negligence.

This would require that the governments wake up and formulate long term resettlement and rehabilitation policies, apart from a cohesive disaster management ethos. Such an ethos can prevent such silly complications as the government first refusing international help, fearing what – mass conversions? It was only late when the full import of the disaster sunk in that the home ministry and the external affairs ministry got their act together, allowed assistance to fly in without prior permission, eased FCRA norms for relief and made visas – an instrument of punitive action often easily violable to experts.

The Kutch tragedy and the world’s heart warming response is proof that the world is indeed becoming one village, thanks in part to satellite TV, thanks also in part to the enlightenment of the Twentieth century’s last decades.

That indeed is the message of a hope given by a benign God, who loves the creatures he made in His own image, even though sometimes it is difficult to understand His mind in human tragedy of this magnitude.
(With field inputs from Sam Paul, Samson Christian in Gujarat, and Abraham Mathai in Mumbai) q


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