One has to reluctantly agree that the Chennai Flood calamity was an unexpected one and even the most efficient government in the world couldn’t have handled the relief and rescue mission all by itself. But, the case of Tamil Nadu couldn’t have been more different. Those who very well understand the way governments function now admit that even the simplest of tasks were not performed this time. They say that the government’s response to the crisis was neither satisfactory nor swift.
An enraged senior official who is currently employed outside Tamil Nadu, says, “When such a huge natural disaster occurs, the first thing to do is establish a control room at the Secretariat. No matter how senior the officer is, he or she has to pass on the information to the control room and then chart the course of further action. No such control room was established. Plenty of ready cash, say Rs.100 crores or Rs.200 crores, should have been made available to important departments. They shall take all the emergency actions required and submit the expense report later. No such funds have been allocated until now. As soon as such a natural disaster occurs, the government has to set up a collection centre and inform the public that they should send the relief material to that address. No such camp was set up and no such address has yet been announced. I was told that the government hasn’t yet decided if they must accept aid from certain sources. I also heard that it took the government three days to even decide on calling the army for the rescue missions because bringing in the army would amount to accepting failure by the State administration in handling the situation!”
“Three shiploads of relief material have arrived, but the distribution was delayed because the government couldn’t decide if it wanted to use them. There is an acute shortage of Aavin milk at a number of places. Aavin has plenty of milk powder stocked up. That could have been distributed. The government could have opened up all the wedding halls in the city for the people to stay. They could have negotiated with the hotels…none of these was done,” say officials from outside Tamil Nadu.
Anna Salai mosque, Mannadi mosque, Velachery mosque, and Tambaram mosque were opened up to accommodate the rain-battered people. The government could have opened up Hindu temples to serve as emergency shelters, but didn’t, because the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Board has to make that decision. The clothes could have been procured from the government-run Co-optex. But, private mill owners are the ones who are donating clothes. The government could have very effectively done all these.
None of it was done. In fact, nobody even knows if all these things have been brought to the notice of the Chief Minister! Meanwhile, at the Secretariat, the Chief Secretary Gnanadesikan, government consultant Sheila Balakrishnan, and the Chief Minister’s chief secretary Venkataraman continue to meet and discuss among themselves. They are preparing reports and sending them to Poes Garden. The Chief Minister, in turn, is giving them some instructions, which are being executed by them. That’s all.
In such situations, a constantly functioning network is very important. The absence of such a network turned out to be the biggest impediment in the government’s relief and rescue activities. The Chief Minister had come to the Secretariat twice or thrice and had interacted with the officials. She visited RK Nagar once. She conducted a 30-minute long aerial survey on a helicopter. She met the Prime Minister. Wherever the officials and the ministers went, the public confronted them with just one question – where is the Chief Minister?”
It was incredibly obvious that experts in handling natural disasters were absent in the rescue efforts. This is more so in the case of Chennai Corporation. An IAS officer was appointed to supervise the relief and rescue operations in each area. But these officials were clueless when it came to delegating responsibilities. You need the police force for rescue operations. You will have to coordinate with the Corporation officials for relief measures. But, it turned out that neither the police, nor the Corporation officials could contact these IAS officers. In the case of districts, all of them come under the control of the District Collector. It seemed nobody knew whose orders were to be followed in Chennai – Mayor Duraisamy’s, Commissioner Vikram Kapoor’s, Minister Velumani’s (the Minister of Panchayat and self governance), Chennai district collector Sundaravalli’s, or of the ministers elected from Chennai, like Valarmathi and Gokula Indira. Most of the government departments themselves were not aware of the plans to release the excess water from the Sembarambakkam Lake. This was why the precautionary steps prior to releasing the water were not taken.
The administration would have probably assumed that the people would forget and forgive all these blunders if they are given enough money as part of the relief measures. The Chief Minister announced a sum of Rs.10,000 for those who had lost their huts. The ones whose concrete houses were flooded with water are to be given Rs.5000 each.
In the past, whenever there were floods in Cooum and Adayar rivers & Buckingam canal, the damage was confined to only those living on the river banks. ‘Rehabilitation’ would simply involve giving away Rs.2000 to each of the families. This time, it was the middle class that bore the brunt of the destructive rains and the floods that followed. Thousands of them lost belongings worth lakhs of Rupees. The rain and flood waters had, at some places, completely submerged the ground floor apartments. The owners of these apartments will have to spend lakhs of Rupees to make their dwellings habitable. How is the government going to handle their discontent with Rs.5,000 payouts?
In the midst of this catastrophe, a certain high-level official had exerted tremendous pressure on his subordinates to buy the bleaching powder only from a particular company. The incident only shows the extent of ignorance of ground reality.
Then, there is the question of statistics. The officials haven’t even started to assess the damage – the number of people who were affected by the rains & floods, the number of vehicles and household items that were wrecked by the flood waters, the loss of human lives…
13 lakhs is the number of refugees staying at various relief camps in Chennai, Thiruvallur, Kancheepuram and Cuddalore. 10 lakh huts and houses were completely destroyed by the rains in Chennai and its suburbs. It is humanly possible to help these people, who have lost everything, for a week, at the most. Where will they go once the camps are shut down? The relief sums should be given to them first if they have to return to their homes, or whatever is left of them. Demands that they be assisted in their rehabilitation efforts continue to rise.
A separate department has to be formed in order to carry out the rehabilitation and repair works in the aftermath of the floods. The countdown has begun. The government has 90 days to formulate a systematic rehabilitation policy and execute it. Elections will be announced by then and the government cannot announce any relief measures after that.
The emergency measures that need to be taken prior to and after the flooding are officially known as the trigger mechanism. The administration should have acted on war footing scale, but despite widespread criticism, steps are being taken at the proverbial snail’s pace. One of the most effective and immediate actions should have been the bringing back of officers who had skilfully handled the tsunami crisis. Most of them have retired now. They should have been brought back as consultants. Failing to do so would only bring bad name to the government.
Get ready for the cruellest irony.
Meanwhile, the Secretariat is abuzz with activities of a very different kind. Countries like Singapore and Australia have their own marine life exhibition. India doesn’t have one. The Chief Minister had announced in the state legislative assembly her plans to construct one such exhibition near Mahabalipuram. A certain multinational company expressed interest in the project. The problem was – the company has no prior experience in such projects. Despite this, the company had its own list of conditions – the State Government should obtain all relevant permissions from the centre, and should also provide more time and money, if required, to complete the project. Irritated officials sent them away asking them to submit their quotes when the tenders are announced. But that didn’t dampen the company’s enthusiasm. Its representatives met all the right persons and got their plan approved. Without any formal announcements of global tenders, quotes were secretly obtained from three companies, of which two didn’t even make their earnest deposits. That, of course, implies that the other two companies and their quotes were mere shams.
The Secretariat is quite busy, trying to clear this file without any hurdles.