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Voting for man-made disasters

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-09-2017 Narayan Ramachandran

The month of August was a disaster-filled month for India.

Dozens of infant deaths in a government-run hospital in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, frenzied rioting after a godman was convicted in the rape of two followers, untold deaths and millions displaced in massive floods in Bihar, a night of horrendous commutes in Mumbai following torrential rains, and the aftermath of significant flooding in the North-East— these marked only the most notable disasters during the month.

What is common to the disasters above (except for the godman-related riot) is that they are all about water, waterlogging, and waterborne disease. Even more important is that they are man-made, with a collapse in administration and a sharp political failure, even though at first glance they appear to be due to force majeure. Another commonality is that they span geography and political party, with the much vaunted efficiency of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) found severely wanting (no different from the earlier Congress party in power).

The Gorakhpur deaths that took place early in August were allegedly due to the lack of oxygen supply in the hospital. The district magistrate who investigated the incident confirmed the likely cause of the deaths to be insufficient oxygen supply but found only those immediately in the hospital management chain to be responsible and pronounced them guilty based on technical violations (like going on leave without permission). Their political masters were spared culpability, as widely expected. The tragedy exposed the weakness of the entire public health system. A severe shortage of trained nurses and doctors, an apathetic interest in maintaining even the most basic critical care supply chain, and a political and administrative system with dysfunctional incentives and accountability.

Little known about Gorakhpur is the fact that another 60 or so children died of Japanese encephalitis only last week, 300 more have died since January this year, and nearly 8,000 have died in the region since the disease was first detected in 1978. Japanese encephalitis overwhelms the region due to rampant mosquito breeding consequent to annual floods in the low-lying region. The impact, particularly on the rural poor, continues year after year.

The plains of northern Bihar (not far from Gorakhpur) are particularly susceptible to flooding by a large system of rivers that originate in the Himalayas. This river system is made up of Ghaghra, Gandak, Burhi Gandak, Bagmati, Kamla Balan, Mahananda and Kosi. The last, dubbed the river of sorrow, is the most infamous. The Kosi flooded again this year and 500 people are dead and nearly 17million have been rendered homeless in Mithila.

I write this column today having been unable to get into Mumbai, paralysed yet again by waterlogging from torrential rains. The reasons are well known by now—clogged drains, illegal construction, concreted run-offs and overbuilt wetlands. State intent and capacity has been found dramatically wanting in prevention, early warning and disaster management. In fact, state complicity in illegal construction is the primary reason for the repeated collapse.

To this litany of woes that happens year after year, we have added a new variety. Rioting by lawless goons because the political and administrative machinery has been totally captured by godmen with a following. The sycophancy of the political establishment simply to align with vote banks is reaching a new high. Almost as alarming is that otherwise well-read professionals and thought leaders in society have also thrown in their lot with elected politicians fearing a cut-off in access, believing that democracy means simply winning an election (at any and all cost).

While many journalists, civic leaders and other influencers have given in, a few individuals and institutions have displayed exemplary courage in calling a spade a spade. In response to a particularly aggressive set of actions in a recent Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat, election commissioner O.P. Rawat said “it appears to a cynical common man that we have been scripting a narrative that places maximum premium on winning at all costs—to the exclusion of ethical considerations”. Criminal intimidation using the arms of state or goons from your sect are two sides of the same coin. But let us not forget the courageous Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) judge, Jagdeep Singh, a hardworking legal journeyman who produced a remarkable verdict despite the pressures from politicians and cult followers.

Similarly, the Supreme Court pronounced two verdicts in the month of August—on triple talaq, and on privacy as a fundamental right—that reflected great wisdom and balance and went against the grain of the prevailing nationalist/majoritarian sentiment.

The root cause of man-made disasters of the type we saw in August is not merely incapacity and apathy but conscious errors of omission and commission by the state. The only way to return a semblance of normalcy, and reduce this capture of the state by those dealing in money and votes, is for checks and balances in the democratic system, which includes the press and civic society, to work. While we salute the election commissioner, the Supreme Court and the CBI judge this month, many more will have to speak up and act to mitigate utter disaster.

P.S. Forgotten is this noble idea from Mahatma Gandhi: “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.”

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com

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