Everybody loves a good disaster

When P Sainath wrote the book ‘everybody loves a good drought’ he did not have the experience of a tsunami behind him. The response of the Great Indian Middle Class was wholehearted after the December 2004 Tsunami. Contributions just poured in… and some Indian companies pledged more aid than the ‘richest nation in the world and sole super-power’. Then came the Mumbai floods, the north Karnataka floods, the Kashmir earthquake and now the Bangalore floods. The response of the citizens to subsequent disasters has been less than heart-warming. Some talk of the ‘aid fatigue’. Reality is different.

What the citizens are tired of is not giving, but of the misuse of aid and disasters. First and foremost, disasters are occasions for the not so subtle attempts to dispose off the old clothes. The prior Gujarat earthquake saw people reject old clothes, and saying quite openly on TV that they were victims of a disaster and needed relief but that they were not beggars. The mountains of clothes shown in graphic detail on TV by the roadside after the tsunami confirms that a significant section of the clothes ‘donated’ were those that would in any case be discarded.

The amount of money that has come in has so far not been accounted for. In Kerala at least, the ‘official’ contribution has been more than Rs one crore per affected family. Yet, almost a year down the line, the families are still living in temporary tin sheds. Of the unofficial money, there is no limit. NGO salaries have skyrocketed, with even those fresh out of college getting Rs 20,000 to 30,000 per month, if not more. The ‘camps’ set up by foreign agencies have led to the inevitable disaster tourism with those from the head office ‘visiting’ often to review ‘the rehabilitation process’.

The Tamilnadu government has for long wanted the coastal areas to give to their party-men in the infamous ‘East Coast Road’. Little wonder then that fisher-folk refuse to move out for ‘rehabilitation’. The central government does not want to route the money through the state government—preferring the bank route instead. This mutual suspicion is due to the well founded fear that relief will be used for political purposes.

Even a disaster of this magnitude could not make the affected come together. The fisher-folk refused to be put together with the ‘untouchable’ Dalits. The Dalits were forced into different shelters. They were discriminated against during relief also. For instance, in Karaikal the fisher-folk received 60 kgs of rice while the landless agricultural labourers—mainly Dalits—received only 5 kgs. This is bizarre since both have lost their livelihoods: the fisher-folk lost their boats and nets and thus the ability to fish while the Dalits lost their ability to get work on lands since the land became saline with the ingress of the sea. Even the government segregated the relief camps. So strong is the hold of the caste system that even in their distress, others refused to inter-dine or share relief camps with Dalits. Ironically, Dalits were imported from other areas to bury the dead.

In the present earthquake, and during the tsunami, children were taken away for sex-work. Fortunately, the Government of Tamilnadu intervened and banned all ‘adoptions’. However, displacement took place almost immediately. Land relations were redrawn. Wherever the dominant castes coveted the land of the Dalits, the Dalits were forcibly evicted. In some cases the Dalit lands were made into burial grounds of others. The girl orphans and widows were specially vulnerable since they would be thrown out of the houses after all the compensation money from all sources were received.

For the NGOs and their institutional donors, it was literally a windfall. Contributions to iNGOs were at record highs. Many got more donations in the first three months after the tsunami than they got in the entire preceding twenty years. Donors who wanted to move to North India—since the poverty indices were worse there and the South was considered better off—resolved to continue funding NGOs in South India. This gave a huge relief to NGOs who otherwise would have to drastically scale down their operations, if not shutdown altogether, if the donors withdrew funding. This second lease of life will last for three to five years at least.

Aid has been used by fundamentalist groups for conversion and furthering their agendas. New age gurus formed religion based networks of their front NGOs to ‘project’ their work—and get more funding. A new age mutt promised Rs 1 billion [100 crores] each in relief both in Kerala and in Tamilnadu—a blatant case of money laundering if nothing else. Religious leaders, including a Bangalore based teacher of new age breathing, wrote articles and preached to the faithful how only the places of worship of their religion were not touched, thereby proving that their god was the true god.

Almost a year down the line, there are some at the loose ends of relief and rehabilitation. The fundamentalists have used this opportunity to gain respect for themselves by aligning with social activists. In one curious instance, there was a TV channel promoted by a fundamentalist group that was a ‘partner’ in a ‘disaster film festival’ that showed anti-communal films!

It has been a year of brutal learning, the foremost of which is that you cannot help someone you don’t know. We must channel our aid through those who are already there. A human rights approach to disaster relief and rehabilitation is a must.

For those who felt that Sainath was cynical when he wrote ‘Everybody loves a good drought’… welcome to the real world. The only complaint is that Sainath’s vision was not broad enough. It is not only droughts. Everybody loves any good disaster.