Rebuilding Chennai: coordination must

With the waters receding from most parts of Chennai and other districts hit hard by torrential rains, the focus has shifted from rescue to relief and rehabilitation of people affected by the disaster.

Over 300 people lost their lives and there has been massive damage to property and other assets. Even the estimation of losses is difficult at this stage. What is immediately needed is to reach aid to the people who are housed in shelters and to many others. The entire distribution system, both public and private, is in a shambles. Even where essential commodities are available, people are fleeced. But there is also sharing and caring among the people. What also stands out is the aid and help organised and provided to the needy by small groups of people, community organisations, voluntary bodies and even individuals. Help has been extended from many places within the state and outside.

But the state and city administrations, which have the major responsibility to reach succour and assistance to the people, mostly failed to do their job. They were unable to gauge the scale of the disaster and were later found wanting in their efforts to reach essential aid to the people. Unfortunately, the entire relief work was politicised also. The ruling AIADMK’s cadres have insisted on sticking posters of Chief Minister Jayalalitha on packets of food and other materials which were sent to the affected areas by many organisations and individuals. That is to give the impression that the assistance was delivered by the chief minister. Other parties have also started to insist on delivering aid under their addresses. In some places, distribution of aid was delayed or held up because politicians wanted to do the distribution themselves. This is the most inhuman and selfish way of dealing with a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions.

The political and official leadership failed in many ways. There was little coordination among different agencies, including the armed forces, which were involved in dealing with the crisis. It was also noted that much of the work was highly centralised and so, did not reach the deserving people. There was a lack of direction at many levels. All this has made it clear that a highly centralised, personalised and politicised system cannot cope effectively with such situations. Major challenges remain now, like preventing the spread of infectious diseases, helping people in the short term and rehabilitating them in the long term. Many houses and much of the lost infrastructure have to be rebuilt. There should be better and more efficient ways of meeting these challenges than seen hitherto. 

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