Necessary symbolism?

Necessary symbolism?

India’s extreme physical and socio-economic diversities make it susceptible to both natural and man-made disasters. Nature’s unpredictable fury resulted in the debilitating Tsunami in 2004, Uttarakhand flash floods in 2013, Kashmir floods in 2014 etc.

Disasters of such magnitude routinely challenge the nation’s ability to respond in a coordinated, holistic and effective manner. Pursuant to the same, the government in 2005 enacted the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to spearhead a cohesive ‘disaster resilience’ culture of prevention-preparedness-mitigation by deploying a dedicated, technology-enabled and empowered body.

However, while NDMA does articulate frameworks, policies and best practices for situations like ‘managing crowds at events and venues of mass gathering’, the man-made and civic challenges like protests, riots and disorders are realistically managed by the local state police forces, para-military forces or even, by the requisitioned elements of the armed forces.

Despite an overall improvement in understanding the nuances, sensitivities and implications of various disasters, the state is forever challenged in its ability to handle such events with the limited resources, equipment, training and ‘culture’. Besides the men-material shortfalls, the ‘cultural-lacunae’ results in the events prolonging dangerously, deteriorating further and engulfing other areas and even getting overtly politicised, thereby limiting damage control.

In India, the cultural challenges manifests immediately in gawkers insensitivity which ensures that there is an immediate animated huddle, aimless circle of people, or worse, irate and opinionated crowd around the epicentre of the disaster, and the only thing such aimless public participation achieves is the further hindering of rescue efforts by the competent authorities and rousing public passions unnecessarily.

While there are instances of responsible local communities, organisations and NGOs who do collaborate in the relief and rehabilitation measures in a professional and coordinated manner, yet, in certain conflict zones like Kashmir, there are increasing instances of locals deliberately distracting the efforts of security forces during the operations by pelting stones, breaking cordons and moving towards the operational area etc.

The Indian Army chief went to the extent of calling such elements ‘over-ground workers of the terrorists’. Such participants are not innocent bystanders or aimless tourists. Instead, these are deliberate partakers of symbolic, material and functional support to the inimical elements during an operational event.

The system of participative democracy entails challenges of managing ‘public perception’ in the eyes of the civil society that is invaluable to the political leadership of various parties. Unfortunately, this insecurity often results in ‘competitive concern’, with made-for-camera dashes by the politicians of all hues (accompanied either by entourage of overzealous officials or partymen).

These swoops to ‘take stock of the situation’ is not uniquely Indian phenomenon, but a practiced photo-op tactic of all major democracies for demonstrating public concern by politicians with a correlated eye at the electoral sweepstakes.

Reminiscent of the oft-repeated Rockefeller creed, ‘never let a good crisis go waste’, that was invoked from Winston Churchill to Rahm Emanuel. The earlier ‘lame-duck’ mayor of New York, Rudolf Giuliani, became the gold standard for aspiring politicians’ world over for demonstrating active political leadership in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Events like the Dadri lynching or the more recent Madhya Pradesh farmers protest witnessed a flurry of political top brass from all opposition parties, besides the parallel optics of the state chief minister himself going on a hunger-fast for the ‘restoration of peace’!

While the Centre accused the opposition parties of instigating and politicising the tragic event, it was a mirror-image repeat of the Uttarakhand floods situation wherein, despite a Central government statement dissuading political leaders from visiting the ground-zero, the then opposition party president defied the directive (even social media was rife with the likes of, ‘#NoPoliticsOverCalamity’), the ‘me-too’ saga of ‘competitive concern’, continues today.

Another perversion of power is the uniquely Indian and meaningless act of, ‘conducting an aerial survey’ during flo­ods and other disasters. Simply put, disasters and disturbances have indispu­table political considerations, import and consequences — clearly, the political perils of not showing up at disaster sites tantamount to undercutting political future.

The court of public opinions gets immediately swayed by an overenthusiastic media that creates a TRP-driven hype that invariably demands a prime ministerial or at least a chief ministerial visit to the area, and spends a lot less time on evaluating the more crucial aspects like the quantity and quality of response mechanism by the administration, material commitments and the ground rehabilitation efforts.

‘Wooden approach’

British Prime Minister Theresa May was recently grilled for her ‘wooden’, ‘insensitive’ and ‘reluctant’ approach to meet the survivors of the Grenfell fire tragedy, this, when the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was shown comforting the affected residents on-the-ground, reiterating the political currency of optics.

 The public reaction is often fickle and contradictory, sometimes it pans the politicians for not ‘reaching out’ and at other times it shuns the ‘photo-ops’. However, the more laborious and unglamorous aspect of holding the administration-politicos of the day accountable for adequacy and appropriateness of response, gets lost in the more vivid political accusations and counter-accusations.

While disaster tourism is both distasteful and avoidable, there needs to be a principle stand enforced by the government of the day that firmly disallows the unnecessary symbolism and posturing at the cost of disturbing the ground efforts by the specialists — the empathy, sympathy and political commitment should be allowed to play out at an alternative site without impacting the crucial relief, rehabilitation or other operational work.

Till date, without exception, all political parties are guilty of pandering to the emotional symbolism, disaster-tourism and the ‘first-mover’ tactics of banking electoral gold. It is only a voluntary stand by the political parties to shun populism, opportunism and entrepreneurialism that can make a difference — as admittedly, in the prevailing political and social circumstances, such symbolic visits make for good TV/PR.

Realistically for change, creations of alternative platforms to ask tough questions (other than at the event site itself), public enlightenment about the wasteful distractions and prudence from the over-hyped media, can change the ‘culture’ surrounding the symbolism of disaster tourism.

(The writer is former Lt Governor of Anda­man & Nicobar Islands, and Puducherry)
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