I am awed by the resilience of India’s long suffering majority. They never give up living no matter what the uncertainties are. Aware that the monsoon is about to set in, with unpredictable extreme weather events, people living in Sunderban, a World Heritage site on UNESCO’s list, have weathered two and a half months of living under lock down compounded by a natural disaster, Cyclone Amphan, without toppling over the edge and resorting to violence against the Indian State.
Getting into high gear to get things back to normal is not the preferred style of governance in India. People, in the Sunderban and across India, seem to have calibrated their expectations to the minimum that government, federal and state and below that, the local institutions of governance, eventually deliver in haphazard fashion. And, the delivery is the problem.
The impact of Cyclone Amphan on top of the effects of the COVID 19 pandemic, a biological world wide emergency, reveals how a natural disaster is made worse. The inevitability of a natural disaster, in a geography like Sunderban is well understood, by people and by governments, at every level, up to the union government in New Delhi and down to the panchayat( elected institution of local self government). Across India, every village situated along the coast or near flood prone rivers knows that the arrival of the monsoon is a moment when they must prepare to face the disruption, the physical and economic shock that follows a flood, a cyclone, torrential rains.
The paradox is that the preparedness of the people to absorb, adapt and manage the consequences of what economists describe as “shocks” is high. The preparedness of the institutions of government, at every level, and at different stages, is low. Governance in India has not yet figured out that there is a physical impact and then an economic impact. People who live with disaster have.
In the Sunderban, the people’s strategy is simple. Its two-fold. First, clear the mess of the carnage, rebuild homes to ensure that the family can live, precariously but in relative safety, through the monsoon. Second, migrate to places that pay more than what can be earned locally, so that remittances can pay for the second stage of rebuilding lives.
The government lacks this clarity. Its first response, invariably haphazard, is relief and a deliberately complicated process of applications and delays for affected people to get rehabilitation assistance. Its second response is an equally flawed distribution of rehabilitation schemes that have been part of the manual of governance for at least 50 years, with multiple choke points that seem designed to restrict the flow of assistance to a trickle and so reduce the cost of rehabilitation to a minimum.
The mystery is why institutions of government have not figured out how best to cushion the shocks of natural disasters and create just that much buffer room for the hard working, asset constrained poor not to have to rebuild the basics – homes and the goods that are necessary to make them functional – every year. Having learnt how to save lives when extreme weather events occur, India’s institutions of government, have settled for the lowest possible equilibrium.
The lowest possible equilibrium was evident when just before Cyclone Amphan struck , which the world knew would be an unprecedented disaster, the Narendra Modi government grandly announced sending in minimum numbers of teams from the National Disaster Management Authority. It took the government of West Bengal almost a week to realise that it needed the army to help clear up the wreckage in Kolkata and work with local agencies to restore water, electricity and clear roads.
The minimalist design adopted by institutions of government in India is evident in the failure to find durable, if not permanent solutions, to making strong embankments that reduce the extent of the inevitable carnage that occurs when a cyclone hits Sunderban. If every year the West Bengal government chooses to rebuild earth embankments that are prone to collapse, it is a decision that not only increases the cost of governance but also the individual or a family’s cost of rebuilding their lives from scratch.
Clearly, the political class is addicted to the routines of managing natural disasters that are also manmade disasters. The visuals of flying over devastated landscapes, grand announcements of largesse, squabbles over how much it will take to reconstruct accompanied by accusations of corruption and discrimination and partisan politics is a well rehearsed performance that fuels the competition between rival ruling regimes at the federal level and the state level.
And that has started. The West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s estimate of the cost of reconstruction has been challenged by Bharatiya Janata Party’s de facto president Amit Shah, since there are no indications that he has actually quit the job, even though J P Nadda is the current president. The exchanges over accusations of corruption have started. These will snowball over the next few months, up to the state elections, when there will be a face-off between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the breathless BJP.
The rules of political engagement seem to control the delivery of governance in a way that works against the best interests of the people, meaning beneficiaries. The strategy is controlling supply to the regional ruling party to manipulate the desirability and demand for the ruling party at the Centre, at the expense of the people.
(Shikha Mukherjee is a Calcutta-based columinist and a former senior editor at the Times of India)