Every day the numbers rise.
Cyclone Nargis has extracted a deadly price in isolated Burma killing nearly 22,500 people as of May 7th with another 41,000 reported missing. But to the witless military junta this appears inconsequential as they are looking to go ahead with a referendum on a new constitution likely to cement their rule.
I’m not about to discuss the merits (of which there are few) and demerits of the Burmese rulers. Instead, their response, or lack of it, reminded me of India’s response to the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004.
I was at the Marina Beach in those early hours after the tsunami struck trying to make sense of what was happening because I was covering it for NDTV. I could only confirm 6 deaths in my first live phone interview at 10 am. By 5 pm the figure had jumped to 200 and across south east Asia the toll was 200,000 - quite like the situation in Burma which began with a toll of 351 and has risen alarmingly in the last 3 days.
The world is begging the Burmese junta to accept foreign aid because they need it. It will make the difference between survival and death for its citizens. India had also refused tsunami aid but for entirely different reasons. Keen to prove its dominance in the region and equally eager to keep the US out of its zone of influence, India said “thanks but no thanks.” We wanted to prove that not only could we manage our own affairs, we could help our neighbours too.
And in those early days after the tsunami, I’ll say we sure did. On the Indian mainland in worst hit Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa’s government did an outstanding job clearing bodies, cordoning off the beach, shifting people into temporary shelters, providing food and sanitizing the disaster zone. This doesn’t mean that things were working like clockwork, falling into place like a well-rehearsed drill. Quite the contrary because there was a fair degree of confusion and overlap in duties. The effort was outstanding because of the sudden injection of energy, commitment and creativity into the government machinery and its visible presence everywhere. No one could complain that the government didn’t care about them or wasn’t working for them. For someone whose default position is to be anti-establishment this was a refreshing revelation – when push comes to shove the government can deliver. Some of the smartest bureaucrats in Tamil Nadu were on the job leaving the western press a little incredulous that India remained disease free and the situation hadn’t descended into anarchy.
Of course there is an exception here too. Government response in the Andaman and Nicobar islands came late. This had as much to do with inefficiency as it had to do with the fact that island infrastructure was very badly battered. Ayesha Majid, a tribal leader gave an angry TV interview saying if the government didn’t want to help them that was fine but that it should stop lying to the world that everything was under control because her community was shattered and marooned.
But soon the exception became the norm. As people started sensing the opportunities in the midst of grief things changed. The zeal with which government officers had worked was later channeled towards siphoning off aid. The nationalist commitment slowly receded and the old demons of corruption and deceit surfaced once again. And I returned squarely to my default position.
However, it was wonderful, in those brief first few days, to see an Indian government that is capable of so much but alas, does so little.