Heroes and politicians, Indian floods show the good, bad and ugly

July 4, 2013

What many journalists and aid workers say is true – it is only in times of crisis, such as disasters and war, that you observe the best and worst of humanity.

In displacement camps where survivors have fled, for example, a cyclone which has flattened their village or a raging insurgency which has killed their loved ones, amid stories of pain and suffering, you will often hear incredible accounts of survival and hope.

It is no different in India.

In the two weeks since deadly floods hit the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, there have been tales of young children being rescued by strangers, of local shopkeepers opening up kitchens to feed hundreds of marooned survivors, and of the tireless work of army, air force and other service personnel who have evacuated over 100,000 people by land and air in the largest ever rescue operation in India. Tragically, they lost 20 men when a helicopter crashed during the operation.

But there is also the bad and the ugly.

The bad is the privileged – relatives and friends of politicians who were among the stranded pilgrims – being given priority for evacuation over others, people robbing the bodies of the dead, even cutting off their swollen fingers to get rings, and local traders who inflated their prices of food, water and other basic items when people had lost everything .

The ugliest part of this disaster has, however, been seen not at the centre of devastation, but at the centre of power, New Delhi.

As the magnitude of the disaster unfolds on our television screens – with the number of missing rising to over 3,000 and rescuers reaching more remote mountain villages cut off by landslides that are running out of food and water – India’s politicians are doing what they do best. Politicking.

India is, after all, heading for elections that are due before May 2014.

In the first few days after the calamity, many politicians – from both the Congress party-led government and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – flew into the disaster zone on choppers with television cameras following their every move, saying they wanted to show solidarity with the victims. In fact, their VIP visits with large entourages disrupted rescue operations.

Then there were incredible reports that prominent BJP politician Narendra Modi, seen as a prime ministerial candidate in the next elections, had visited Uttarakhand and rescued 15,000 pilgrims from his state of Gujarat.

The Congress and the BJP have since then persistently criticised each other’s response to the calamity, bickering on Twitter about who is to blame for the disaster.

Many would say this is normal business for politicians in any democracy in the aftermath of a major calamity.

But social commentators, speaking against a backdrop of chaos in the coordination of relief, confusion over the thousands who are missing, and accusations that early warning systems did not work properly, say that playing politics with disaster is unbecoming.

“Uttarakhand has been a huge tragedy, but the bigger tragedy has been the inability of politicians to come together at this time of crisis,” said Shankkar Aiyar, columnist and author of “Accidental India: A history of the nation’s passage through crisis and change”.

“They have been too busy trying to score brownie points, rather than deal with the systemic failures in India’s disaster management and response.”

PHOTO CAPTION: A woman cries in pain she is carried away by soldiers from an army helicopter during a rescue operation at Joshimath in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand June 24, 2013. Flash floods and landslides unleashed by early monsoon rains have killed at least 560 people in Uttarakhand and left tens of thousands missing, officials said on Saturday, with the death toll expected to rise significantly. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/