Disasters Delight Phone Videographers


(B Someshwar Rao)

The rescue of a boy, ‘Prince’, from a bore-well in 2006 attracted large crowds. India has a lot of ‘disaster tourism’ but most people do not help. Video recording disasters is the new fad as most people have smartphones that can also record videos.

Death of  ‘Prince’, the five-year old boy who fell into an abandoned tube well in the state of Haryana in July 2006 made India “wallow in collective catharsis” (as a major media house wrote then) even as the rescue operations were beamed around the world by a round-the-clock live camera installed there.

Following the ‘story’ in the USA till its tragic end, I thought laws would be made in every state soon  regulating the drilling of such wells, making it compulsory to cap them and entrusting to some official agency the task of ensuring that such disasters do not occur again. That was over 14 years ago.  No nationwide laws have still been made in this regard. Such disasters occur again and again and again…even in 2020.

Do we never learn lessons from disasters?

Disasters are supposed to make us wise. For over a decade I was, as an NGO (in US called non-profits) worker, involved in the fight to make the government set up a central body  with infrastructure and personnel, to meet both natural and man-made calamities. The cost of implementing a law to cover borewells and sumps at construction sites would cost much less than the rescue operations, but it will not provide leaders the photo-ops the s=rescue would. No social stigma or prics of conscience follow the mishaps. I  recall  how a Western photographer, who clicked a vulture waiting near a hungry child to die in famished Kenya, before rushing the child to a UN food cetnre, was trolled as ‘the vulture behind the camera‘ till he committed suicide. Fatalist India does not suffer the pangs of collective conscience like the West,

Disaster relief and rescue were under the Union Agriculture Ministry for decades as the most frequent disasters once were famines. Attending several national meetings on disaster management, I felt that an important input should be information as no data was on record on earlier disasters or lessons learnt from them.

Reduction (advance action to prevent) or mitigation were not even thought of. Disasters meant only rescue and relief; not even rehabilitation, which is talked of but rarely done.. Damage figures vary; states exaggerate to get higher central grants, while center underestimates them. Both are wrong. There is no independent assessment agency.

So I and a friend set up an NGO seeking establishment of a national institution at Nagpur, the country’s center, to document disasters, list the lessons learnt from the earlier ones, instantaneously locate (from a computer database) and contact all NGOs working in that and in related fields, organize logistics for reaching the spot and nominate  independent agencies to assess the actual damage. There is misinformation on these aspects; when there was an earthquake in Latur (1993) many rushed to Mumbai, as it was Maharashtra capital, but it was easier to reach from Hyderabad.

It was only recently that the National Disaster Reduction Force was formed and is doing commendable work. The documentation center IDRM (Institute of Disaster Reduction and Management), on which I spoke to several ministers, has not yet come up. The ministers just heard me, without listening. Still no assessment norms are laid down. The NGO – and my foray from journalism to social work – died with the friend. And also the realization that unless it brought in votes, no party would bother.

So every disaster is a new experience for us.  Children continue to fall into tube wells or sumps, buses into gorges and authorities into slumber. Fire audit of high buildings or public places like cinema theatres is proposed after every fire and soon forgotten and most buildings continue to be vulnerable to fires without even fire escapes.

Even data on them is not available. The law requiring clearance ny firebrigadesd before a building is occupied is just on paper – dug up occasionally only to harass rivals Many buildings are inaccessible to fire engines. Few have hydrants nearby. And fires are only one of the many disasters possible.

We just wait for the next disaster.

Similarly there are economic disasters happening. In most cooperative banks the directors generously grant loans to themselves and never repay. Rules are flouted and meant just to inconvenience the small fry who flock to them only for the half per cent extra interest. Cooperative audit is a farce. Every public sector bank has huge NPAs (non-productive assets) as officers collude with the big business, granting them  loans on imaginary collaterals. Stringent rules are means only to harass the small depositor.

A cook seeking a Mudra loan to start a tiffin delivering service is made to go around the bank till he is tired and stops, while Vijay Mallyas get hundreds of crores as loans and two or more loans are given on the same property.  A cook cannot send cases of beer bottles to the manager. Mallyas can.

Ponzi schemes which promise to double money or windfall profits for those who win a draw of chits are highly publicized and attract millions of victims, but the government acts only when the financial fraud is revealed. Some of these schemes work with political support. Our education does not teach us to shun greed.

When the Punjab and Maharashtra Cooperative bank, said to be controlled by the son of former Akali leader, ‘Master’  Tara Singh (I remember being forced to cover my head to attend his press conference, luckily not forced to carry a kirpan or knife) was in trouble, RBI was accused of targeting it, till its own MD confessed to setting up fake accounts to fraudulently give Rs.43550 million as loan to a bankrupt firm, obviously controlled by a highly connected person. A video of a family said to be of Tara Singh’s son, taking away things from the back door of the bank went viral. Still no action was taken. It is not known if it was fake news or which son of Tara Singh was involved.

Bank officers protest mergers with strikes. Vijaya Bank and Devkaran Nanjee (Dena banks’s forgotten original name) Bank are being merged with Bank of Baroda. Do they know that as many as 10 banks, including the New Citizen’s Bank {1961) were merged with it earlier?

History is for textbooks and mugging up to score in exams, not to teach lessons.