Not Blame Game, But LessonsNeeded From Covid, Vizag Tragedies


(B. Someswar Rao)

‘LAST RESORT OF SCOUNDRELS’is how politics is described.  It should be normal that there should be a bipartisan approach when the country is at war or facing unprecedented crises like Covid-19 or the Vizag gas leak.

The last time (perhapsonly time)when such approach was seen was when BJP’s Atal Behari Vajpayee described Indira Gandhi as ‘Goddess Durga’ during the Bangladesh liberation war (in sharp contrast with Congress stand on military action against Pakistan by NDA government).

John McCain, the senior Republican leader and would-have-been-President of the US, on his death-bed asked for his funeral orations (eulogy) by Democratic leaders President Barrack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. I was spell-bound by them.

This is unthinkable in fatalisticIndia. The Opposition thinks that it must oppose anything done by the government. It is the duty of a political party in opposition to criticize the government, but that does not mean not flushing the toilets just because the government wanted it or reversing all decisions of the previous government if the party was voted out.

Commissions of inquiry against the previous government’s actions mostly report what the ruling party wants. Otherwise their reports gather dust, unread, unpublished and unaccepted if inconvenient. This is the political culture India evolved in the last 70 years.

According to one report the Visakhapatnam LG Polymers plant which caused a chemical disaster in that city,  took up on an urgent basis the production of raw materials for two companies that belong to CM Jaganmohan Reddy’s associates, one  to manufacture liquor bottlesand another for plastic pipes.The companyapproached the predecessor TDP government for capacity expansion which was rejected by the then CM, Chandrababu Naidu, in 2018.

When the YSR Congress governmentof Jaganmohan Reddy came into power the company again approached it and got the sanction with the recommendation of Vijaya SaiRreddy,the financial advisor to Jaganmohan Reddy’s companies. Vijaya Sai’s nephew Ravindra Reddy is said to be the Secretary of LG Polymers. It was Jagan’s father and then Congress CM, Dr Y.S, Rajasekhar Reddy, who gave licence to the firm in 2007.

The company was also permitted by Jaganmohan Reddyin 2019 to upgrade the facilities. It was rejected earlier, according to social media postsThe post said the order for the plastic liquor bottles was given by Y.S. Bharati, a relative of Vijaya Sai. “This also explains why liquor sale was allowed to be resumed,” the post says. This is unfair as other states too resumed the sale.

The issue is: how was the expansion wrong in 2018 and right in 2019? Either it was wrongly rejected earlier or permitted wrongly now. Both cannot be right. The grounds for both actions must be made public. Corruption cannot be ruled out.

LGhas two tanks at the plant. One was to be just a spare to the other, to be used only when the other had to be closed. Now on getting permission to raise the capacity LG alsofilled the spare tank. “Thus both tanks were full.

The liquid is needed to be kept at 20 degrees Centigrade with each tank having a refrigeration unit. During the lockdown, the plant wasallegedlyunattended. While commissioning the plant on reopening day all the operating procedures were neglected as the raw material for the ancillary making bottles was needed urgently,” a chemical engineer who knows the process told me.

This is one side of the history. Now the bereaved people and residents of the Gopalapuram village nearby demanda CBI inquiry and shifting of the plant or shutting it down. The state government does not agree,

The Vizag gas tragedy, with 12 deaths reported so far, may also cause scars that would remain for decades. While Bhopal was made a capital ignoring the biggest city of the state, Indore, Visakhapatnam, the port-town of Andhra is sought to be made AP’s capital by the new YSR Congress government just because the earlier TDP regime chose to build a new capital at Amaravati near Guntur, already spending several crores on it. Gandhinagar in Gujarat, Punjab’s Chandigarh and Bhubaneshwar in Orissa could be newly-built capitals, but not Amaravati.

Having visited all the cities (Bhopal, Indore, Vizag and Amaravati) and having relatives in both the affected cities, I recall telephoning Bhopal (in the pre-STD trunk-call-booking days) to to find out what happened and told how they had to jump over bodies lying on the roads.

Raghu Rai’s photograph, on India Today cover, of a small girl who died due to the Bhopal gas leakage being buried, may still haunt many memories. Politicians, as usual politicize both tragedies.   MP Chief  Minister Arjun Singh was alleged to have provided a private plane to the Union Carbide’s chairman (against whom there was an arrest warrant) to flee India  The Vizag tragedy is not very old but with Chandrababu Naidu heading the TDP  the blame game is certain to start there too.

As in the case of Bhopal, from Vizag too I got a first-hand report from a relativewho wrote:“Vizag people got to know their brave-hearts today: 1.the city police 2.NDRF (National Disaster Relief Force) and 3. StateDRF, and 4.the local youth.

My Vizag friend reported:  “The unsung heroes are the local youth who did not even know what was happening but sprang into action helping the police officers, many of them just in shorts or lungis, many shirtless as it is hot summer.  .

“If the DCPUday Bhaskar, IPS. and his team were not first responders, thousands would have died from an exposure of over 45 minutes.If local youth had not taken away old people and police officers who fainted in second phase, using bikes and autos, 100s more would have died. If NDRF and SDRF did not seal the leak and decontaminate the area with the help of municipal staff and the chemical warfare commandos Pune were not rushed there, the toxic air would have reached more parts of the city.

“Medical and health workers responded within minutes to ventilate the kids, women and elders, removing the clothes of many and washing their bodies. They reacted as well as they did in the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid-19 forced this new attire. Will it also lead to new goals?

All disasters must teach us lessons. My experience of disaster reduction and management work taught me that we need receptive minds to learn.

I vainly approached many politicians to start an Institute of Disaster Reduction and Management (IDRM) to record lessons from earlier disasters, select damage assessment agencies (as states will overestimate to get more aid and the Centre will underestimate), alert NGOs nearby and plan logistics (Example: many rushed to Bombay when an earthquake hit Latur in Maharashtra, but Hyderabad was nearer).

Many do not know that spiritual solace like bhajans could help rehabilitate disaster victims. The legal aspects are yet to be studied. After years of campaigning by many NGOs, including mine, a ministry was set up to deal with disasters which were under the Agriculture Ministry sinceIndependence.

The worldwide coronavirus or Covid-19 pandemic has change  the world, Not learning lessons from it would be a worse disaster; lessons that would radically change our concepts of economic growth, human relationships and collective welfare. West’s concept of profit and stock market index as indicators of economic well-being has to be replaced by the Indian idea of ‘VasudhaivaKutumbakam’ (World as one family) and “sarve jana sukhino bhavantu’ (let ALL be happy), just as the handshake has given way to the Indian practice of ‘Namaste’.

The Western contributions to world thinking are: measuring economy by GDP, stock market figures and consumerism, the ’51:49 democracy’ (where numerical majority is right and all others wrong, as against the Adi Shankara’s idea of consensus and convincing) and the idea that the goal of all business is growth and profit. That this model of the economy is wrong is proved by the West’s own bid to replace GDP by ‘happiness index’ and setting upregulatory authorities to curbunfair competition and   profiteering.

I often quote saint-poet Kabir at disaster management meetings: “Dukh mein sumiran sab kare, sukh mein karena koi, Jo sukh mein sumiran kare, to dukh kaheko hoi?”  (All remember (God) in unhappy times, but none in happy times. If they remember Him when happy, why would there be sorrow?)

Several TED talks and podcasts have pointed out that the Covid-19 pandemic has proved the need for radical changesin Western economic concepts, that stock-holder capitalism has to be replaced by stake-holder capitalism and that labour, the major contributor to production, is not a faceless mass but a collective of human beings with feeling, emotionally involved in the production process.

American corporate morality has always been very low, with profit as the sole motive. Profit has been the corporate God for America for too long. Slave labour once and hard work by foreigners now built US economic prosperity. Thinking of a new economic model has begun in America for it is realized that the world will not be the same again after the pandemic ends.

Americans are speaking now of the suffering of those in the ‘gig economy’who get paid only when they work, the jobless and the homeless, racism and economic disparity. They were all there before, but now Covid-19 has made us more aware of them. Small economies like New Zealand and Iceland have well-being budgets instead of tax and allocation budgets. The West has realized its erroneous goals and now talks of labour rights and push for equality.

Covid-19 has totally destroyed the old ‘normal’ and a new one has to be found. Will the new idea come from the USA with its White suprematist domination? Or will the ‘Wise men from the East’ visit the land of just-born Jesus again?

Visakhapatnam’s prayer was prompt action. It seems to have been answered. Preparedness would have helped more. Will Covid-19 just kill people or teach us valuable lessons too?