The importance of good-neighbourliness

Published: Sunday 31 October 1993

NATURAL disasters may be proposed by God, but they are disposed by man. Though it may not be possible to prevent such disasters, their devastation potential can be contained, depending on the state of human preparedness and economic conditions. The earthquake in Marathwada on September 30 has once again, so cruelly, demonstrated how a natural phenomenon can bring havoc to poor and unprepared people. The world witnesses about 100 earthquakes of similar intensity every year, but few cause loss of life of a comparable magnitude. The Marathwada earthquake was one of the worst in the world in the past ten years.

There are many techniques now developed by scientists to build earthquake-proof houses. But poor people who cannot afford proper shelters cannot definitely afford quake-proof houses. These people can afford only zero-cost houses. Moreover, science is still too ignorant of the ways of the earth to predict earthquakes. Therefore, as a whole, science can do very little to prevent earthquake disasters for some time -- till either science or the economic conditions of the poor improves.

However, social organisations can definitely do a lot even today to save hundreds of thousands of people every year from natural calamities. The recent earthquake exposed serious limitations of formal relief measures in minimising the fallout. The official machinery reacted quickly to the tragedy and relief agencies moved in within a few hours. Hundreds of tonnes of relief material poured in from all over the country. However, the disbursement of relief was tardy because of the inherent limitations of external agencies.

The earthquake underscored the limits of the reach of official structures. Distribution of relief was shockingly slow, amid reports that a huge quantity of food was perishing in Latur, Osmanabad and Umarga. No one in the tehsil and district headquarters had any idea of the requirements of affected villages and information on the ground level was not much better.

The bottleneck developed only because there was almost no one at the ground level to assess the nature and quantum of succour needed and then inform the government machinery. While the shocked survivors clearly were not up to the task, people of unaffected villages nearby also failed to rise to the occasion. Thus, the entire task fell on official agencies and local concerns took a long time to influence the priorities of relief distributors. A surviving farmer assigns equal importance to the medical treatment of relatives and cattle, an official on a lightning mission often fails to notice this. When truckloads of foodstuff were despatched to the affected villages, there was little more than guesswork. The result: A camp of banjaras not affected by the disaster got several rounds of relief material. But a few kilometres away, dozens of people had to wait in Mangrool for drinking water.

The chaos in relief distribution went hand in hand with the swelling numbers of gawkers -- thousands from adjoining villages -- often dodging police barricades. Some good-neighbourly behaviour on their part would have made all the difference. They could not only have made a realistic assessment of local needs, but also met a lot of the requirements without any cost. Hundreds of school and college students wanted to help the army extricate human bodies, but they faced a shortage of spades and shovels. Surely, neighbouring villagers could not have had a shortage of basic agricultural implements. Harsh as it may sound, the residents of adjoining villages are responsible for many of those who died because official rescuers discovered them too late.

In this context, India's reluctance to accept relief from abroad is more significant than a merely correct political statement. Natural disaster relief seldom requires resources beyond the reach of the country. However, what is crucial is the effectiveness of delivery institutions. Official and external agencies can only be effective partly -- unless a responsible and sensitive local system cooperates with them. This may not prevent the disaster from taking place, but it will indeed prevent it from having a cascading effect.

Perhaps the most important lesson that Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao can bring back from Latur is that village India desperately needs good grassroot institutions. Now that his government has decided to promote panchayati raj institutions, let him add disaster relief to their functions and prepare his government to train them in this task.

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