December 27, 2004

TV, tsunamis and too many dead

My father, who doesn't have cable, called up Doordarshan, the TV channel you can still get through the air. Anxious to know out more about the tragedy that slammed into South and Southeast Asia, he was hoping to find it on his TV. "When will you carry your next news bulletin?" he asked.

"Oh, we don't know," was the reply. "We have to wait for the one-day match to get over." That's Bangladesh and India, cricketers going at it while tidal waves do their worst, killing in both countries (though only 2 in Bangladesh, last heard). Hours later, my father was still steaming: No news about this huge disaster because there's a cricket match on.

What if, I wonder, the tidal waves had swept away some of the cricketers' homes? I have a feeling Doordarshan might have interrupted the game for a bulletin.

Then I called family and friends in Chennai. Everyone is fine. If they answer the phone, they've gotta be fine. But without exception, they made a point to tell me who the greatest sufferers were: the poor. The street and slum dwellers, the fishermen's colonies along the coast. "As always", they said. Indeed, as always. You look at the pictures and you know: the wailing mothers, the families carrying their dead, the people lining the roads asking for news of their missing -- if not entirely, these people are overwhelmingly our poor. Not the investment bankers or the Page 3 dudettes.

The same in every disaster.

Though it sometimes takes months to comprehend the true magnitude of that sameness. In Kutch in 2001, a gigantic quake killed by the thousand. In particular, several high-rises collapsed, killing their middle-class residents and leaving the survivors to spend nights on the streets. But when I went back exactly a year later, travelling across Gujarat showed me just who was still feeling the after-effects of the quake. All over Bhuj, for example, I found hundreds of people still sleeping in the open, on the rubble of their hovels and tenements. Still waiting for what their government had promised them by way of help, so far unable to right their own lives, living on a generosity shared by their fellow residents of the rubble.

So yes, nature's cliched fury knows no lines of wealth or class. On Chennai's Marina beach as on the Sri Lankan and Thai coasts, joggers and tourists were swept away just as surely as fishermen in their huts were, if in smaller numbers. But go back in six months, go back in a year. The fishermen's colonies will still look like disasters, their residents will still be trying to pick up their lives.

In these globalising times, nobody likes to hear the old shibboleth from the past. This is the era of the markets and how they will improve everybody's lives, after all. But it takes a disaster like this to remind us how true the shibboleth still is: our poor are our most vulnerable. They are vulnerable because they are poor. They are vulnerable because, at a profound level that goes beyond the labels of "socialist" and "leftist" and "rightist" and anything else, nobody really gives a damn for them.

Here in Bombay, "over 30,000 huts" have been destroyed in the past few days. This includes 6200 shanties razed in Malad on December 24, the greatest such destruction "ever recorded in an area in a single day"; in the rest of Bombay, 1400 more were destroyed that day. (Times, December 25).

What did this damage that, except for a death toll, is comparable all around to what's happened in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka? Another tsunami? A quake? A cyclone?

Nope: the Bombay Municipality. The Municipality that is on a drive to destroy "illegal shanties." The same Municipality that is funded, in great part, by taxes that those very shanty residents pay. You see, our Chief Minister wants to make "a Shanghai" of Mumbai -- globalising, didn't you know -- and apparently the road to that Shanghai is paved with the wilfully destroyed homes of our most vulnerable people. (Aside: suppose a tsunami had done what the Municipality has done, here in Bombay. What kind of headlines would it get? If different, why do the Municipality's efforts not get those kinds of headlines?).

The road to Shanghai is not paved, you will note, with the wilfully destroyed homes of our urban middle- and upper-classes, many of which are also illegal.

And until it is, or far more preferably, until it isn't paved with anyone's destroyed homes; until DD decides disaster in Chennai hutments is a little more important than a cricket match; until the poor in this country and others find a measure of security from the ravages of both man and tsunami; until these things happen, allow me and many like me a measure of scepticism about globalisation.

Questions: did December 26 in Chennai see that Malad record (6200 shanties) topped? What will December 27 in Bombay bring? Whatever the answers are, I know I won't find them on Doordarshan. India and Bangladesh are playing again today.


amit varma said...

Lovely piece Dilip. But I don't think blaming globalisation is fair. As you rightly say, "our poor are our most vulnerable," and that is exactly why free markets and opening up the economy is the road ahead - because they lessen the number of poor people far more effectively than Nehru's misguided Fabian socialism did for 40 years. In fact, in the last ten years, since we started liberalising, more people have left the poverty line than in all the 40 years before that put together. All the evidence from countries around the world indicates that the freer the markets, the more the poverty alleviation. (For more on this, including links to relevant studies, do visit an old post of mine, "The myth about the rich and the poor".)

All the problems of transition to an open economy that we face in India are happening because of, as I wrote in that post, "big government, the sprawling bureaucratic superstructure" that Nehru built. This is illustrated by your entirely legitimate complaint against Doordarshan; contrast it with the excellent coverage by the international channels that would not be here if India wasn't globalising. Also, the slum demolitions you speak of are a government action, and it is unfair to blame globalisation for that, whatever the stated intentions of the governments. A free marketeer, in fact, would attempt to integrate them into society instead of casting them away.

To sum it up, it is precisely because the poor are most vulnerable to disasters like this that we need more free markets, because that will lead to, quite simply, less poor (and vulnerable) people. There is plenty of empirical evidence to back this up (some mentioned in my post that I linked to), and none at all to the contrary.

Chindu said...

Good to meet again, Dilip... And, as usual, food for thought.

Rahul said...

Hi Dileep, I've been reading your posts without commenting for a while. It occured to me that there's no way DD could have made money through advertising revenues without the cricket match on. I can't think of any other reason why they wouldn't switch over and show the news. This probably has a lot to do wit hthe fact that dd's squeezing every last back that it can because it has been granted rights to these matches (Some would say illegaly, even though the order was passed by the Chennai High Court, of all places). Anyway, long story, and only passingly relevant to the current situation.

I write about cricket, and know there's a lot of greed when television and cricket come together, but this made it all even worse.

Anonymous said...

The Globalising World doesn't care for the downtrodden and the underdogs, as you rightly said. Arundhati Roy had this to say in her speech Accepting Speech for the Sydney Peace Prize with reference to Globalisation: Free the Markets, Screw the People ! - Altaf Mohammed Abid

Nachi said...

I take serious exception to this line of yours

"the same Municipality that is funded, in great part, by taxes that those very shanty residents pay."

Absolutely untrue.....these shanty owners do not pay any tax at all. In fact they are a burden on the tax payer. It would be a totally socialist view to say that the the middle and upper caste pay taxes and the slum dwellers take home free electricity/water while those paying taxes suffer from power cuts and hig power tarrifs.

At the same time we can't say that the we shud not give the poor people any subsidy or grants.

It is a very delicate issue and it would be wrong to make such a sweeping statement.

Dilip D'Souza said...

I take serious exception to this line of yoursTake exception all you like, but it shows you have no idea about how the Mcplty is funded. The greatest source (order of 70%) of its revenue is octroi, which every single resident of the city pays every time they buy anything, whether a sweet or a fan or a car.

Couple this with the fact that only a small fraction of the country (order of 10%) and of eligible taxpayers (order of 20%) actually pay their income tax, and the inescapable conclusion is: shanty residents are every bit as much taxpayers as you and me and anyone else. Your taking exception notwithstanding.

dilip d'souza.

Tanuj said...

1. 'In these globalising times, nobody likes to hear the old shibboleth from the past.' This is not a fair statement, Dilip. I might be a believer in 'the era of the markets and how they will improve everybody's lives', but I might still care about the poor and might even be trying to help in my own small way. And I don't think I am the only person who thinks this way. Believing in a particular macro-economic philosophy is not a reflection of one's (awareness of) social responsibility.

2. I understand that the immensity of human casualties in poor countries is linked to, well, poverty, but I don't see what that has to do with the government evicting slum dwellers. I think there is a difference between the unlucky poor rendered homeless by the tsunami and the illegal squatters evicted by the government. To bunch them together would be (as my wife, the researcher, would put it) confounding the issue.

In principle, I agree with the government's action (assuming, of course, that it is unbiased and universally applicable). It is an unpleasant, heartless act, but as long as it is based on the law, I support it. I understand your 'honest tax payer' point based on the octroi argument, but do not necessarily agree with it. People have to buy rice and dal to survive, and in doing so they pay octroi by default. That does not make them honest tax payers. They squat on someone else's property, illegally; most use stolen electricity.

There are other, richer, people who evade taxes. And then there are corrupt politicians. That most of them are not behind bars is a pathetic reflection of our legal system, but that still does not condone illegal squatting by the poor. Think of the almost middle class babu in Bhayender who pays his taxes, but also pays rent every month from his measly salary - why should he? Why should he not stop paying, and refuse to budge? why should he pay his electricity and water bills, while still struggling to make ends meet? Becasue it is the law, and the law must apply universally to the rich or the poor.

suneel said...

Hey Dilip

it was a wonderful post....i couldnt have put it in a better way....ur description of the losses that the poor incur becoz they are poor were very touching and the fact that DD was airing Ind-Ban match when tsunami was hitting the villages is ridiculous...i mean how worse can it get (commercialism???) ??

Anonymous said...

Dilip, hasn't this pretty much been the norm all through history, all over the world? I am not trying to be flippant here, but in a society, don't people work hard and earn more just so that they can live in safer and more comfortable places?

Again, being from Chennai, I am not minimizing or dismissing any part of this tragedy. I am just pointing out that any time there is a natural disaster, people who cannot afford to be in safer (hence costlier) places will be the most to suffer.

What is the way around it? Blaming globalization is the easy way out, but if India has remained a socialist paradise, do you really think the damage would have been any less?

Already the early warning systems, meteorological departments and social welfare systems are under government control (and have been since independence). So isn't this a failure on the part of a centralized, beauracratic government in the first place? When statism fails, why blame the free market?

Sriram Gopalan

Lumbergh-in-training said...

A friend sent me this blog. I am appalled at the attitude of Doordarshan. If some politician had died, immediately programmes would have been preempted and they would be playing sad shenai music for a week, while the lives of 13 000 Indians is not a big deal.

But, I can't agree with your views on the shanties of Mumbai. I just finished writing something similar to your's in my blog

This is not to be taken as a cheap plug for my blog, as I don't want to repeat what I wrote in my blog.

The huge loss of lives would have been probably avoided if the shanties have been forcibly removed from Marina beach by the corporation. The loss of so many lives is regrettable and I am very sorry for them but they were squatting where they shouldn't have been in the first place. The huge beach would've considerably reduced the impact of the waves. If someone in Chennai would've told, the energy of the waves was largely dissipated by the time they crossed the main road.

I've lived in Mumbai and I've seen the shanties - shacks put up in the mangroves that act as a natural barrier against such incidents. They are pig headedly putting themselves in the path of danger if one arises and they are encouraged by those politician bastards just because they will gain a considerable number of votes in the next election.

Anonymous said...

Why do we need the slums and their dwellers to dirty the city? Will any of the many multi-national companies that India is hoping to lure to invest there be swayed to invest if they see the rotting core of the city? Why don't the slum-dwellers have any civic sense and keep their area clean, don't crap on the railway tracks or even worse, right in the streets? Why don't they do things that will make their lives better?

We were on an All-India tour and came to VT. The first thing we saw was scores of "poor" lined up on the railway tracks taking a crap. How wonderful! Why can't they dig their own toilets - why does the government have to do it all for them? Lazy bums!

Senthil Kumar said...

I take a serious exception to your comments, Dillip. Ok if myself and the slum dwellers are paying equal taxes to the municipality, as you say. Then why I am not getting Kerosene at the subsidized rate (which is very much sold in the open black market) ? Why I am not getting the free electricity for the one bulb in my house? (which powers a refridgerator and also any political rally) Why is that the rice from ration, is not reaching my home?, when it reaches the rich merchants?? Why does the sugar costs me so much in the open market, when I am PRIVILEDGED to get these from the government? Why I do not see any road, in the sea of autos or taxi?

I am not against government helping the poors, but in the end when you see, its government helping govt employees, MLA's and MP's.

So do not ever say that the government treats us equally.