This is the third time I've been in a disaster area. Orissa after the 1999 cyclone, Kutch after the 2001 quake, and now here in Tamil Nadu after the Big Wave. And while it has been rewarding personally and professionally each time, there's a sense in which it is all wearily familiar: the destruction, the rubble, the bodies, the relief and the questions about it, the plans for long-term rehabilitation. Etc. Forgive me, but that's what it is: wearily familiar.
So in these last few hours of a short break we're taking from our travels through Tamil Nadu, I've been wondering: these were all natural calamities. But there have been other calamities that we've lived through as well. Man made ones. I mean Delhi 1984. Gujarat 2002. Bombay 1992-93. And why just India: Rwanda 1994. Northern Iraq, 1991-92. Many more.
Do those have that same weary familiarity? Would I feel it if I wandered through those areas immediately after the calamitous events?
Two of those, I have experience of: Gujarat and Bombay. There was burning and looting and deaths on similar scales to the natural calamities, yes. But the parallels stop there. There were no relief trucks with banners, no widespread appeals for help, no long-term plans for rehabilitation.
Why is that, when nature stands up and gives us a black eye, we immediately come together so splendidly to take aid to the victims; yet when we ourselves choose to slaughter each other, too many of us mire ourselves in rationalizations? "They were kar-sevaks after all." "This was just a spontaneous retaliation." "They deserved to be taught a lesson." You've heard those phrases.
A hard lesson for me, over the last 10-12 years, has been how easily we fall back on those facile explanations. But I'm not sure I deserved to be taught it.