Ranjona Banerji Column: The good, the bad, the ugly
The Chennai floods saw all kinds of people — some helped victims, others only helped themselves
As Chennai, some parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh suffered through incessant rain and flooding through November and December, we heard enough stories of individual bravery and generosity to make even the worst cynic rediscover the glory of humanity.
The deaths, destruction and desperation in those afflicted areas were dire. And yet, so many went out of their way to help each other, putting their own lives at risk. They collected much-needed life-saving supplies, they rescued people trapped in their homes or offices and they travelled long distances to reach those in need. Tamil Nadu’s film fraternity stepped up as one has never seen anyone do in India before, definitely not our rich fat cats of Bollywood.
Tamil actor and director R Parthiepan helps flood victims at Virugambakkam in Chennai on Tuesday. Tamil Nadu’s film fraternity stepped up as one has never seen anyone do in India before, definitely not our rich fat cats of Bollywood. Pic/PTI
Social media was used extensively to share information and news. Strangers found help as people re-tweeted and re-posted. News media was also on top of its game in December, having been largely oblivious in November. News channels opened themselves up to ordinary people as they called for help or information or just to try and get a message through to their friends and loved ones.
The Armed Forces did their usual commendable job when it comes to national calamities. They put their well-oiled machinery and their committed people to work. Boats sailed down the roads to get the trapped to safety, food packets and supplies were dropped on roofs and some daring search and rescue operations were conducted. Our disaster management efforts would be nothing if it wasn’t for the Armed Forces.
That large swatches of government were missing in action was not completely surprising. The administration was not just marooned itself, it was stretched thin by weeks of rain and flooding. But perhaps the government cannot be absolved of anything, as much of the flooding was in fact waterlogging. Thanks to unbridled construction and destruction of marshlands and water bodies that are essential for drainage, the excess rainwater had nowhere to go.
Nor is it remotely surprising that local politicians behaved like modern-day maharanis and maharajahs, because let’s be honest, that is what they are. And their loyal supporters have put them there. Relief trucks were delayed for hours because stickers with the chief minister of Tamil Nadu’s face had to be pasted on them. Hours wasted getting such stickers printed. Time and effort spent getting J Jayalalitha’s face on movie posters to mimic a movie superhero. It is hard to imagine who would be fooled by this. The devastation of Chennai is so widespread that even a passing crow would know that an ‘Amma’ sticker is unlikely to fix it.
But the worst of the lot has turned out to be business India and corporate India. Rather than using this as an opportunity to gain goodwill by genuinely helping out, some tried to gain fake goodwill with help that comes with a price tag. A much-reviled war profiteer at least does not pretend to be a Mother Teresa. Companies whose offers of help turned out to be self-promotion with a hidden price-tag are surely more reprehensible. And yet, we had so many of those. Private airlines, whose tickets to places near Chennai cost more than from India to London. Free food offers which just meant someone else would pay, definitely not the company. Free mobile calls when there was no cell phone reception. Free taxi rides when no taxis could drive through roads and people were advised to stay indoors. ‘In name only’, as the Indian idiom puts it so succinctly.
And then you had the small trader looking to make a big buck. A milkman who swam up two floors to sell someone a packet of milk for Rs 150. The cab driver who charged whatever he felt like. Hoarders who contributed to a price rise. Blackmarketers who had a field day.
It’s as if every disaster of this sort brings out a two-headed beast: one that gives up everything to help, while the other half waits in the murky gloom to make some money. Otherwise known, devastatingly, as real life.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona