The `common man approach'

Print edition : August 13, 2004

THANJAVUR District Collector J. Radhakrishnan calls it the "common man approach" to crisis management. That the people approved of it is proof that it worked. "I acted like a common man and hence people identified me as one of them. If I had acted as a Collector and ordered that things be done, I would have been a failure in a calamity like this," said Radhakrishnan.

Thanjavur District Collector J. Radhakrishnan consoling a mother in the burns ward of the Kumbakonam Government Hospital.-VINO JOHN

From the moment he reached the school he was an active coordinator of relief. Be it procuring white cloth from wherever it was available to cover the bodies or getting the higher officials to do away with detailed post-mortems of the bodies, the Collector and his team moved in step with the needs of the traumatised parents. The staff at the burial ground was activated and the expenditure aspect was taken care of so that there was no hitch in the arrangements for burials. Fifty-six bodies were buried the same night.

A complaints cell and a helpline manned by revenue and police officials were also set up to take up important tasks such as locating the children.

Special medical teams were rushed from Thanjavur Medical College even as an SOS was sent to specialist-doctors like plastic surgeon V. Jayaraman of Kilpauk Medical College in Chennai and others at JIPMER, Pondicherry, and CMC, Vellore. They came prepared with large quantities of collage membrane and other materials required for treating burns victims. "Contributions of plasma and collage membrane came also from Kovai Medical Centre, SKS Hospital, Salem, and the Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai," he said. While Bharath Sanchar Nigam Ltd opened free helplines at the hospital, Aircel provided cellular phones free.

"Amid all this, I made it a point to pass on correct information to the media to avoid wrong reporting, which is essential in a crisis like this," the Collector said. Simultaneously, all VIP visits were managed without affecting the treatment of the children.

With confirmation coming that Chief Minister Jayalalithaa would be visiting the school the same evening, the local administration prepared cheques amounting to Rs.90 lakhs to be given as solatium to the parents of the victims. The distribution of the cheques began at 10-30 p.m.

The next evening school managements were called and steps were taken to provide initial counselling to the students of Sri Krishna High School and as a confidence-building measure, the next morning itself the process of admitting them in other schools was started. Within three days 572 of the 740 children of the school were admitted in various schools.

Many mothers, who had become hysterical and were in a state of denial, were given counselling by social workers and doctors and specialists for specific problems. "There are two parents who had only one child each and lost them in the accident. They have undergone the family planning operation. For them, it has been decided to perform recanalisation surgery after counselling," the Collector said.

He appreciated the "tremendous strength and courage" that the people showed in coming to the aid of the administration. "The initial phase of the crisis was managed by passing on the correct information. By utilising the services of non-governmental organisations as goodwill ambassadors, not a single incident of anger against any public utility was allowed," Radhakrishnan said.

All the while, the need for quick rehabilitation and relief remained in focus. Natham village, home to 13 children who died, did not have a proper road to the burial ground. A road was laid immediately.

Long-term measures announced by the Chief Minister were also followed up. As many as 159 teams were sent out to survey the 1,500 schools in the district to detect the ones that had thatched roofs. Of the 1,398 noon-meal centres in the district, 198 were found to have thatched roofs. These were removed and steps were taken to put concrete roofs for these structures.

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