Refreshing change

Print edition : January 06, 2017

EVEN before the O. Panneerselvam government could settle down in office, it faced a big challenge on December 12 when the cyclone Vardah slammed Chennai city and the neighbouring Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts. Winds blowing at more than 100 kilometres an hour uprooted several thousand trees, toppled lampposts and tore apart hoardings. The roofs of bus shelters flew off. Power lines went down. Mobile phones died because signal towers collapsed. Virtually every road in Chennai was blocked with fallen trees. There was heavy damage in Dharmapuri, Tiruvannamalai and Vellore districts, too.

Chief Minister Panneerselvam, in a hands-on approach to tackling the crisis, visited several places in the city to assess for himself the extent of damage. He went to Ennore and spoke to the persons put up in a relief camp organised in the Government High School at Kathivakkam. He distributed relief materials to those who had been evacuated from their homes in low-lying areas. He visited the coastal town of Pazhaverkadu, situated about 60 km from Chennai, and saw the damage caused to the fishing harbour, boats, and fishing nets. He met fishermen’s representatives. He also visited Mamallapuram on the coast south of Chennai. In fact, he was everywhere in Chennai, visiting affected persons or watching battery-operated electric saws cutting fallen trees or directly talking to officials. This ensured direct communication between him and the officials, and led to speedy relief and clearance work. He proved that he was a grass-roots worker. Panneerselvam’s swift actions contrasted sharply with that of Jayalalithaa’s during the floods in Chennai in November and December 2015 when she drove out of her residence only once but never stepped out of her car. She visited only her constituency, Radhakrishnan Nagar in Chennai, and addressed its residents, “My dear voters”, as if it was election time, from the comfort of her car.

On December 12 and 13, Panneerselvam held several meetings with officials, including those belonging to the National Disaster Management Authority, in the Secretariat. In a refreshing initiative, he drove down to the historic Ripon Building where the Greater Chennai Municipal Corporation offices are located. There, he held discussions with his Cabinet colleagues, Chief Secretary P. Rama Mohana Rao and Director General of Police T.K. Rajendran on measures that were needed to be adopted.

The Chief Minister wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 13, requesting him to depute a Central team to study the extensive damage unleashed by the cyclone. He requested the Prime Minister to urgently sanction Rs.1,000 crore from the National Disaster Response Fund to Tamil Nadu to undertake relief and rehabilitation. The Chief Minister announced that the government would provide Rs.500 crore to the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Company, the Greater Chennai Corporation, the State Highways Department and the Public Works Department to enable them to undertake speedy relief and restoration work.

Panneerselvam has signalled that he is not for a confrontation with the government at the Centre. The State government has reportedly agreed to back the Centre on the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the National Food Security Act and the UDAY scheme aimed at reforms in the electricity sector. It has also reportedly agreed to make it mandatory for students of the State to write the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admissions to MBBS and BDS courses in government and private medical colleges in the country. Almost all the parties in Tamil Nadu oppose the NEET.

Panneerselvam does not want to antagonise the DMK, the main opposition party in the State, either. His government announced that it would implement the Maduravoyal elevated highway project, a project envisaged by the DMK during its tenure in 2006-11. The project is expected to decongest vehicular traffic to Chennai harbour and allow residents of suburbs such as Poonamallee and Vanagaram to reach Chennai quickly. As was her wont, Jayalalithaa had dropped the Maduravoyal highway project after the work on it got under way. The Panneerselvam government has revived it, much to the delight of the DMK. The DMK’s treasurer M.K. Stalin has welcomed the move.

Within the government itself, the stifling atmosphere of the Jayalalithaa regime has lifted. Whereas AIADMK Ministers would previously hesitate to talk to reporters, they are not media shy anymore.

T.S. Subramanian

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