FORMER Mayor of Mumbai Nana Chudasama erects a weekly banner expressing citizens' concerns. The latest says: "God created floods and politicians. One destroys. The other exploits."
The pithy statement highlights the politicisation of flood relief in Maharashtra. Intra- and inter-party rivalries and self-promotion by politicians came to the fore during the floods. The political mileage to be derived was apparent from the very beginning. Conspicuous was the rivalry between the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), partners in the ruling coalition in the State. Intra-party tussles within the Congress were renewed.
The silence of the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine did not go unnoticed. Never one to miss an opportunity to lambast the ruling alliance, the Opposition was silent primarily because elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC; which the Shiv Sena-BJP combine rules) are due and the BMC's failure to take preventive pre-monsoon measures contributed to the severity of the floods.
Two weeks after the floods, NCP chief and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar launched a tirade against BMC Commissioner Johny Joseph and the Relief and Rehabilitation Department of the State government. While many citizens saw it as justifiable criticism, the political intent behind the attack went unnoticed. Pawar conveniently avoided attacking the State government as a whole since that would have been tantamount to blaming his own party too. Instead, he chose his targets. By lambasting Johny Joseph, Pawar was actually attacking Congress Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh since the Commissioner was appointed by him. Besides, the Urban Development Department, under which the BMC comes, is headed by a Congress Minister. Similarly, Congress leader Patangrao Kadam heads the Relief and Rehabilitation Department. Ironically, during his visit to Sangli, Home Minister and NCP leader R.R. Patil's constituency, Pawar praised the State government's efforts.
"Pawar was just trying to show up the failures of the Vilasrao Deshmukh government. Why didn't he hit out at the Mumbai Police? Obviously because the Home Minister is an NCP man and he controls the police," said an informed source in the Mantralaya, the State Secretariat. In fact, the police failed to quash rumours about a tsunami in the wake of the rains. The rumour caused the death of 16 people in a stampede. Police announcements dismissing the rumour could have defused the tense situation.
If relief was the issue and not political gain, then questions need to be asked of Pawar himself. With his acknowledged abilities in disaster management, why did he not step in and offer support and direction? Indeed, why did he not even visit Mumbai in the middle of the crisis? Why did he choose to go to the Konkan instead? At the peak of the crisis, instead of being present in the State capital, Pawar chose to travel to Raigad and Ratnagiri - areas over which he has been unable to get a political hold. Spurred by the Congress winning over former Chief Minister and Shiv Sena leader Narayan Rane, who has his political base in Konkan, Pawar felt he had to make a special effort to reach out to the people in the region in their time of crisis. In fact, Pawar marshalled his troops in such a way that, at one stage, there were at least four NCP Ministers camping in the region.
Indeed, most politicians planned their tours based on their political aspirations. Informed sources say government officials were constantly distracted from relief work by the visits. "Protocol duties interfered considerably with relief work," said such a source.
For instance, three Ministers - Jayantrao Patil, R.R. Patil (both NCP) and Patangrao Kadam (Congress) - camped in Sangli at the same time. Ministerial one-upmanship to try and get the most for their voters regardless of criteria caused delays in the distribution of relief.
R.R. Patil, the seniormost NCP leader in government and one who is generally known as a principled politician, too fell in the trap of politicising the relief work. He made unrealistic demands that went against standing orders. The existing order said that only owners of houses destroyed in the floods would be eligible for assistance. R.R. Patil demanded that even people evacuated as a precaution (but whose houses suffered no damage) should be given ex gratia assistance. Not to be outdone, Patangrao Kadam too pushed for this assistance. Finally both agreed to follow the norm - foodgrain distribution to all those affected, including the evacuees, and Rs.1,000 a person to those who were destitute.
Similarly, some Ministers wanted to bypass regulations for distribution of relief to farmers. Government rules stipulate Rs.1,000 a hectare would be given to small and marginal farmers affected by the floods. However, some Ministers wanted to extend this to farmers with large holdings as well. Not only would this have pushed up the relief costs, but it would have worked to the advantage of rich farmers.
The political cross currents in the Congress too were highlighted by the floods. The anti-Vilasrao Deshmukh group in the party used the opportunity to discredit the Chief Minister. "Apart from the floods he [Deshmukh] was also battling Congress leaders such as Govindrao Adik, Rohidas Patil, Ambarish Patel and Rajendra Darda," said an informed source in the Mantralaya. He predicted that there will be a call for the Chief Minister's ouster within the next few months.