When the Collector put her faith in local boys

Print edition : April 13, 2018

M. Pallavi Baldev. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

IN a State where the wheels of administration are known to move at their own pace irrespective of the urgency of the situation—recall the Chennai floods in 2015 and the water release from dams for irrigation, which is done at the Chief Minister’s pleasure and not the farmers’ need—the response to rescuing people trapped in the Kurangani forest fire was a refreshing change. The top bureaucrats at the Secretariat in Chennai gave all the freedom to Theni District Collector M. Pallavi Baldev, a 2008-batch IAS officer, to take any decision that would be appropriate to mitigate the problem. They provided all possible assistance to the Collector, who took charge of the district only recently, in the rescue and relief operation.

Racing against time

Racing against time, with a mere two hours to go for nightfall on the mountains, Pallavi Baldev, who served as Sub-Collector, Dharmapuri, in 2010-11, banked heavily on the natives. She told Frontline over phone that the first distress call she received was from a trekker at 4:30 p.m., which was followed immediately by an alert from a crew member of the district’s 108 ambulance emergency service provider.

“The seriousness of the issue struck me hard. I informed my senior officials in Chennai, and they alerted the Defence Ministry for specialised assistance. Since we were short of time, we needed everything at our disposal. Continuous Secretary-level guidance was also offered. Unfortunately, it was the dark phase of the moon, and nightfall was quick over the mountains, making rescue hazardous over non-motorable terrain up the hill,” she said.

The Collector said officers from every department in the district were summoned to Bodinaickanur from where her special camp functioned. “Despite it being a Sunday, everyone responded. And in 20 minutes the district administration was ready. There was absolute interdepartmental coordination. We realised that the victims would be suffering from serious burn injuries. Hence specialists in burns and trauma care were asked to report; those who were on leave were recalled. A medical team was stationed at the base camp at Kurangani village for first aid. A fleet of ambulances was at hand. As backup, we alerted hospitals at Madurai too,” the Collector said.

In consultation with higher police officials, she decided to send a rescue team of local people, police, fire services and medical personnel to the hill on foot. Pallavi Baldev said: “We could not wait the entire night [March 11] to rescue the victims. They could not be left alone up there. The boys did a wonderful job; by daybreak we had brought all of them down and rushed them to different hospitals, including private ones, depending on the seriousness of their injuries. District Collectors in Idukki and Ernakulam in Kerala, too, offered help.”

“The entire official machinery was mobilised and put into action, all within the available time of two hours,” she said. But the regret remains that “despite our best efforts, we could not save them all”.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran