Following politics in India is cultivating a taste for the absurd. My taste has been honed in great part by the style of political reporting in the English papers. Most stories are printed without any editorializing or analysis, no background to debates, no histories for events, and, most puzzlingly, no expansions of any of the acronyms. Absurdity stands in stark relief, to be appreciated all the better.
Take this recent example. Last month, an article appeared on the Hindu’s front page reporting that Jayalalithaa, AIDMK leader and current Chief Minister of the state, had excoriated the Central government because they had “surreptitiously blocked” her plans to build a desalination plant to provide drinking water for the city. How exactly had they done this? Apparently, A. Raja, the central government’s Minister for Environment and Forests and a member of the opposition DMK party in Tamil Nadu, had “raised all sorts of queries about the project. Jayalalithaa’s tirade against Raja is quoted at length in the article:
“It is amazing how queries relating to the impact of the project on biological entities especially fish and shell fish population in the area, its likely impact on the livelihood of the coastal community, management and disposal method of sludge and solid waste generated, as also the characteristics of the sludge have been raised.”
What is most amazing about Raja’s questions is how reasonable they are, a rare case of an environment minister looking closely at the range of potential damage of a high cost development project. But the article itself says nothing beyond quoting Jayalalithaa. It doesn’t mention, for example, that despite terrible water problems in the city, there has been considerable citizen opposition to the desalination plant, based on concerns similar to Raja’s. Nor does the article mention that cheaper and less energy intensive solutions exist to the water problem, but that these might be less attractive to a politician looking to gain political mileage before the upcoming elections. The article does not even mention that there are upcoming elections. Instead, the article goes on to quote Jayalalithaa again:
“[Raja’s] unscrupulous perfidy against the people of Tamil Nadu tears apart the smokescreen of pretence and deceit of bringing projects and programmes for the people of Tamil Nadu practiced by the DPA, which has 12 Ministers in the Union Cabinet.”
Never mind that this sentence is barely sensible; that’s its point. Any attempt at debate over Jayalalithaa’s policy measures will be immediately squelched by her paranoid and fanatical cries of partisanship. And still, the newspaper says nothing.
I used to think that this kind of reporting was a peculiarly Indian journalistic style or, more unfairly, the product of sheer ineptitude. But I’m beginning to think that such deadpan reporting is the product of extreme cynicism about the government by citizens, unsurprising in a country where a recent bill to prevent convicted criminals from running for office was the subject of heated debate. At the same time, I understand why many reporters shy away from context or narratives in India. Any one narrative about a story – the evil state v. the innocent tribals, the good muslims v. the enraged Hindus – is often dissatisfactory. The numerous facts of a story push and pull at the edges of such a narrative until all but the most persistent political observers shy away from trying to put politics into such linear understandings.
In October of 2005, one of the most severe monsoons in Tamil Nadu in the past 25 years began. Some 200 centimeters of rain fell over three months, most of it in five two to three day bouts, causing extensive flooding in 22 districts in the state. In the city of Chennai, reservoirs, rivers and canals overflowed their banks, and houses and roads were damaged, especially thatched huts. Parts of the city were submerged for weeks after the rains ended due to a distressing lack of city planning and poor maintenance of drainage systems. Many people were stranded in their homes, unable to attend work or school.
The morning after the first and most severe bout of rains, the newspapers printed Jayalalithaa’s assurances that her government was dealing with the situation on a “war footing.” In practice, it was unclear exactly what this meant for the government. One reporter I spoke with suggested that war footing meant a blanket sanction for ad hoc measures to deal with the rain. While major emergencies were handled well by the government, with one of the world’s largest standing armies helping in many areas of Tamil Nadu to evacuate thousands of people, manage emergency shelters, and prevent extensive flooding of riverside cities, much of the less dramatic aspects of disaster management was handled by citizens. In parts of North Chennai such as Mogappair, colonies had been constructed on dried lake beds, and homes were still submerged long after rains had stopped. Frustrated residents began digging canals through roads to release the water. Many upscale establishments used electric pumps to remove water from their own property; most emptied it directly onto the roads.
The morning after a severe period of rains in early December, I was returning to Chennai from Vellore with a large group. National Highway 4, a newly constructed road, connects the cities. Traffic was forced onto one side of the highway, as a river of rainwater flowed down the other lane, prevented from crossing over by a low divider. In the farmlands on both sides of the highway, water had collected in large pools with houses, cars, tractors, and the triangular tops of thatched huts awkwardly jutting out. Groups of men wandered the roads, their chappals in their hands and their pants and dhotis rolled up high. They directed traffic, passed news about road conditions to anxious travelers and generally kept spirits high with their geniality, giving the whole experience a kind of carnival-like atmosphere. Once we saw a bus crookedly sunken into the water, having fallen off a submerged road into the fields beside it. Another bus, ignoring the warning, brazenly sped by on the road, sending up great sheets of water on either side, its passengers nervously leaning out the windows as bystanders hooted and jeered the grinning driver on. On the entire 145 kilometer stretch of NH4 between Vellore and Chennai, I didn’t see a single government official or person in uniform till we returned to the heart of the city.
While in rural areas, numerous people drowned, the rains themselves did not cause many deaths in the city beyond a handful of electrocutions. Ironically, what caused deaths – nearly 50 people dead and many more severely injured – were stampedes at centers set up to distribute relief materials to those affected by the floods. Jayalalithaa, mindful that this was an election year, determined that each household affected by the rains should receive 10 kilograms of rice, a liter of kerosene, a sari, a dhoti, and two thousand rupees cash, a huge amount by any standards. Affected streets were chosen by officials from the Collector’s office, and anyone on these streets with a ration card, regardless of whether they lived in thatched huts or cement houses, was eligible for relief materials.
The initial round of relief distribution caused a maelstrom of activity. Opposition politicians, unable to sit quietly as the AIDMK gave large and legal cash handouts to voters, loudly complained that relief distribution was inadequate and directed towards AIDMK strongholds, and demanded Jayalalithaa’s resignation. Citizens protested all over the city, blocking traffic on main roads and mobbing the houses of municipal officers, demanding that more areas be given relief. It being an election year, the government responded. All in all, three lists were drawn up of affected areas, ensuring that nearly everybody with a ration card in the city was eligible for relief.
Early on a Sunday morning in Vyasarpadi on November 6th, six people died in a stampede at a government school while waiting to collect relief materials. A little over a month later on December 18th, in MGR Nagar, a shocking 42 people died in another stampede at a government school at 4:00 am. An article in Frontline described the events:
“The victims, 23 of them women, were part of a large group of people who had patiently waited on a slushy road all through the night, braving intermittent rain, to collect tokens for receiving state assistance… The two tragedies had some strikingly similar features. Both occurred on Sundays, in the early hours of the day, and after large numbers of people waited in despair for long hours under inadequate protection.”
Nearly 9,000 families were eligible to collect their supplies from this relief center. On the first day, 3,452 families came. That means that approximately 5,000 families were still due to collect relief the next day. Relief seekers gathered from Saturday night to be first in line for Sunday’s relief distribution. Yet the police only posted three men at the center during the night, even as crowds swelled to 4,000 people in the early hours of the morning. Some news reports mentioned that a police truck drove into the area, leading relief seekers to believe that token distribution had begun and they began pushing forward causing a stampede. Others blamed a sudden downpour.
News about the stampede quickly descended into dreary politicking. Jayalalithaa announced compensation of a lakh rupees to families of the dead, and 15,000 to each of the injured. Opposition parties again called for her immediate resignation. Jayalalithaa managed to reduce even a stampede at a relief center into partisan misbehavior, publicly blaming the deaths on “rumors” about Sunday being the last day for relief distribution spread by “some culprits and miscreants…who want to bring a bad name to the government.” Within three days she had arrested her miscreant, predictably, a DMK member and a ward councilor from the area, Dhanasekaran.
A newspaper article that described Dhanasekaran’s arrest mentioned that he was a heart patient and required medicines and regular treatment, but did not mention that had there been adequate police protection, not even the most outrageous rumors could have caused a stampede. The government also decided that since Sundays seemed to cause a problem for relief distribution, they would do away with distribution on Sundays, thereby forcing families who needed the money because they missed work on rainy days to miss another day of work to collect it. The Supreme Court later dismissed the claims made by the Chief Minister about “miscreants,” saying succinctly that “[r]umor means there is no source… the incident took place because the officers were not making preparations for providing flood relief.” Dhanasekaran and his friends were released, and the press has since forgotten about the incidents.
Photographs from the MGR Nagar stampede were horrific, women and children wailing, and the bodies of the dead with their faces bloated and purple. Unlike dreary newspaper reporting about the incident, which seemed to take the occurrence of the stampede almost for granted, the question of how the stampede could have occurred refused to be so easily dismissed by the photographs.
I knew little about the procedures for relief seekers, so I met Mr. Rajendra Babu, Corporation Chairman of Zone 10 at his Adyar office. He was surrounded by a group of men, none of whom seemed to have any pressing business with him. They moved aside when I came forward, but stayed and listened to our conversation and murmured their assents whenever Mr. Babu spoke, and sometimes answered one of Mr. Babu’s three cell phones when they rang.
Mr. Babu assured me that procedures for collecting flood relief were very straightforward. Street by street identifications of affected areas by revenue officers and officials from the Collectors’ office meant there were fewer chances of people complaining about partisan favoritism. Relief was given out in such large amounts because each time it rained, people could not go to work and they had lost their earnings repeatedly during these months. “Whoever got left out from the first round of relief, we put on the second list. And then we made a third list of streets.” Announcements were made in every area clarifying when and where and for whom flood relief distribution would take place. When I asked him about the level of damage to houses that would help classify an area as affected, he looked around the room and laughed. “One house fell in Arunachalam Nagar. That’s it. I saw it myself. Only encroachers suffered,” he said, referring to the numerous thatched huts in the city without land deeds, often built precariously on the banks of canals and waterways, “only the encroachers really suffered.”
Yet, while both newspaper accounts and official statements seemed to corroborate Mr. Babu’s words, flood relief procedures seemed to be opaque to many citizens, dependent, as so many things are in bureaucratic India, on connections or sheer luck. I visited Selvi, a preternaturally confident ward councilor I had met at a meeting about urban policy. We spoke on her terrace in a slum near Mandaveli bus depot, and during our talk an old woman called out from below. Selvi leaned over the railing, and they had a long discussion about the woman’s complaints: the old woman had gone from the ration shop to the corporation office to the house of another councilor, and still she had not gotten her relief funds. Selvi’s reassurances that she would do everything in her power to get this woman relief seemed to satisfy her and she went back to her house. Selvi turned to me, “See, everybody only talks to me about how to get the money. They say that they will distribute all the relief before Pongal, but we are not sure. I heard that there are three hundred more tokens in the office being kept for this area.”
In my neighborhood, Tiruvanmiyur, women sat on the main East Coast Road blocking traffic for nearly half an hour demanding flood relief in their area before they were driven off by policemen. When I asked one of the protestors who was responsible for determining flood relief, she shrugged. “We don’t know all of that, but we also suffered a lot. We also need the money.” In MGR Nagar, New MGR Nagar and Manali, a mob of people dissatisfied with how flood relief was being distributed attacked a municipal chairman’s house. Another ward councilor in Ward 9 was verbally abused by a crowd of relief seekers, and she slept in her office for a few days because they threatened to attack her house.
On both sides of the Kotturpuram Bridge, there are three-story buildings constructed by the Slum Clearance Board. When waters from the Chembarmapakkam reservoir were released on December 4th after yet more rain, the Adyar River swelled, washing over the bridge and spilling into the tenements on the banks. The river then receded, but water stayed pooled in the neighborhood which was much lower than the surrounding areas, submerging the ground floor of the homes. The next morning, a large crowd of residents sat by the side of the bridge, some holding bags of their possessions. Motorists stopped to gape at boats plying the streets of the colony, ferrying residents back and forth. Some people had stayed in the buildings, mostly women still in their nightgowns who gathered in little groups on the balconies, combed their children’s hair and stared languidly at the water below and at the crowds staring back at them. The police shouted orders and tried to keep the roads clear for traffic.
Next to me, a gray haired woman, her cotton sari and white blouse wet and her hair bedraggled, debated loudly with nobody in particular whether or not to go to Gandhi Mandapam where many of the Kotturpuram residents were being housed and fed or to stay on here. “They tell us to stay in our houses or go to Gandhi Mandapam. Then they go and give saris to people who are waiting here in the crowd, so what’s the use of listening to them?” A man nodded in agreement and turned away. As if to reward her for her vigilance, a jeep filled with Sunfeast biscuit boxes pulled up to the curb. The woman hurried into the crowd closing around the jeep until the police drove them away. She waited there, and by reaching her had into a slit in the jeep’s cover, managed to make off with a large box of biscuits.
I visited MGR Nagar about a month after the stampede on a hot day in the middle of the afternoon. The main road there is wide, and freshly laid tar smelled strongly in the heat. Although the thatched huts near the Cooum River which make up part of the colony could not be seen from this part of the road, MGR Nagar is visibly a low-income neighborhood. Small eateries, provisions stores, STD booths, and pawn shops also selling jewelry lined the road. A few fortune tellers sat on small tarps on the roadside, with black and silver wands and parakeets in tiny cages that would tell your future by picking from packs of cards. Movie posters with a mustached and unsmiling Thirumavalavan, the Dalit Panthers leader, holding a gun and dressed in fatigues, were plastered along low walls. I had not seen these posters so prominently advertised in any other part of the city before, perhaps giving some indication of the caste composition of the area.
I was nervous approaching the school; my whole vague project suddenly felt obscene and irreverent. I dawdled as much as I could, looking at my cell phone and making several calls to myself as if phoning for a delayed friend. Finally, I mustered up the courage to walk down the street alone to the gates of the school. The school where the stampede had occurred was located down the end of a long and narrow road off the main road. In the mid-afternoon glare with the heat reverberating off the asphalt, it seemed to my overactive imagination that death marked the road. A young man was unloading stacked cages of quiet chickens from a small lorry into a butcher’s shop. Scales and discarded fish parts from a fish vendor glimmered in the afternoon sun, and clouds of flies rose from ominous stains on the asphalt marking my arrival.
But the school itself seemed unmarked by the gruesome events. The gates were thrown open, and the slight incline up to the gate which had caused relief-seekers to fall and be trampled looked harmless. The only unusually eerie thing about the school was that even in this heat, all the doors and windows facing the courtyard were closed, so that although you could hear their squeals and chatter, you could not see the face of a single child.
Across from the school there were a couple of small shops made of plywood. In the biggest a man and a woman were sitting, manning a small fridge of sodas and packets of water, a phone, large plastic jars of biscuits and toffees—the needs of the children who attended the Arignar Anna Corporation school. This man was Muthukumar, proprietor of Thangalakshmi Stores. Muthukumar indicated behind him when I asked him where his house was.
“Everybody knew that there was money being given out,” he told me, “Everyone also knew the procedures.” He pointed to two poles on either side of the gate at the school, where policemen had strung up megaphones and made announcements for two days beforehand telling people the procedures for collecting relief. At 7:30 in the morning, relief seekers were to be given tokens, and by 9:00 they would start distributing relief. Relief seekers from three different ration shops were to be given relief at this center. They were divided by their ration shop number into three streets where they were supposed to wait for token distribution. First, each person was given a single token which he would then exchange for four tokens inside the school. These four tokens were used to collect the four kinds of relief supplies, a sari and dhoti, rice, kerosene and the money. “Everybody came and collected money,” he said. “Even engineers making 25,000 a month came and collected relief. Look at my house, we don’t need money because it rained. We had no problems. It’s those people who live in the huts near the river who need the money.”
By late evening on Saturday night, a crowd of 300 had already gathered for the next day’s relief distribution. The next day was Sunday, which meant that most people did not have work. “So they were all enjoying themselves,” said Mr. Muthukumar. “See, they had given out relief money in thousand rupee notes to prevent corruption. If you gave out relief in 100 rupee notes, the person who was handing it out could take a couple of 100s and you wouldn’t say anything because you still got 800. So they prevented corruption this way. See over there,” he pointed about 200 meters from the school gate to the liquor shop, “He closed by early evening that Saturday. Why? Because he didn’t have enough change—everyone was bringing him 1,000 rupee notes.”
The crowd swelled after 2:00 am, after the late show at the movies ended and men came to join the crowds. The policemen did their rounds and tried to keep order, but the crowd was defiant. Police cannot hit women without significant provocation and women know that. When the policemen told the women waiting in line to move away and return the next morning, the women would taunt them. “I saw a police inspector fall at the feet of a group of women and beg them to leave. Nobody left.”
“Around that time in the morning,” he continued, “it started to rain. Who would give out tokens at 4:00 in the morning? People knew that, they were not pushing to get tokens. It rained very hard, so people wanted to go inside the school and sit there. At that time this gate did not have a lock. You could just push hard on it and it would open. So people starting pushing inside to sit, and then they started falling.”
“There were too many people waiting. Poor people lost 100 rupees everyday that they could not go to work,” he said again, “Instead of giving it to us, in these concrete houses, they should have given more money to the people in the huts.”
So we now have a situation in which flood relief was being given out in excessive amounts and to excessive numbers of people near an election, with no clarity on what actually constituted an affected household. We have four thousand people standing outside a government school from two in the morning, many of whom are drunk, are arriving after the late show at the movies and many of whom refuse to listen to the police. We have a handful of policemen to keep law and order who did not call in reinforcements when the crowds swelled, and Opposition party members who may or may not have panicked citizens by spreading rumors about this being the last day of relief distribution. And we have the rain, a blistering downpour, which refused to stop. So who is to blame for the stampede deaths? None of the above. Or all of the above, which is what makes participating in Indian politics such a dispiriting activity.
And yet … Pushpa, who comes to my apartment once a day to mop the floors, came to me yesterday and sheepishly asked whether she could borrow some money to pay for her daughter’s school fees. Her husband, a day laborer in construction, was not able to get work this month, and they could not pay their daughter’s school fees. There is obviously an immense need for more subsidies to the poor in this city. This is especially needed in the form of increased social security to those millions who work in the informal sector, usually the poorest residents of a city who live in the most precarious housing conditions. Flood relief was a great benefit to many, but ad hoc systems of relief funds cannot be the answer to this pressing problem. Death by stampede at a relief center during an election year could be avoided if a government system had already been in place to provide exactly the kind of social security that these workers lacked. But who has the political will to implement such a system?
 Doraisamy, Vani, “Relief won’t be distributed on Sundays, says Government,” The Hindu. 21 Dec 2005.