Editorial / A city and its books
Managing disaster
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / A CITY AND ITS BOOKS 
 
 
 
 
Most Calcuttans love the Book Fair. Trysts, feasts, crowd-watching and a bit of browsing, as winter turns into spring, can be a lot of fun. And in that order. But does this make the fair an expression of the city’s abiding love for books? This annually rehearsed myth ought to be questioned, not only to take a less sentimental look at Calcutta’s social and civic character, but also to think about the status of books in the life of the city. A fairground spirit and intellectual distinction may not be quite the same thing.

If what people flock to do on the Maidan is taken to be an index of the city’s cultural identity, then books are not its only passion. Leather, clothes, handicrafts and political rallies are also equally integral to its collective psyche and are all greeted with equal enthusiasm. In a city where pollution has reached alarming levels, where public spaces like parks and riverfronts offer little security from crime or police harassment, and where most young people cannot afford the indoor alternatives to socializing in public or at home, such festivities are bound to take on important social and civic functions. The crowds around the state-sponsored film complex, Nandan, for instance, vouch for passions other than the purely cinematic. And here too there is a myth, ready at hand, to glorify the turnout: Calcutta’s legendary love for films.

The Book Fair lasts for only a couple of weeks; and for the casual reader, the discounted prices and the opportunity to sample a wide range of publishers are certainly an advantage. But its retailing character makes it very different from, say, the Frankfurt fair, where rights to books, and not books as such, are sold. The Calcutta fair remains an important forum for the small vernacular, particularly Bengali, publishers. But here too the mere selling of books to individual buyers hinders any significant attempt at expanding their marketing strategies. Moreover, for both English and vernacular books, the buying trends seem to indicate the increasing demand for books that would make the traditional book-lover cringe. Remaindered encyclopaedias, crammers, semi-pirated texts, almanacs and medical self-help manuals turn out to be most popular. Small publishers all over India seem to regard Calcutta as the most lucrative market for precisely this sort of books. A results- and degree-obsessed schooling and higher education system, and an inordinate number of competitive public examinations seem to determine much of the city’s taste for books. There is nothing intrinsically lamentable about this kind of functionalism. This is true for most Indian markets and Calcutta is no exception. Serious and high quality publishing — book production as a cherished art — is a dwindling and beleaguered activity in India.

Libraries and bookshops tend to flourish in cities with a vibrant and maverick book culture. Here too Calcutta affords a disheartening scenario. It has about four good bookshops in which one can imagine browsing. But these remain exclusive and expensive outlets, selling mostly English books. The more accessible bilingual or vernacular bookshops hardly foster the spirit of connoisseurship. The state of the city’s great libraries, and of the books in them, also raise very grave doubts regarding their users’ and administrators’ love for books. The priceless resources of the National, Asiatic Society, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, Presidency College and Calcutta University libraries lie in states of neglect and abuse, which can only speak of a profound philistinism at the heart of Calcutta’s bureaucratic and academic cultures. At the opening of the Book Fair, West Bengal’s bibliophile chief minister promised the guild of publishers and booksellers a great deal of space for building a permanent “centre for books”. By paying extravagant homage to a mythical cultural identity, he may be imposing on Calcutta a vision that the city now hardly understands.

   

 
 
MANAGING DISASTER 
 
 
BY BHASKAR GHOSE
 
 
As the appalling dimensions of the earthquake damage in Gujarat are emerging, so is the widespread anger at the slow response of the administration, and, more importantly, the continuing lack of coordination of the relief effort which is now a very substantial one. There are tonnes of relief material, hundreds of trained disaster management teams from abroad, thousands of soldiers and paramilitary personnel, transport and food and clothing, volunteers from all over the country, but hardly anyone to tell them where to go, what to do.

No one could, of course, foresee or predict the earthquake, or its terrible intensity. And it was a national holiday; the authorities were all busy with parades and the ceremonial observance of Republic Day. Consequently the initially slow reaction was understandable. But days have passed, and the lack of coordination appears to continue. This is a very alarming state of affairs, which has caused a great deal of suffering, even deaths. And what is worse, it seems to be a common trait in all attempts made in recent years to combat disasters.

It remains unclear in Gujarat, as it was unclear in Orissa when it was hit by the supercyclone, who was the one man in control, who took the decisions and who ensured these were carried out. As in Orissa then, in Gujarat now there does not seem to be a coherent disaster management team, led by one designated person. Consequently frantic references are being made by one person to another, by collectors to the relief secretaries and by the relief secretaries to the finance secretaries, to crisis management committees and similar bodies and to many such agencies. And time passes, people suffer, and some of them die.

Even if a disaster like the earthquake cannot be foreseen, disasters occur in every state of one kind or another: floods, drought, fire, landslides in mountainous areas and other calamities occur at one time or the other, and a permanent control room and a disaster management system are absolutely essential. There was, and perhaps still is, an antiquated set of rules called the relief code or relief manual in most states. One’s recollection of these is that they are hopelessly irrelevant today; some of the provisions are ludicrous, and other than in times of crisis, can provide considerable amusement.

It is not that a system of sorts does not exist; the civil defence set-up in many states is rightly also meant to handle natural calamities, but they are completely incapable of doing anything in their present form. What is essential is that an effective system be set up, and backed with rules and regulations — by legislation, if necessary — to make it truly effective in a crisis situation. I know that administrators will find this statement irritatingly vague, so let me make it more specific. No one expects that the disaster management team have fleets of cranes, trucks, bulldozers, medical equipment like mobile hospitals ready to move at a moment’s notice. What one does expect is that the system know exactly where these are at all times, and be able to requisition them as soon as necessary. In other words, apart from a control room, the key element is information. Information on where what equipment is available, and the location of those who operate the equipment, where personnel can be requisitioned, the addresses and telephone numbers of doctors, nurses and paramedical staff, and other relevant essential information which is up to date, not years old which makes it worthless.

Beyond this there are some very essential elements that every state needs to consider if it wants an effective disaster management team. It needs regulations or even a law, which enable the controller — or whatever the leader of the disaster management system is called — to pass such orders as he considers necessary for the relief effort. From requisitioning cranes and vehicles and personnel to taking over buildings for emergency relief centres and other such functions. His orders must be acted on at once by every wing of the government — the police, fire services, medical institutions, and every department or office that he may call upon for people or materials or anything else.

Liaison with the armed forces in such situations is not as difficult as some people tend to think; if the instructions are clear and backed by the right authority they will not hesitate to act, and have never done so. The law or regulations governing disaster management must take this factor into consideration and provide for it.

Key to all this is something else which, again, needs to be provided for by law. This is interference, by whatever authority, be it the chief minister or the chief secretary, member of the legislative assembly, member of parliament or anyone else. The officer designated as the chief of the disaster management system must be left alone to function as he thinks best; he can never do this unless he is made legally liable for taking instructions from someone outside the system, and a person giving such instructions is also made legally liable. What he needs is information, as much as is available and on a continuous basis. The decisions he makes on this must be his own.

What is also essential is that authority be delegated as much as possible. The fullest powers must be made available right down to collectors or someone equivalent; this will end the constant seeking of instructions which is a prime cause for delay.

Today there are such agencies as a crisis management committee. To my mind these should be done away with immediately; they are places where there is a deal of unnecessary talking, all of which wastes time. The role they played during the hijacking of flight IC 814 from Kathmandu is well known. The key is to give the powers to one person who leads the disaster management team; his decisions must prevail over everything else, and every agency must by law follow his orders without demur. He, in turn, must provide as much information to the media and to people in general as he can; regular briefings, undated names of people affected, and other details must be made available through an information centre, or centres. What is of prime consideration is that people know as much as possible of what is being done, and where details of those affected, or not affected, can be collected.

One very important aspect of disaster management is the handling of VVIPs and VIPs of various hues who visit the disaster affected areas. They will, whether one likes it or not; to an extent, they need to so that at the highest level the disaster management effort gets the importance it deserves. But they must be looked after by agencies other than those involved in the rescue and relief operations; the chief of the operations must not be disturbed by such visits, or the operations will lose momentum. In these matters chaos is a hair’s breadth away.

Even this system will have flaws; sometimes specialized equipment has to be taken from units of the armed forces, or planes and helicopters from the air force may be needed, and this will mean coordination with the services and the disaster management team leader. The key is to see that the relief and rescue effort goes on, that chaos and lack of organization is minimized. There is enough expertise and experience in the country to ensure that we get our act together, now, in Gujarat, and in future whenever a natural calamity occurs.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Pretty politician

For Arun Jaitley, Union minister for law, justice and company affairs, 2001 began with a bang. A leading newspaper published a prediction by a well known Delhi astrologer, Madan Das Madan, that Jaitley’s political career was set to reach dizzying heights. Soon after, the newly-crowned Miss India, Celina Jaitly, said on a television programme that the law minister was her favourite politician. The two are not related, by the way. Is it the minister’s politics the lady flipped for? one might wonder. But whatever it is, the compliment from such glittering quarter has certainly sent Jaitley’s glamour value rocketing into untraceable heights. And that’s not all. Asked to list the most handsome politicians in order of preference during a TV programme, the studio audience put Jaitley second only to Rajiv Gandhi, who, of course, was first. Given Miss India’s endorsement, there is nothing enigmatic so far. But the list acquires a slightly enigmatic tinge henceforth. Following Jaitley are Vajpayee and Madhavrao Scindia, in that order. As for Jaitley, with such beauty ratings, the only thing he has to worry about are his jealous rivals in the BJP. He’ll certainly need his political skills to keep them at bay.

Pardon, too many slips are showing

The great Gujarat tragedy took on a different dimension in neighbouring Rajasthan. State government employees there refused to part with a day’s salary for victims of the earthquake. This was not because they are insensitive. Rather, it was a damning commentary on the Ashok Gehlot government which they find impossible to trust. The employees union said it would directly contribute to the Gujarat government’s relief fund. Alternatively, they suggested that Gehlot first transfer funds to Gujarat and then deduct a day’s salary. The employees union alleged that during the Kargil war, not even half their contribution reached the right quarters. No trust, should one call this?

Even when put on a lighter scale of judgment, politicians, busy with publicity when tragedy strikes, hardly fare better. When the PM visited Ahmedabad and Bhuj, for example, there began a cat and mouse game between the BJP and the Congress. A Congress delegation headed by Ahmad Patel wanted to submit a memorandum to the PM when he was interacting with media. The idea was to hog some limelight. The BJP spin-doctors stalled it by asking the delegation to wait. All TV crews and photographers had gone by the time Ahmad got his audience with Vajpayee. The Congress leaders desperately looked around for the media as BJP leaders gleefully told them, “They have all gone. There will be photographs in tomorrow’s papers.”

Don’t mix and match

No friends for Salman Khan in the RSS? Its mouthpiece, Panjajanya, quoted Aishwarya Rai’s family accusing Salman of “terrorizing” them. Apparently, Ash’s parents want her to get married to Sabeer Bhatia but the lady saith no. The sangh doesn’t like the idea of Salman as groom. Reason? Too obvious.

Do you have my number?

The CBI quizzed the Hinduja brothers everyday but the “pressure” did not alter their daily routine. Each morning, Srichand, Gopi and Prakash would come to Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens for their morning walk and spend more than an hour chatting with politicians, bureaucrats and journalists about the state of affairs in India and England. Middle-rung Congress leaders are especially nice to the Hindujas thinking that the trio is still close to the Nehru-Gandhi family. The Hindujas have generously given their cell phone numbers to Congresswallahs too. No CBI was going to disrupt lifelong habits.

Left, right and not quite centre

Salman Khan is not the only fly in the sangh parivar’s ointment. Journalists of the saffron hue were greatly perturbed to hear that a Mumbai-based colleague had been given the Padma Shri. They are not normally that mean, it’s just that this particular journalist is a frank and forthright critic of the sangh and never lets the shadow of a chance to berate it slip past his pen. An angry sangh parivar activist confronted a senior functionary in the PMO, demanding to know what lapse had led to this leftist-progressive journalist receiving an award. The cornered gentleman immediately passed the buck to a former journalist now part of the media set-up at the PMO. “He was a leftist himself before he embraced the sangh parivar,” the gentleman said. “He has got his former leftist colleague from Mumbai the award in the hope of bringing him round to his views.” Conversion by bribery? But isn’t that a no-no?

Footnote / Tread heavily, for you tread on my effigy

The Trinamool Congress leader and Calcutta mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, has invented a new method to stop the regular demonstrations by CPI(M) councillors in front of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation building on S.N.Banerjee Road. Reportedly, Mukherjee has a number of his effigies ready in his chamber to be distributed to the demonstrators. Sources close to Mukherjee say that whenever opposition councillors line up an agitation against him, the mayor, acting on prior information, invites the key person to his chamber and hands over one of the effigies to be burnt outside his chamber. Embarrassed by this, councillors are left with no option but to call off the stir. “I don’t mind my effigy burnt in front of the chamber. Only this can stop regular demonstrations by the communists at the corporation building,” a smiling Mukherjee told newspersons. A CPI(M) councillor admits, “We are really at a loss when the mayor himself hands over his effigy to us to be burnt.” Inspired by Mukherjee’s style, Trinamool members have reportedly suggested that Didi follow Subratada when dealing with the communists.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Cannibalized success

Sir — Sequels have a way of disappointing as they rarely manage to live up to the expectations they inevitably generate (“Hannibal cooks up a media buzz”, Feb 3). Be it the much hyped sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, or the one to Tom Cruise’s film, Mission Impossible, almost every attempt to recreate the magic of a first film has ended in disaster. Given the dismal record that sequels have at the box-office, it is difficult to explain why ambitious film directors have not stopped trying to repeat the success of their previous ventures. Is it a fatal attraction? Anthony Hopkins, the star of the film, Hannibal, seems to believe in the jinx and has refused to discuss his performance with anyone.
Yours faithfully,
Chandra Burman, via email

Pressing matters

Sir — It is difficult to understand why certain sections of the press have been silent on the government of India’s delay in lifting the restrictions on foreign rescue teams. The government should have appealed to the international community to send teams and emergency supplies so that the rescue operations could have begun within a few hours of the earthquake.

The press should have been more forthcoming and critical in its coverage of the delay in carrying out rescue operations by both the Centre and the state government.

Yours faithfully,
Krishnakumar Desai, San Jose, USA

Sir — Indian journalists have always hobnobbed with politicians just as the latter have tried to woo them. The mutual understanding between some journalists and politicians has often stopped the former from criticizing the party in power.

Besides, it is disappointing to see the deterioration in the standard of English used by some of the English dailies. The entry of foreign newspapers into the Indian market could go a long way in ensuring a qualitative improvement in the standards of the local and national newspapers. Healthy competition would help raise the standards of reporting and thus encourage better performance.

Yours faithfully,
Chetan Singh, Calcutta
Sir —The editorial, “Need to know” (Jan 7), paints an interesting picture of how politicians manipulate the media for their own ends. Journalists too, sometimes suspend their judgment and toe the official line. But on the whole, the commitment of the Indian media cannot be doubted. Both the print and the electronic media here have done an excellent job in covering the current crisis. Star News deserves special mention in this regard.

Yours faithfully,
Nita Singh, via email

Deadly power

Sir — The article, “You only die once” (Jan 15), was both interesting and thought provoking. It also raises some pertinent questions.

The writer, Bhaswati Chakravorty, talks about a person’s right to die with dignity. But I fail to understand how the use of a life-support system makes a person lose his dignity. Besides, can a person suffering from intense pain be expected to make that choice? A United States National Institute of Health study shows that many patients who opt for euthanasia do so in a state of acute depression which can cloud their judgment. Moreover, the advances made by modern medicine can help alleviate pain. Legalizing euthanasia will be tantamount to giving doctors a licence to kill.

Yours faithfully,
Madhumita Saha, Calcutta

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