For once the administration, customarily the uncomplaining attendant of political authority, has spoken truth to power. In Kerala, at least two officials, including a director general of police, have clearly stated that the presence of VVIPs who parachuted into the state following the temple fireworks tragedy at Kollam impeded rescue work. The prime minister and Rahul Gandhi flew in immediately, ignoring a request by the director general of police to delay their travel plans by a day to allow the health machinery to deal with the disaster at hand. Not to be left behind, the lowest rung of the state’s political apparatus also swung into action. Members of the Democratic Youth Federation of India had to be asked to leave a casualty ward and the RSS workers were physically removed by the police after they tried to take control of a road, causing chaos and impeding hospital work.
In cases like this, involving burns and horrific wounds, such as those seen in wartime, the energy and focus of the initial response determines how many lives and limbs are saved. Kerala’s health apparatus and the police rose to the occasion. Private practitioners pitched in, and surgical teams and the police worked for hours at a time without food or water. Even autopsies were rushed to tick medico-legal boxes and ensure that the kin of the dead were not denied relief. National politicians should have had the sense to keep away and let Kerala fight its fires. But competitive disaster tourism is the norm in India. This year, Rahul Gandhi was on the scene after the flyover collapse in Kolkata. The presence of leaders in West Bengal and Kerala looked particularly inconsiderate because these states face polls. There is electoral booty to be collected.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy protests that the presence of the prime minister and Rahul Gandhi did not hamper work, but actually brought relief to the people. In earlier times, the presence of national leaders at a disaster scene did focus national attention and assure relief. But in the information age, their good offices are not required. On the contrary, they now constitute a public burden. Exhausted relief workers are required to ensure security and maintain protocol. In practice, this means that hospital staff must neglect patients in order to be attentive to visiting dignitaries. Besides, security cordons physically prevent patients and their relations from accessing medical services. The Kerala police and health services administration have broken ranks to speak candidly about this problem. To end this objectionable tradition, the first step is to speak about it.