India: The Politics of Relief

Jason Motlagh, for the Pulitzer Center
Patna, India

After hearing moans from flood victims and groans from aid workers over the government's relief failures, I made a point to get the official position when I returned from Muzaffarpur to Patna, the leafy capital of Bihar state.

Instead of vague assertions, Relief Commissioner M. Srivastava offered, in a breathless torrent of enthusiasm and detail, what he called "an almost 100 percent solution" to his state's flood woes.

Before he went any further, Srivastava wanted to get one thing straight: That despite the Bihar government's reputation for corruption and mismanagment, this years floods were unprecedented in their intensity and length. (He cited one stretch in July when it rained for 20 straight days, twice as long, he said, as anyone he spoke with could ever recall.)

This posed a unique challenge to the state, which he insisted has always had a "well-thought out action plan. He "strenuously" rejected any notion that emergency measures were not in hand for "something that happens every year … it would be a shame on us."

But he did admit this year's floods exposed a troublesome disconnect between sound planning and implementation.

To understand why, he explained, one needed to get a grasp of Bihar's long-backward political culture. Over the years, the neglected poor have ceased to expect help from a government they view neglectful. During regular floods, they more or less have managed on their own. The state, in turn, has allowed that sense of abandonment to take root and shirked responsibilities, resulting in a "vicious cycle." This year's massive floods cast the perils of that rift in sharp relief.

According to commissioner Srivastava, one problem the state has had with the idea of pre-positioning surplus grains at the local level is risk of heavy losses when perishables go unused. The same goes for boats and other emergency equipment liable to rot in the humid climate. But after this year's crisis, and the threat of heavier flooding in coming years due to climate change, some sort of compromise must be reached.

The commissioner unpacked his idea. Using a 30-year databaset, he said, the government can map out the villages most likely to be flooded and then factor in the population to determine how much food aid is needed. To get around state fears of losing money on those unused provisions, he said they could be auctioned off in markets at a loss of 20-30 percent, which would ultimately be made up when a real disaster strikes because expensive transport costs -– for trucks, boats, and army helicopters –- will largely be avoided.

"I can show a strong, irrefutable case by calculation that even with annual losses, in the event of big floods … there will be no loss but a savings of money in the end," he affirmed, in huff of excitement. He went to say that some police could be hired to look after the grains, and boats leased out to the poor that could be requisitioned in the event of an emergency – all part of an "integrated mechanism."

So how long will this take to work out?

When "peace time" begins in a month or so, Srivastava said he will get to work on a proposal with calculationas and comprable scenarios that provide "irrefutable" proof his plan can work. It's then a matter of selling the to idea to senior politicians in the state, and, finally, the national accountant general, who pulls purse strings.

It almost sounded as though in might just work; then again, a good man with a good idea has a lot working against him in Bihar. Namely the government.