Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Of Human Need and Greed

Of Human Need and Greed
By Narendra Luther

The recent Tsunami disaster highlighted two contrasting aspects of human nature – sympathy and charity on the one hand, and greed and perversity on the other.

As soon as the impact of the disaster came to be known, human beings of all persuasions and in all parts of the country and the world rose to provide succour and relief in whatever way they could. There was a spontaneous gush of good will and many persons and groups rushed to relieve the misery of the people affected by the tragedy. Sympathy and pity are ever present in the human heart. We have had ample evidence of it during the Chinese attack on India in 1962 when women in the far south gave their ornaments for supplementing the funds for the defence of the country. During the cyclone of 1979 in the coastal Andhra, voluntary relief agencies descended in the area from all parts of the country with money and material. Again when an earthquake devastated Latur, the response of the agencies and individuals was overwhelming. In the case of Tsunami, thanks to the scale of the havoc and the revolution in communication, the response of the common man all over exceeded all expectations. From every segment of society persons of all ages came forward to contribute their mite to mitigate the human tragedy. Children gave from their pocket money and pensioners contributed from their pensions, not to speak of the rich and the corporates who made liberal contributions to different funds started by various organizations. These examples reveal the benevolent side of human nature.

The other side

Sadly, simultaneously, we also saw the perverse side of human nature too. Since some of the images to corroborate that appeared on some channels of TV, they can’t be denied or brushed under the carpet by the authorities. We saw some unaffected parties repeatedly collecting the chits which entitled the victims to relief materials. Vultures in the shape of human beings descended on the sites and drove away with truck-fulls of materials to the markets. The officials when questioned had nothing to say in defence. They went off the cameras. Some of the relief materials did not reach the affected parties. If it was due to the difficulties of reaching the inaccessible places, one could understand. In many cases, they were siphoned off to other destinations. Stories of connivance by officials with some unscrupulous elements to filch the relief money and material are current. Unfortunately, all public servants are not imbued with the sense of dedication that is required in such situations. And there is no way in which it can be injected suddenly amongst officials. It has to be instilled in them earlier in their homes and later during their training. Thy can no doubt draw inspiration from the conduct of their seniors if they set a good example to emulate. But at that level too we often see the same vicious circle. No code can be a substitute for the spirit that determines the type of response that is required in emergencies. In many cases, the code has to be defied because it does not meat the situation. For example, I had once to draw money from the treasury in excess of my powers to meet the demand of the situation. My justification lay in what I called the ‘doctrine of implied powers’. It was my duty to make sure that no one died an unnatural death in my jurisdiction. In order to ensure that, I had the implicit authority to do every thing lawful. My action was not only upheld but also lauded.

Callousness and Perversion

I may be forgiven for citing my own experience of the two contrasting aspects of human nature. Long back at the very start of my first posting in Gudur (Nellore district of AP) there was incessant rain lasting four days. I received a wireless message from the government past mid-night that two trains were stranded in my jurisdiction near Nayudupeta and Sulurpeta respectively and that I should arrange to provide necessary relief to the passengers.

As soon as we moved out of town we encountered waist deep water on the road. My officials said we could not go further. That was the first time I realized that a leader has to sometime overrule seemingly wise counsel. As I pushed into the chest- deep water, others were compelled to follow suit. We felt happy when with great difficulty we were finally able to reach the first train with adequate succour. But our elation was dampened by some passengers spurning the meager fare, and asking for a la carte menu – including pudding!

We set up refugee camps for the hordes of people pouring in from the affected villages to the small town of Sulurpeta. I asked the tahsildar to buy rice and other essential commodities needed by the refugees. Some of the refugees particularly women also needed some clothes.

When the Tahsildar went to buy rice in the market the merchants increased the price. I was furious and instructed the tahsildar to seize all the stocks with the shopkeepers without payment and give them only acknowledgment. We also bought sarees and dhotis from the market and had them distributed to the needy. Imagine my frustration and rage when I was told that the beneficiaries had sold those sarees and dhotis back to the shopkeepers at half the price!

The government sanctioned some grant and loans to the cultivators. Complaints reached me that the Special Tahsildar appointed for their disbursement was taking a percentage of cut. After gathering adequate evidence against him, I suspended him. I did not know that was beyond my authority. The Collector annulled my action, but he himself suspended him immediately.

Let me quote another incident of the ingratitude of the beneficiaries. This occurred two decades later. We had put all the leprosy – patients in the city in a special colony equipped with all civic facilities on par with a lower middle class colony. They wee to get free board, lodging, water and electricity. They were given training and produced good like wire gauze and candles which were sold in the market to supplement the funds required for their maintenance. When they were asked to offload a truck of rice bags, they asked for wages. We had planned to run the colony on the principle of ‘to each according to need and from each according to capacity’. If they wanted wages for their work, they would have to pay for their keep. Thereupon they went on an agitation. I was pained to find that they were being instigated by a politician. Later, they were brought round and the colony is now running successfully, the politician in question having died meanwhile!

Looking at Tsunami images now and my own experiences, I find that human nature has not changed at all. How naïve of me to imagine that it would!

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