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Saturday, July 19, 2003

A glance at the news headlines in the past few weeks made me very frustrated. Some of the headlines read: “ Mysterious viral fever attack leaves scores of kids dead”, “ Floods devastate northeast India”, “One more train disaster”, “ Farmers upset at not getting quality seeds”. Headlines in previous years around this time are more or less the same. Why is it that we are not able to tackle and find lasting solutions to these perennial problems?

Owing to our location in the tropics and seasonal monsoons, floods and concomitant infectious diseases hit us every year. Just because the same problems hit us every year, it doesn’t mean that we devise adhoc, and short-term solutions for them every year. Many of the problems afflicting us demand long-term systemic solutions.

Even a high school kid will tell you that open drainage and cess pools are breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which in turn lead to deadly infectious diseases. I was amused to note the chief minister announcing a 5-day mosquito combat drive as if you can make them vanish just like that! Such measures might mitigate the problem to a certain extent but does not offer lasting solutions. What is needed is a comprehensive approach that encompasses multiple areas viz: a modern closed drainage system, a toilet for every household, proper solid waste disposal mechanisms and larval control. As many of the infectious diseases are water-borne, clean, safe drinking water should be a top priority. And if anyone tells us that all these can be accomplished in a matter of few days, they are just trying to hoodwink us.

And natural calamities only invite knee jerk responses from the government. It has become a routine for the government to either seek central assistance for drought or funding from international agencies for disaster relief in case of floods. In spite of spending hundreds of crores, we still do not have the benefit of a lasting solution for these problems. In fact disaster relief has become a source of funding to government! Only rarely is a programme like the drainage improvement (initiated by Dr Channa Reddy in 1990) implemented. And in case of drought relief the entire process is so politicized, that the truly drought hit areas get only a fraction of the total support and that too rarely when they need it most.

While due credit needs to be given to the Indian Railways for managing such a complex organization which has helped the nation in many ways, the fact of their appalling safety record cannot be ignored. Yet, every time a major mishap occurs, the response from the government is exactly the same – announce an on the spot exgratia for the victims, declare that a due enquiry would be conducted or blame miscreants for sabotage. No one knows what is the result of the numerous enquiry committees – or what came of their recommendations. It is high time much needed investments are made to spruce up the railway infrastructure and upgrade the safety systems.

There are umpteen number of problems that need serious, careful, long-term planning. Yet the only thing that our policy makers seem to be capable of are either knee-jerk responses or quick fixes. The need of the hour is prioritization of these perennial problems and a methodical and systematic approach for their resolution. Resources are not a constraint as is amply borne out by the successful implementation of the national highways project. What is needed is the political will. The price we pay for inaction is incalculable in terms of human life or long-term misery.

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