People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 37

September 21 , 2008


Humanism Isn’t Thine Other Name Socialism?

G Mamatha

In the past one month, the world had witnessed two worst natural disasters-one in our own country and the other in the countries across the Caribbean Sea. In our country the river Kosi, earning the sobriquet ‘Bihar’s sorrow’ changed its course and displaced millions of people. In the western hemisphere, three hurricanes, Gustav, Hannah and Ike, ripped apart many tiny Caribbean islands and also affected the ‘mightiest state’ in the world-the US.

For many of us living in this part of the world, every year one part or the other of our country is perennially affected by such disasters. Politicians in power and those in opposition hop into helicopters make an aerial survey and express anguish. Those in power announce ‘immediate relief’. Assessment teams ‘conduct their tours’ of the affected areas religiously and submit their reports. Funds would be released; of course they might not be enough to provide succour to the people, but enough to quench the thirst of the contractors and middlemen. Reading about all these, some people develop cynicism. Soon lethargy or a certain amount of numbness might creep into our system whenever such disasters occur and the dead/suffering people would become just soulless statistics. When people lose interest, the government becomes even more lackadaisical and tries to gloss over its ineptitude. It puts up a face, ‘we have done our best and remember it is nature’s fury’. Nature’s fury it certainly was.


On August 18, 2008, the Kosi River broke its embankment at Kusaha in Nepal, thus submerging several districts of Nepal and India. Approximately Thirty lakh people were affected as 95 per cent of total flow of Kosi is now flowing through the new course. Hundreds of villages got completely submerged. Thousands of people have lost their lives and properties. Cattle perished in huge numbers and thousands of acres of farmland submerged in the flooding waters. Even today, after disaster struck, many villages are marooned and relief vessels are yet to reach them.

Similar is the case of the three hurricanes. When hurricane Gustav roared across western Cuba as a Category-4 hurricane on August 30, it damaged 100,000 homes and caused billions of dollars worth damage. This hurricane recorded winds that blew at an exceptional force of 340 km/h. This is at second place on the list of the most intense winds measured on the planet, behind the one of 369.6 km/h registered in a winter storm in April 1934 over Mount Washington, United States, and first place in the specific case of hurricanes anywhere in the world. This hurricane is immediately followed by two more hurricanes Hannah and Ike and it is this triple combination that had devastated the tiny Caribbean island nations and even the US.


Media reports that if the government at the centre and the state in Bihar acted a little earlier, at least a part of the disaster could have been averted. There were reports stating that local engineers had sent letters to Delhi as early as in April warning of the need to reinforce the embankment, which is in Nepal but is maintained by Bihar in mutual agreement. ‘The faxes piled up on the relevant bureaucrat's desk because he was on leave and no deputy had been appointed’. No one reacted even when warnings were sent to other officials. This shows the height of insensitivity and the colossal damage that it had resulted in. Moreover given the history of flooding of Kosi, the government is expected to be prepared and geared up to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately nothing of this sort had happened.


Compare this with what had happened in Cuba. In Cuba, standing evacuation plans are distributed to each household long ahead of time, and evacuation drills are held regularly. When a hurricane is approaching, state news media issues early warning, and civil defense officials activate local response networks, organiSed down to each block of each town. People are already prepared as part of a sophisticated system that is overseen by the President and the armed forces.

Schools and other government buildings are quickly turned into shelters, and each is assigned a doctor and sometimes a nurse. Volunteers check stocks of blankets, water and food. Forty-eight hours before an expected hit, residents are told to prepare to evacuate. When the storm is a day away, volunteer civil defense workers go door-to-door to ensure everyone gets out of harm's way. Government shelters take in anyone who can't find a place to stay.

This kind of preparation was not even contemplated leave alone implemented in Bihar. Even after the disaster the government did not react immediately and organise rescue and relief operations. Many villagers are still marooned in their villages and are fighting for their survival. Of course, they are lucky when compared to many of their other compatriots!


Lucky really are those who are born in upper castes, well-to-do families and thus able to catch the rescue boats ‘specially meant for them’. Swirling waters of Kosi does not know caste or class, but whirling leaders and babus know it by heart. They smear the rescue boats and relief material with this venom and discriminate the dalits and other downtrodden sections. Rescue boats were rarely sent to dalit villages and localities. If by chance a boat reaches unknowingly once, there is no guarantee that it would return. Most of the dalits are finding themselves to be lucky even if they were last to be evacuated or given relief. In Triveniganj, the dalits were forced to huddle together in a small group at the end of the bridge away from everyone else. The administration that is denying caste discrimination in relief operations is unable to answer why only a single boat of dalits had come in during the whole day even though they make up more than half the region's people. Those at the helm can see through the hungry and sorrowful eyes of a three-year old child who had lost his parents, identify his caste and deny him food. They ask him to wait for his turn at the end of the queue and for him the queue never moves.

How are people like him surviving? By boiling leaves and drinking the concoction! And they too are ‘lucky’ as they have utensils to boil water because many are drinking the flood water to quench their thirst and hunger. “Our lives meant little to them because we are poor.” Thus life is weighed by caste and ownership of wealth. Nature does not discriminate, but power does!


In Cuba, even the rescue and relief operations are carried out with complete conviction and dedication to the peoples cause. In one incident, 36 boats, three helicopters and two planes were pressed into service for almost two days to rescue five people. This is how they value human life. Cuba sees more than its share of killer hurricanes, and yet in the past decade only 23 Cubans have been killed by them. The death toll of hurricane Gustav is zero and for hurricane Ike, was shockingly high by Cuban standards: five. Compare that with US where at least a hundred people have lost their lives.

Let us see how the relief camps are managed in Bihar. Media reports that 16,000 people were cramped in one camp and provided with 100 plastic sheets to protect themselves. Food and water are inadequate. Most of the people thus are reluctant to leave their homes and stay in the relief camps. Moreover, they also fear theft of their little valuables once they are shifted to the relief camps as the state does not guarantee their protection.

Once again this is in complete variance with what happens in Cuba. A quarter-million Cubans were evacuated during Gustav, and the number for Ike was a staggering 2.6 million - nearly a quarter of the island's population. Most of the evacuees found family or friends to stay with, but nearly 400,000 were housed in 2,300 government shelters. Special attention is paid to the elderly and handicapped - people whom the US authorities abandoned when hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans three years ago. In Cuba nobody is afraid to leave their houses and join the relief camps as they are not afraid of losing their belongings. Adequate food and relief material that is stored in the relief camps is supplied to all and it is ensured that all of them get enough to eat. As a person in the relief camp interviewed by the Western media remarked, ‘we spend time in the relief camp, eating, singing and cracking jokes’. Imagine an Indian staying in a relief camp ‘cracking jokes’! Singing he would, about his fate and joke about his life!

Because as people are struggling for life, the in-charge for relief operations in a district is busy cutting ribbons and opening relief camps with fanfare. The callous approach can be easily understood when a group of well-intended citizens who wanted to open a medical camp were made to run pillar to post just to get the requisite permission. Even the relief material that had reached the state from various quarters is wanting to be distributed because the officials are undecided. The irony is they are busy enjoying their Sundays while people are living in a perennial fear whether that day would be their ‘last day’. Thousands of children and people are eagerly waiting for a bite to survive in the relief camps while our babus are all decked up to give a ‘byte’ and cut ribbons.

Compare this with what is happening in Cuba. The Senior Vice-President of the Country, the top General of the Army, volunteer corps and government officials were all involved in the relief work day-in and day-out. Electricians worked for 21 hours a day to restore the power supply and so did construction workers to rebuild and repair the damaged houses. All of them had a single thought in their minds: ‘the revolutionary militants should set an example. They should give and receive confidence. They should give everything for the people, even their lives if need be’.

The way Cuban government had responded to the situation is exemplary and even the ‘mightiest power’ had failed to match it. While the US media and government are concerned about the losses to the insurance companies due to these hurricanes, the Cuban government showed its concern to protect the life of every single Cuban citizen. While more than 70 per cent of the electricity to the affected regions is restored in Cuba, still a lot remains to be done for the people of Louisiana who are seething with anger at the lack of power.

These comparisons show how much can be saved if the government really has conviction towards people and lives. This of course does not mean that there is no single positive example to quote in our country. There are people in our country who are selflessly striving hard and helping the affected people. Even among the government we can find such exemplary persons. But this does not answer the larger question which still remains: If Cuba, a tiny nation with limited resources can protect the lives of its citizens why can’t we do it? The answer lies in learning our lessons well from the past, being prepared to tackle any eventuality, proper assessment and prediction of calamities and having a people first approach. For this humanism is needed. Humanism isn’t thine other name Socialism?