Large areas of South Asia, especially the middle and lower Gangetic basin as well as the Brahmaputra basin, were affected by devastating floods this year.
The worst thing that can happen during the relief work in such a terrible human tragedy that cuts across language, caste, creed, and class is partiality on the basis of political loyalty of the state to the ruling dispensation at the centre.
Since states in the Indian Union are also largely linguistic in nature, this translates into discrimination on the basis of language, based on whether an ethno-linguistic nationality is loyal to the ruling party at the centre or not. This is a recipe for division and discrimination using the most terrible human suffering.
Few things can be more shameful. During the 2017 floods, the Union government led by Narendra Modi has done just that. In this scenario, a partisan attitude of the centre translates into life for the loyal states and death for the opposition states, based on political leanings.
Perhaps the most tragic thing in the world is when one has to make the case for attention to one’s tragedy by comparing the depth of tragedy to someone else’s tragedy that has received attention.
Damage and loss
The devastating floods in West Bengal this year has killed at least 70 people, affected 27,00,000 people in 14 districts of West Bengal and has caused damage and loss to the tune of Rs14,000 crore as of August 30.
The West Bengal government has spent Rs5,000cr to give compensation and for reconstruction after any natural calamity in the past four years. The 70 lives lost to West Bengal are West Bengal’s alone and the loss of Rs14,000cr is of West Bengal alone.
While West Bengal has been denied a single paisa as flood relief, Bihar has received a Rs500cr flood relief package
One would like to assume that though West Bengal pays direct and indirect taxes to New Delhi from which New Delhi magically creates this thing called “central funds,” the fact that West Bengal has not received any relief money from the centre does not reflect any special vindictiveness against West Bengal. That would have been the case if no one else received relief either -- an equal opportunity denial of relief, one can say.
But that is not the case. Is it the case that West Bengal did not ask for any compensation package and did not get receive any? That is not the case either as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has demanded from New Delhi a flood relief and compensation package multiple times this year during the floods.
Did the Union government send some flood damage assessment team to West Bengal who assessed the ground situation and then took the decision based on first hand data and observations that West Bengal did not deserve any such assistance? That is not the case as New Delhi did not send any such official observer. Then one wonders, what is the case, as West Bengal’s citizens have never defaulted in sending the source money for New Delhi’s “central funds” in the form of taxes as well New Delhi’s control of West Bengal’s mines, ports, jute, and tea industries, and other such lucrative assets.
Why did West Bengal not get flood compensation grants from New Delhi when it needed it the most? After all, isn’t this sort of mutual cooperation of giving taxes and getting back taxes in the form of benefits the precise reason why states are part of the Indian Union?
West Bengal, the black sheep
While West Bengal has been denied a single paisa as flood relief, Bihar has received a Rs500cr flood relief package. Narendra Modi announced that “all assistance” would be given to Nitish Kumar, who had done an ideological somersault to align with BJP very recently. This announcement came after that.
Modi also personally did an aerial survey of Bihar’s flood affected areas. Mamata Banerjee on the other hand did the same, on foot, going into flood-affected areas in knee-deep water.
Modi announced that Rs200,000 will be given per flood related death case and Rs50,000 will be given per flood related injury case, out of “central funds.” Mamata Banerjee announced a similar Rs200,000 compensation per flood related death case, except that in Bengal’s case, it was the West Bengal treasury that was to be the source of money. There would be no “central funds.”
Bihar was not the only state that received “central money” when West Bengal did not. Gujarat, the prime minister’s native state, got Rs500cr from Narendra Modi as flood relief package and a Bihar style ex-gratia of Rs200,000 to the next of kin of the deceased, and Rs50,000 to those seriously injured in the floods. The number of flood related casualties in Gujarat and West Bengal are similar. The flood relief funds received from the centre are not. West Bengal has not received anything.
Narendra Modi also announced a Rs2,350cr flood relief package for the “North East,” whose major part will go to Assam. And if this was not starkly partisan enough, the Union government even announced a flood relief package for the foreign nation of Nepal to the tune of 400 million Nepali rupees. So, from the flood affected geographical stretch of Bihar, lower Nepal, West Bengal, and then further on to Assam -- only one entity was left out of this central flood relief funds distribution. That is the state of West Bengal.
Modi’s India first
So, if we now rank the entities that got centre’s funds, at the top are “new converts” like Assam and other states who have recently switched to the BJP. Then comes Gujarat, which is Narendra Modi’s own state. Hence the great “India first” guy chose to play “Gujarat first” and has given Rs500cr to his own state from money that everyone else gave.
Then comes Bihar, whose death toll is multiple times more than Gujarat but whose compensation package is the same as Gujarat. Thus, in Narendra Modi’s playbook, India first means Gujarat first and Bihar second. But then comes Nepal and not West Bengal. So, I guess the rule changes. It becomes India first if you vote for us, or else it’s Nepal first and non-BJP states like West Bengal being last or in this case, not in the list at all.
My name is evidently Bengali and I am not ashamed to state that the suffering of my people of my homeland affects me in a more direct way than happenings elsewhere. Thus, the above piece can be read as a long rant about why West Bengal did not get any relief funds. But there is a much larger issue at hand.
When finances are allocated by the centre to a state based on how politically aligned the ruling party of a state is with the ruling party of the centre, then that is a case of clear subversion of the basic democratic right of the people to choose a government of their choice without the threat of external consequences, in this the withholding of central funds.
West Bengal is not the first victim of such a biased central policy. Unfortunately neither will it be the last. Unfortunately, when the Union government talks about “cooperative federalism,” what it actually practices is coercive federalism.
The flood relief funds distribution is only the latest instance of that criminal policy. It is criminal because it means that though in theory of flood affected people are equal, in the eyes of the centre, some of the victims are more equal than others.
Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator. He can be followed on twitter @gargac.