Blind spots in assistance
It is unfortunate that certain flood victims remain abandoned while others are embraced.
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 flood continues to persist in many areas to this day. The worst thing that can happen during 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 towards 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 ethnolinguistic 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. This has very sinister implications after the introduction of GST when individual states already do not have the power to change tax rates of goods and services within the state to raise funds when confronted with an unforeseen disaster like these floods. The states are not left with too many elastic sources of revenue. At the same time, the Centre has retained the power to impose a cess on goods and services according to its own wish, when it wants to raise extra funds, like its does under several dubious heads like the Clean India mission. Thus, after the introduction of GST, the States have become much more dependent than before on the Centre when it comes to disaster relief. In this case, 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 their tragedy to someone else's tragedy that has received attention. The devastating floods in West Bengal this year has killed at least 70 people, affected 27 lakh people across 14 districts and has caused damage and loss to the tune of Rs 14000 crores as of August 30. In the past four years, the West Bengal government has spent Rs 15000 crores to provide compensation and continue with relief and reconstruction after a natural calamity. The 70 lives lost to West Bengal are West Bengal's alone and the loss of Rs 14000 crore is of West Bengal alone. One would like to assume that though West Bengal pays direct and indirect taxes to New Delhi with 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 the State. 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 thus 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 across flood damage assessment teams to West Bengal who verified 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 either 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, neither resisted New Delhi's control of West Bengal's mines, ports, jute and tea industries and other such lucrative assets. Then 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?
New Delhi seems to have a very different view about who to give grants and aid to, especially after receiving tax money from States, then labelling them as "Central funds". While West Bengal has been denied a single paisa as flood relief, Bihar has received a Rs 500 crore flood relief package. Narendra Modi announced that "all assistance" would be extended to Nitish Kumar, who had performed an ideological somersault to align with the BJP very recently. Not surprisingly, this announcement came after that. Modi also personally conducted 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 Rs 2 lakhs will be given per flood related death case and Rs 50,000 will be given per flood related injury case, out of "Central funds". Mamata Banerjee announced a similar Rs 2 lakh 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 the money. There would be no "Central funds". Unlike West Bengal, Narendra Modi had sent a team to Bihar to assess losses, which hints at the possibility of further flood relief funds for Bihar from New Delhi.
Bihar was not the only state that received Central money when West Bengal did not. Gujarat, the Prime Minister's native state, got Rupees 500 crore from their blue-eyed-boy as flood relief package and a Bihar style exgratia of Rs 2 lakh to the next of kin of the deceased, and Rs 50,000 to those seriously injured in the floods. The number of flood related casualties in Gujarat and West Bengal is similar. The flood relief funds received from the Centre are not. Narendra Modi also announced a Rs 2350 crore 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 the 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.
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 the PM's own state. Hence the great "India first" guy chose to play "Gujarat first" and has given 500 crores to his own state from money equally contributed by all. Then comes Bihar, whose death toll is several times more than that of 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 on the list at all.
My name is evidently Bengali and I am not ashamed to state that the suffering of my people in 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 the people of a State vote for a government for the State, they have in mind what is best for the State and which political party can best serve those interests. But when finances are allocated by the Centre to a State based on how politically aligned the ruling party of a State is towards 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 case, the withholding of Central funds.
This is a dangerous assault on the federal structure of the Indian Union as it impinges on the autonomy sharing model between the State and the Union government in a diverse, multi-national, and federal polity. West Bengal is not the first victim of such a biased Central policy. Unfortunately neither will it be the last. Sadly, 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, all flood affected people are equal, in the eyes of the Centre, some of the victims are more equal than others.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)