Most journalists in Tamil Nadu will try and prepare you for the political culture of the state under Jayalalithaa. But nothing could have prepared us for the emergency press conference on Friday night, called by Tamil Nadu chief secretary K Gnanadisekan at the Chennai secretariat.
The press conference, which was the first major briefing since the floods struck, ended with Gnanadisekan and the other officials staging a walkout. As they stormed off in a huff, a chorus of voices went up in the conference room: “You haven’t answered my questions.”
Journalists from across the country, most visiting the state for the first time, watched with some curiosity when four senior ministers, the Chennai mayor, six senior secretaries and as many other IAS officers first walked in with a very pronounced air of docility — hands folded, shoulders slouching. As the reporters shuffled impatiently, the ministers and officials read from long prepared statements, made even longer by the number of times the name of ‘Amma’ was invoked.
However, the scenario changed when health secretary J Radhakrishnan failed to mention the reason for the deaths of 14 ICU patients at MIOT hospital, who, by the admission of the Hospital’s MD Prithvi Mohandas, had died after the backup power failed. Radhakrishnan stubbornly repeated the rehearsed lines and refused to confirm, deny or even acknowledge the allegations. The chief secretary finally intervened saying, “If private hospitals can’t provide power backup, then it is their responsibility.”
But the questions kept coming, each straining to be heard over the other — what are you doing about officials not answering emergency helplines? What will you do to curb the building mafia, whose violations have caused these floods? Some people in North Chennai are still waiting to be rescued. Milk prices are touching Rs 300 a litre.
Not a single question was answered directly. Some officials were later seen pleading with national reporters to cut out the embarrassing portions of the press conference. They pleaded that they were under strict orders from the CM not to deviate from the script.
In the world outside the Chennai secretariat, the signs of people’s anger are everywhere. A large group of residents surrounded a police patrol team on Friday night and demanded to know when the water supply and electricity would return. Earlier that day, three senior ministers were chased away by angry residents at Jayalalithaa’s constituency — R K Nagar.
The most telling example of the government’s failure is the Anusuya Mandapam slum, located on the banks of the bloated Adyar river. “No government official has come here since the floods first hit. Only some Marwari and Jain people and the staff of the Le Meridian hotel came and gave us some food and water,” said community leader Perumal (56).
Constables, health workers, firefighters and municipal workers are also complaining... off the record. The 700 personnel of the fire department have been working with just one break since Diwali. Control rooms of various departments have lost contact with a large chunk of their staff because mobiles and walky-talkies cannot be charged. In many places, the shortage of municipal staff has meant that police officers are also running pump sets and digging to build embankments. Most say that the emergency is no excuse and that the state government should have been better prepared with personnel and relief material.
Asked to respond, chief secretary Gnanadisekan said at the press conference that it was a matter of “justifiable pride” that the state government had managed a disaster of this magnitude. As he was walking off, the one last question went a begging — When will the chief minister speak?