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Italy’s politicians have thick skins

world Updated: Aug 22, 2007 03:18 IST
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It is a complaint heard in many countries, from India to Russia and beyond. But only Italy has attended to it in its own unique manner. Lately, many newspapers and TV channels had begun to make much of the fact that there were nearly 300,000 'blue cars' on Italian roads. Blue cars here are the equivalent of cars with flashing red lights in India — cars owned by the state, all chaffeur driven, paid for from taxpayers' money and used mostly by politicians. Deputy ministers' wives on shopping sprees, little known presidents of remote regions going to the club in the evening for a spot of tennis, were all using blue cars instead of their private vehicles.

Now the good news. Following sustained media criticism, the blue cars have all disappeared from our roads. A miracle? Politicians suddenly becoming sensitive to the sentiments of the people? Not at all. It's just that all the blue cars have been painted silver, but they continue to be used as before.

Man made tragedy

It is a disaster that should have been remembered the way Bhopal or Chernobyl are. Unfortunately it is not.

On the night of October 9, 1963, a complete wall of the Vajont dam in Northern Italy — at the time, the highest dam in the world — collapsed. The vast quantity of water released totally destroyed five towns along the river Piave, killing more than 1900 people.

At first the catastrophe was passed off as a natural calamity — unfortunate no doubt, but no one was to blame. In fact, as investigations later showed, it was an entirely man made disaster.

Experts had warned, before the dam was built, that the geological composition of the rocks there was such that they would not be able to withstand the pressure of the vast amount of water sought to be trapped. They had pinpointed the exact fault along which the mountainside could crack. But there were lucrative contracts involved and the Italian government went ahead with the project.

The courts were later to indict the then Italian government along with the builder of the dam and the state owned power company which oversaw the project. But as always happens, only the small fry — a few junior technicians — were jailed.

The families of the victims received measly compensation. But recently some of these families travelled 800 kms to Rome to hold demonstrations with a single demand: the state should acknowledge its complicity in the disaster and President Giorgio Napolitano should apologise to them. Needless to say their demand was not even considered.

(The writer is a leading Milan based journalist and author of several books.)