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Milking A Tragedy?

Milking A Tragedy?
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HAS Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu overestimated the extent of damage in last fortnight’s cyclone? It seems a cruel question as 571,545 families begin rebuilding their lives from scratch after just three short hours spelt finis. But all things considered, the TDP government’s assessment of a loss of Rs 5,375 crore is on the higher side.

According to state Finance Minister Ashok Gajpati Raju, the figure was arrived at after officials in the affected districts, East and West Godavari, computed damage to crops, huts, houses, and government buildings and installations. By that yardstick, East Godavari sustained a damage of Rs 3,677 crore, excluding damage to telecom structures.

But opinion is gaining ground that Naidu wants the cyclone to be called a ‘national disaster’ to attract international aid and thereby improve the state’s fiscal state which is in a mess due to prohibition and populist schemes like rice at subsidised prices.

Though Naidu’s arch-rival, his step mother-in-law Laks-hmi Parvati, pegged the figure at a modest Rs 2,000 crore, BJP President L.K. Advani declined to answer whether he agreed with the Rs 5,375 crore assessment: "All I can say is, there’s no need to seek outside aid." Former Union minister Congressman Rangaiah Naidu, holds Naidu guilty of ‘inflat-ing’ casualty and damage estimates to attract aid from abroad: "He’s shy of admitting that his government is bankrupt and that it has very low equity at home." The government is believed to have spent annual disaster-relief allocations in paying off salaries.

Naidu, who first hinted at a 1,000-plus death toll, rolled it back as the ramifica-tions became clear: there were reports of bodies being stolen to claim the Rs 1 lakh compensation. Villagers owning bungalows began seeking the Rs 1,500 that was being offered for collapsed huts.

Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda has so far been ambiguous on Naidu’s national disaster demand. But Naidu is critical of the Centre’s meagre assistance so far: "We didn’t expect the Centre to be so inhuman to a state which suffered such a collossal loss. It’ll take 20 years for farmers to recover their losses." Locals agree. "The damage is long-term. We’re looking at a situation where people who once had an assured source of income are not sure of their livelihood for the next six years," says industrialist T.V. Hanumantha Rao.

M.D. Asthana, managing director of Food Corporation, has punched a hole in Naidu’s theory, stating there would only be a 10 per cent shortfall in paddy procurement as a result of the cyclone: "We’d set a target of 42 lakh mt (metric tonnes) we might end up with 40 lakh mt." But paddy is just one of the crops that makes these districts such a cashcow. The larger damage is to coconut plantations. At least 21 lakh coconut trees across 1.5 lakh acres have been destroyed.

Even at Rs 5,000 per tree (ONGC paid Rs 6,000 per tree after a blowout in an oil well at Amalapuram damaged 50 acres), it’s a sizeable sum.

Virus pathologists say the twisted spindle leaves can be treated and revived within two years, thus minimising the damage, but farmers are more circumspect. "It’ll take four years for new coconut palms to yield nuts," says a Ravulapalem farmer. "We’ve lost a crop that was ready for harvest." By moving with alacrity when the cyclone struck, Naidu robbed the Opposition of a potential campaign issue. "He did the same about Alamatti. Before we could cry foul, he had gone to town. He’s done the same here," says former BJP legislator Indrasena Reddy.

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