It was many years ago and certainly not as publicised as the visit undertaken by the Prime Minister this Friday. But the then influential minister seemed to be smug over the special treatment for him as a chartered helicopter took him over parts of the state that had been devastated by a cyclone several times more intense than the recent Cyclone Amphan. In sharp contrast to the dire situation on the ground that left some 10,000 people dead and a million more homeless drifting in a sea of misery, the mood in the helicopter was composed.
The minister in perfectly starched kurta pyjama betrayed none of the despair and desperation that swept below. He occasionally peeped out of the window to see hapless people waving frantically from the raised ground and rooftops that jutted out intermittently amid the unending sheets of water that had engulfed the land ever since the ferocious storm had scooped up the sea and brought in waves several kilometres inside. From his safe distance, at a reasonable altitude much higher than where the frantic cries for help could reach, he nodded occasionally in dismay, but preferred to munch the salted cashews more that his staff had stocked up on board. The sight of unending inundation punctuated with uprooted trees and twisted poles soon grew repetitive, until the minister decided to take a break to land at an industrial friend’s ancestral home for a quick lunch. That done, he flew back to the comforts of a state capital to brief a waiting media scrum on how deeply moved he was by what he had seen during his aerial survey.
But for the perfunctory statements he made – including promises of speedy aid for victims of the storm – none was too sure what purpose did his aerial visit over the devastated region serve. The central government did provide financial assistance for the state, but it wasn’t ever ascertained how much of it was for the minister’s intervention.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to West Bengal and Odisha days after Cyclone Amphan this week, however, didn’t go in vain. For the sake of record, Modi’s visit came after West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee requested him to visit the state for taking stock of the unprecedented havoc the cyclone left in its trail and to help in reconstructing a region battered and bruised. Modi responded, graciously announcing a special assistance of Rs 1,000 crores after his aerial survey. He then flew over the neighbouring state of Odisha that had also been pummelled by the storm, though to a lesser degree, and announced another assistance package of Rs 500 crores.
Besides the money, Modi’s hurried visit provided a comforting balm to the people desperate for succour. That the country’s highest elected official came rushing to their side for pledging help must have lifted their spirits. If not anything else, the prime minister’s trip emphasised that the entire country shared the misfortune that had befallen Bengal and Odisha and that its people were not being left alone to their fate.
But notwithstanding the obvious gains, the larger question still remains: are aerial surveys not outdated and aren’t there other means to reach out to people in their hour of distress?
Aerial surveys made sense decades ago when communication was patchy. The moment a disaster struck then, the first casualty would invariably be connectivity with road, train and telecommunication links snapping. But things have changed since and leaders certainly can do without aerial surveys. Unlike earlier times when only a first-hand visualisation from the air provided an exact extent of the damage, other means are available now.
Also Read: Amphan The Terrible
For instance, drone technology now allows us to survey from the top the scale of the damage below, and if the Prime Minister had wanted to, he could have surveyed the destruction through it while hooking up with the chief minister and officials through video conferencing to arrive at urgent decisions.
Providing relief to those in distress and possibly marooned is also no more dependent on helicopters, though they remain the preferred choice. Drones are now available that can carry heavy payloads and airdrop essentials in areas that are cut off because of a disaster.
But what sets aerial surveys apart is not its functionality, but clearly its optics. It isn’t enough to help, but more important is that one has to be seen to be helping. So in that respect, Modi made the right moves when he flew over Bengal and Odisha, taking stock of the serious situation on the ground. Crucial assembly elections are due in Bengal next year and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making a serious bid to wrest the state from the stranglehold of Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. While Modi’s gesture to rush to Bengal in the hour of its crisis could be heartfelt, the visuals of his aerial visit will also certainly be politically helpful.
Politicians of all hues are mindful of popular perceptions and aerial surveys, though out of sync with times, therefore remain a preferred mode to stay on the right side of popular sentiments. Leaders, big and small and of some worth, therefore take off in helicopters as and when the situation necessitates. None wants to leave the task to technologies such as drones, lest they risk to be appearing as someone remote and not being with the people.
For all these and more, helicopters and aerial surveys have a special place in today’s politics. The moment a disaster strikes, pressure builds on the government to air drop aid to the victims, though better alternatives to deliver help could exist. In the super cyclone that ravaged Odisha in 1999 and killed tens of thousands, air force helicopters ferried some 690 tonnes of aid to those who needed them in its aftermath. In comparison, Indian Railways transported 45,000 tonnes. But air dropping is more dramatic than a freight train chugging along desolate interiors on the ground and it was almost entirely the aid exercise undertaken by the Air Force that hogged the limelight.
The tradition continues till date with the responsiveness of leaders and governments being judged by whether they come rushing riding helicopters, rather than what is right. Among everything else, the helicopter sorties allow the leaders to portray an image of being connected and in charge. Optics matter and aerial surveys, therefore, retain their prized place, despite perhaps being outdated and possibly out of place.