August 30, 2008

Flood Mission: No Seat for Nitish on PM’s Plane

NEW DELHI: Natural calamities can blur political lines, providing at least briefly, a respite from relentless rivalries. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's flight to Bihar on Thursday to assess the Kosi disaster looked like a UPA delegation.

The flight's passenger manifest did not have any non-UPA representation despite Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar having met the PM on Wednesday and having asked Singh about his plans to visit the state. The CM remained overnight in the Capital and then finally took a regular flight to Patna on Thursday morning to make it to Purnia to catch up with the PM.

The PM's reluctance to extend what would be seen as a normal courtesy could have to do with his wariness of RJD chief and railway minister Lalu Prasad who is a bitter rival of Kumar. But even so, Prasad could hardly have objected to the CM's presence on board the PM's aircraft when the objective of the visit was to ensure speedy relief.

Yet, said sources, when the Bihar CM brought up the PM's forthcoming visit, the latter chose to avoid any direct answer. Aware that it would be bad form not to be at hand, Kumar had to fly from Delhi to Patna to Purnia while the PM's aircraft was winging its way to north Bihar. While the PM himself has not made any partisan comment, Prasad has been quick to blame the Bihar government for the breach in the Kosi embankment which occurred in Nepal.

The PM has announced a relief of Rs 1,000 crore and there have been high-level reviews and meetings to see how assistance can be arranged without getting entangled in red tape. The state is in urgent requirement of boats, shelters, tarpaulins, drinking water purifiers and medical kits. The number of displaced and affected persons is already estimated at a staggering 10 lakh and more.

Officials monitoring the relief operations said that the rising waters had given people enough time to leave unlike what could have been the case with a cloudburst or flash floods. This is perhaps reflected in the relatively small number of deaths. Once the realisation sank in that the waters were not the minor flooding that the areas of Supaul, Madhepura, Purnea and Araria can experience, the affected people moved out.

The displaced persons are facing considerable hardships with availability of food items and given the vast area under water it was not easy to reach those who were marooned. It was also clear that the process of setting things right would take a while as a new channel had to be dug out to bring the waters back to the old course while the breaks in the embankment in Nepal were fixed.

Officials are keeping their fingers crossed that their efforts are not hampered by further heavy rains in the next few days.

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