Hats off to the government’s servants

CLAUDE ARPI | Wednesday, February 8, 2012
The French are chronic grumblers. Some even say it is France’s favorite sport, though one has to admit that it is easy to find justification to grumble in India… or in France. Personally, my favorite topic is the babus of India; the subject is quite inexhaustible, and most of the time, one grumbles for absolutely valid reasons. But today, I want to praise some government servants, who in dramatic circumstances were able to mutate into Servants of the People.  The occasion was the devastating cyclone ‘Thane’, which hit the coast of the Bay of Bengal, near Pudducherry late last year.  On December 29 morning, we had overheard that a cyclone was supposed to head towards the Union Territory; over the years, we have been warned so many times! Everyone thought that like most of its predecessors, ‘Thane’ (Burmese meteorologists named the cyclone ‘Thane’ or ‘Eagle’) will take a last minute turn to the north and hit the coasts of Andhra Pradesh or Orissa.
Thane was to be different; it dashed straight into the former French colony (where some 7,000 ‘grumblers’ still live). In the middle of the night, as the velocity of the wind kept increasing, more and more violent rains coming in close waves began battering houses. At first, nobody realised the extent of damage inflicted on Pondicherry and Cuddalore district. At about 4 am, I began receiving SMSes: ‘How are you?’, ‘It’s pouring in our house, what about you?’ It was not very comforting to know that everybody in Auroville was awake at that early hour. At 6 am, with dawn, the wind was stronger than ever (according to newspapers received three days later, the winds reached 150 or 180 km/hour).  It was not until 7 am that I decided to venture out of the house. I began to understand that the ‘Eagle cyclone’ was unlike any other we had experienced during the last 40 years.  A small grace: mobile phones worked. Quickly, we took stock of the extent of the devastation; we learned that the situation was not better in Pondicherry and that tens of thousands of tourists, who had come to ‘give time a break’ over the New Year were stranded in their rooms.  The more we progressed further from our houses, painfully reopening the roads, the more we saw that everywhere the forest had been ‘flattened’.  And, of course, no power supply. On the previous morning, the local government, probably better informed than us, had asked the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board to switch off the electricity supply for at least 48 hours. When we heard that TNEB had agreed to act on this advice, we grumbled: “Why cut the supply for a ‘hypothetical small cyclone’”.  In the area in and around Auroville, where four decades ago pioneers planted a few million trees, the damage was even worse; hundreds of electrical posts were folded ‘like match sticks’, as a resident put it.  Behind the tragedy there was grace: our area, which includes seven large villages, witnessed no death, not even a serious injury. Something became immediately obvious and touching: the dignity and the resilience of the villagers! On the second day, when after a 3 km-trek a la Indiana Jones, we succeeded to reach our workplace, 15 out of 30 employees were already there, waiting to start their daily work. Some workers had walked for more than two and a half hours, in incredible conditions; often unable to distinguish between road and forest; ladies had to crawl under the branches holding their sari or climb over large trees.  By that time, we had resigned ourselves: ‘life’ would take months to return to normal; ‘normal life’ being synonymous of ‘power supply’. It may take several months, we thought.  Encouragements from all over the world began to pour; one friend quoted Kipling: “If you can; … Watch the things you gave your life to broken; And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools; …You’ll be a Man my son!” Sweet, but what about the match sticks? Who will replace them?  It is here that the miracle occurred: a spontaneous collaboration between the local inhabitants and the ‘authorities’; first and foremost the TNEB started working marvels. Government staff and even senior officers started pouring from everywhere (I even met a very senior gentleman who came driving from Chennai, 150km away to supervise the operations), working hard until dusk. I discover that when circumstances force human beings, even ‘government’ servants can work hard, very hard, for the common good.  Next time, I will think twice before grumbling; the natural calamity helped me discover that the human spirit, sometimes deeply buried, is able to emerge when forced by circumstances. I will not even grumble about why the posts folded so easily?

The author is a French-born writer and journalist.