Indranil Banerjie | The Silkyara lesson: Can we unite to fight crises?
When the rescuers tunnelling into the blocked Himalayan tunnel at Silkyara in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi region broke through to the 41 trapped workers on Tuesday evening, the predictable nationwide elation and relief that followed was bolstered by the realisation that the country could still get its act together on occasion and not always flounder in confusion and incompetence as it has so often done during moments of crises in the past.
For the millions of citizens fixated on the rescue drama played out on television news channels moment by moment for 17 seemingly unending days, the rescue was a gratifying national event. It was also an example of the power of the collective will, and proof of the efficacy of a single-minded, concerted approach to problem-solving.
While most praise deservedly went to the 24 “rat hole miners” and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel responsible for the final breakthrough, no less noteworthy was the involvement of a plethora of other agencies, including the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which was overseeing the entire operation, the Army, the Indian Air Force, the State Disaster Response Force, ONGC, various experts and an Australian rescue consultant. The most remarkable aspect of this collective effort
was the absence of crossed wires, purposes or intent. They were all unified by the single objective of rescuing the trapped tunnel workers, no matter what it took. In the end, this approach worked brilliantly.
There are lessons to be learnt from the success of this rescue mission, those that will fortify us against and help tackle future disasters. These lessons could also serve as a guide in confronting the major national challenges crippling our democracy such as poverty, malnutrition, social conflicts, insurgencies and so on.
The foremost in the list is the need for single-mindedness of purpose. Too often crisis managers fail when the endgame is not clearly identified. At Silkyara, it was simple: the safe extrication of all trapped workers. In other situations, the aim might not be so clear-cut, and it might require a good leader to articulate the problem and knit all available resources towards solving it. The success of legendary world leaders such as Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill and Frankin D. Roosevelt during World War II is testimony to the importance of focused resolve. Each of them clearly identified the enemy, articulated a goal and rallied their countrymen towards the fulfilling of that overwhelming objective.
In contrast, the American leadership during the 1960s failed to identify what exactly the US was fighting for in Vietnam, why Communism in a backward Asian country was a threat to American citizens and why young Americans should die fighting a war they did not understand. The result was widespread confusion within the United States, a divided polity and a veritable youth revolt. Predictably, the war was lost even though military objectives were being met.
While an enlightened leadership inspired by single-mindedness of purpose is a necessary condition for success, it is not sufficient. The effective leader also needs to combine resources, skills and the collective will. This was much in evidence at the Silkyara operation as it is in every successful response to a crisis.
During the Second World War, the leaders of Britain, United States and the Soviet Union could mobilise their entire populations to contribute to the war effort: young men went to the frontlines, while others manned factories producing war material, women came forth to work at the assembly lines and even children learnt to cope with those hard times. Every effort was geared towards feeding and maintaining the war machine against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
In India, the genius of Mahatma Gandhi succeeded in mobilising the collective will of Indians against their colonial masters. He converted a faltering middle class Independence movement into an enormous, all-encompassing revolt that carried with it the middle class, the workers as well as peasants from the remotest parts of the country. This collective proved unstoppable.
Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1971 achieved a similar feat by uniting the country against Pakistan’s depredations in its eastern wing. The country rallied behind her call to liberate Bangladesh despite severe hardships, limited resources and the threat from a powerful superpower. Six years later, the country once again united, this time against her and the repressive state of political “Emergency” she had imposed on the nation.
Most failed states in recent history have one thing in common: the failure to establish a common unifying national vision. Thus, countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Haiti, Pakistan, Myanmar, South Sudan and others remain at perpetual boiling point with frequent outbreaks of extreme violence and attendant mass distress. The failure to maintain collective resolve is the first step towards calamity.
The other impediments to success include dissipation of purpose, a failure to stay the course and callousness or laaparvahi, as it is known in Hindustani. The latter is perhaps this country’s worst enemy after corruption. Disasters, both natural and man-made, continue to recur with depressing regularity with no solution in sight. This endless catalogue includes the annual winter haze over North India, the regular floods in many parts of the country that submerge fields and the fortunes of countless people, the indifference to corruption, development projects that drag on for years, and much more. There is sadly no will or single-mindedness to confront such endemic challenges.
The existence of too many aims is another recipe for disaster, the best examples of which come from military history. Hitler’s war was doomed the moment he took on the Soviet Union in the East as well as the Allied forces in the West. In India, one fundamental problem is the multiplicity of tasks taken on by governments and the leadership. In this milieu, there is a tendency of prematurely ticking off achievements even when they are half-completed. One such example is the well-intentioned but flagging Swachh Bharat Abhiyan against civic filth.
The country today stands divided, fractious, plagued by conflicting ideas and objectives. Millions of people remain in poverty while many more are doomed to a half existence marked by malnutrition and backwardness. The country’s environment is degrading at an alarming rate as an ever-growing population sucks out every natural resource in the race to survive and prosper. Caste, ethnic, communal and economic fault lines have cleaved communities. These constitute a crisis no less pressing the one which we managed to successfully confront at Silkyara. Will the country come together to rescue all those trapped in our darkness?