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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 42 New Delhi October 6, 2018

Lessons to be Learnt from Kerala Disaster

Sunday 7 October 2018

by Mahendra Ved

At a time when India’s political class as a whole, and the government in particular, leave resolution of many contentious issues to the ‘wisdom’ of the Supreme Court, taking time off, two of its judges, Justices K.M. Joseph and K.M. Mathew, sang for supper, literally, but not theirs. They sang for the marooned people of Kerala.

At a function in New Delhi on August 27, Justice K.M. Joseph sang “Hum Honge Kamyaab”. It is the Hindi version of the original gospel “We Shall Overcome” that had caught the popular imagination of Indians four decades back as a song of hope and united action.

There cannot be a better way to send a message to drown the cacophony and divisive discourse of the present times, not just in India, but across the troubled world.

Kerala needs sympathy and support, not just because of the intensity and extent of the calamity it faced, but also because it has striven, individually and collectively, to brave it with a measure of dignity. And it continues that way in facing the aftermath.

Located at the south-western end of the Indian peninsula, it received 758.6 millimetres of rain between August 1 and 19 that was 2.6 times the average for that time of the year. The unusually heavy downpours caused rivers to overflow. Over 400 people died. Many of the fatalities were caused by landslides in rural areas. Authorities say the floods were the State’s most damaging in a hundred years.

Amidst all that, egalitarianism was witnessed among the country’s most educated lot when, regardless of caste or religion, all came forward to help with relief and rehabilitation. Ideologues from outside the State sought to pit Hindus against Christians and Muslims, but the Malayam-speaking people would have none of it.

From the wealthy expatriate in the Gulf who opened up his cheque book to the fisherfolk who worked day and night to rescue victims—everyone set aside their social and political differences in this moment of tragedy.

Stories abound of people in high places who got into their T-shirts and veshtis (lower garment), contributed to relief work and quietly left.

Politics inevitably follows disasters in India. Help from the Modi Government was tardy—Rs 500 crores as against the projected requirement of Rs 2600 crores. A 2004 decision taken in the wake of the Tsunami has been invoked to decline help forthcoming from foreign quarters.

Clarification by two former Foreign Secretaries, Shivshankar Menon and Nirupama Rao, that this pertained to immediate relief and relief operations and not for rehabilitation and infrastructural development has not helped.

As a result, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), that values contribution to its economy of the 800,000 white and blue-collared workers from Kerala—ready with US$ 100 million (more than New Delhi)—held back. It said the extent of damage was still being assessed. Over two million Keralites live in the Gulf region and account for a significant portion of the US$ 73 billion remittances India receives.

Strong perceptions persist—and they matter a few months before the general elections—that New Delhi, besides being niggardly, is also being obstructive. Combine that with loose talk by some that a communist-ruled Kerala deserved it as its people are beef-eaters. New Delhi has done nothing to distance itself from or restrain these elements.

Besides being regrettable, this is inexplicable considering the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party desires to win over the South. Even more than the BJP, its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has coveted Kerala. It has sought to develop a base in the face of frequent attacks on its cadres from the Communists.

Besides the anxiety to end the last communist bastion (after West Bengal and Tripura), the temptation could be high to bag a State with significant minorities (27 per cent Muslims and 17.5 per cent Christians as per the 2011 census figures).

By blocking relief from abroad, the Modi Government and the BJP have lost a “God-given” opportunity to woo Kerala, billed as “God’s own country”.

Now, the larger picture: Vast and ecologically diverse India is prone to natural calamities with annual visitations of floods and droughts. Uniquely, some State Chief Ministers simulta-neously run flood and drought relief funds. Accentuated by climate change, floods have become a common phenomenon.

Their management has worked but partially. A dedicated disaster management body was set up as recently as in 2005 after the Tsunami. Over the past few decades, areas facing recurring calamities have become relatively better prepared, with enhanced awareness of the risks. But this does not hold true for areas free from major calamity in the recent past. Ignoring safety guidelines, dwellings, factories and infrastructure facilities have been constructed in areas that are potentially vulnerable to natural hazards like floods.

Questions about the status of preparedness are raised in the aftermath of each disaster. The efforts continue to be reactive. Following the Uttarakhand floods in 2013 and Kashmir floods in 2014, it was only after a lot of questions were raised and criticism directed at preparedness practices that flood forecast stations were set-up in these two States.

To return to Kerala, faced with heavy rain, authorities released water from several of the State’s 44 dams where reservoirs were close to overflowing. Neighbouring Tamil Nadu also purged water from its over-filled Mullaperiyar dam, which wreaked more havoc downstream in Kerala.

It required a Supreme Court directive on a complaint from Kerala. But such directives seldom work effectively in a country where the politicos make water-sharing an emotive issue.

State governments often allow reservoirs to fill completely early in the monsoon season, and do not release water slowly at regular intervals to prevent overfilling later in the season. “India’s reservoir management is unscientific,” says meteorologist Madhavan Nair Rajeevan, Secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, which oversees the country’s meteorological institutes.

Computer models and meteorological forecasts are used in Europe and the United States to predict the rate at which water flows into reservoirs and how much water needs to be stored—but few authorities in India use such systems, says Rajeevan.

By all estimates, Kerala’s floods have completely destroyed this year’s cereal and non-cereal crops. Standing rice plants, under water for over four days, rotted. Only now, people are waking up to the disaster looming on the ecology and their lives.

Several issues, including soaring mercury level, unprecedented dip in river water levels, sudden drying-up of wells, depletion of groundwater reserves and mass perishing of earthworms, are causing concern to farmers.

The non-structural measures for flood forecasting—providing early warning in flood prone areas—have proved to be successful for flood management. However, for the early warning systems to be effective, continuous and collaborative efforts are required, rather than a one-time action. People affected by the Kerala floods reported that they had heard a faint announcement on the loudspeakers, but the message could not be heard clearly, so they were unsure about what it meant till the water entered their houses.

The Western Ghats are threatened. Madhav Gadgil and his Centre for Ecological Sciences have worked ceaselessly for raising ecological responsibility of all and their contribution is most relevant now. Gadgil headed a committee that was commissioned by Jairam Ramesh when he was the Union Environment Minister. It presented a comprehensive analysis of the threats posed to the Western Ghats by reckless resource extraction.

The Gadgil Report noted that the Ghats had ‘been torn asunder by the greed of the elite and gnawed at by the poor, striving to eke out a subsistence. This is a great tragedy, for this hill range is the backbone of the ecology and economy of south India.’ Then it added: ‘Yet, on the positive side, the Western Ghats region has some of the highest levels of literacy in the country, and a high level of environmental awareness. Democratic institutions are well entrenched, and Kerala leads the country in capacity building and empowering of Panchayat Raj Institutions.’

Renowned writer Ramachandra Guha points out that all across India, unregulated mining runs rampant, with politicians collaborating with contractors to destroy nature and impoverish local communities.

Sadly, Guha points out, the Gadgil Report was junked by Ramesh’s successor who even obstructed its circulation. Till an upright Information Commissioner ensured that the report was uploaded online.

The report deserves to be widely discussed in the wake of the Kerala tragedy. Its lessons apply not only to Kerala, but also to Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra, whose own Western Ghat districts have been ravaged in recent decades.

This counsel of Guha and Gadgil must be heeded—earlier the better for India.

Mahendra Ved is the President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (2016-2018). A senior journalist, he can be reached at mahendraved07[at]gmail.com

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