Natural Disaster

Mountain of a task

Print edition : September 28, 2018

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan addressing the Special Session of the Kerala Legislative Assembly convened to discuss the recent floods in the State, in Thiruvananthapuram on August 30. Photo: S Mahinsha

Workers remove debris from a collapsed building in north Paravur on September 4. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Massive heaps of solid waste that was removed from numerous homes in the flood-hit regions at a centralised facility near Aluva near Kochi on August 30. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

A house in Kuttanad, Alappuzha, on August 27, as flood waters began to recede. Photo: R.S. Iyer/ AP

Residents of the Kalluthankadavu colony returning home with relief materials provided by the Snehapoorvam Kozhikode initiative on September 4. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

Flood victims collect rehabilitation kits at Eloor, Kochi, on August 31. Photo: PTI

Distribution of tablets to prevent leptospirosis, at Government General Hospital in Kozhikode on September 3. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

Flood relief material from Hyderabad dumped at the Central railway station in Thiruvananthapuram on August 29. Photo: S. Gopakumar

With thousands of flood refugees finding it hard to return to their homes in view of waterlogging, lack of sanitation and clean drinking water and the outbreak of diseases, Kerala launches a funds mobilisation drive to begin the gargantuan task of rebuilding its infrastructure and economy.

STUNNED by disaster but united by resilience, the people of Kerala are slowly picking up the pieces. But the pain of devastation caused to their homes and livelihoods will take a long time to overcome.

Nearly a month after the mid August “flood of the century” (Frontline, September 14), claimed 483 lives, 14 people were still missing; 140 were admitted to hospitals with various ailments; and 59,296 of the 14,50,707 flood refugees, who were uprooted from their homes, were still staying in government-run relief camps.

The State government estimates the loss at over Rs.30,000 crore, more than its projected annual Plan expenditure of Rs.29,150 crore for 2018-19. It expects the State’s gross domestic product growth to fall by about 2 per cent. Rebuilding can take place at best only over two years. The State is trying hard to gather the resources needed for rehabilitation and reconstruction through various means.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the destruction wrought on houses and infrastructure facilities was likely to derail Kerala’s development process. The disaster occurred just when Kerala was going ahead with a major drive to improve its infrastructure facilities. The loss is enormous, considering the number of lives lost, houses damaged, crops, cattle and household and livelihood articles lost, industrial and other such units destroyed and public buildings damaged. The damage to the environment, too, is huge.

“But the asset that will help Kerala overcome this mega disaster is the humanitarian spirit that exists in the State and the unity that has come about on the basis of it,” the Chief Minister said. Kerala could reduce the number of deaths and the magnitude of the tragedy by activating the entire government machinery and enlisting the support of all the people in relief operations. Kerala’s response and the unity that was on display all through the initial phase of the disaster have set an example to the world on how to deal with such calamities. But now starts the second and third stages of coping with the disaster, rehabilitation and reconstruction, he said.

Mobilising resources may well prove a challenging task for the funds-starved State. In the initial days of the disaster, while the State government demanded an immediate relief of Rs.2,000 crore, the Centre provided Rs.600 crore as advance assistance. Kerala expects that the final assistance after the damage assessment is completed will be generous.

The government has launched a major resource mobilisation drive, seeking the support of all people, especially non-resident Keralite associations, and inviting generous contributions from voluntary agencies, international financial agencies and institutions and business houses. It called upon all State government employees, pensioners and others to contribute a month’s remuneration, in instalments spread over 10 months, to undertake relief work. Finance Minister Thomas Isaac said Rs.2,600 crore and Rs.1,500 crore respectively could be mobilised if State government employees and pensioners contributed willingly. Meanwhile, by the first week of September, generous voluntary donations to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund had crossed Rs.1,000 crore.

The State government announced that Ministers would be asked to visit the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and Canada to mobilise funds, with the support of the non-resident Indian community in those countries. Similar drives will be undertaken in major Indian cities through associations of people from Kerala.

Several countries have offered help, but the process is tied up in foreign policy hurdles with the Central government announcing that India will not accept assistance from foreign governments. The State government, however, insists that the Centre should not say no to voluntary offer of help when it comes to disaster relief. For instance, an offer of Rs.700 crore relief assistance, suggested through unofficial channels by the UAE in the early days of the calamity, remained in limbo, with the final word yet to be known on the issue of India accepting such assistance from foreign governments. Offers have also come from Qatar, Pakistan, the European Union and the World Bank.

The scale of relief required is large. For instance, the State announced an immediate financial assistance of Rs.10,000 each to families returning home from relief camps. A total of 3,91,494 families in 14 districts were to receive this assistance, but it was clear that the amount was meagre compared with what the victims actually needed to rebuild their lives. Most of them lost everything, including important documents, household equipment and bare necessities, and many lost even their homes.

Many houses in the worst-affected Kuttanad region remained submerged three weeks after the floods. People were finding it hard to return to their homes and restart their lives in view of waterlogging, lack of sanitation and clean drinking water and outbreak of diseases such as leptospirosis, dengue, hepatitis and measles. The government announced that it would provide loans through banks to make flood-hit homes habitable. An interest-free loan of up to Rs.1 lakh is to be provided in the name of the female head of each family. A bank loan of Rs.10 lakh is being offered to small-scale traders who lost everything.

In the hilly areas, the nature of destruction is different from what occurred in the midland and the coastal areas. The fear of going back to whatever is left of the houses in the disaster zones was predominant. Rebuilding roads and bridges, houses and public offices requires a huge amount of funds, and rehabilitating the worst-affected families and helping them regain their means of livelihood will prove to be a difficult task.

The floods destroyed crops that were ready for harvest during the Onam festival season, causing additional distress to farmers. The government has announced a moratorium on agricultural loans. Construction activities have come to a standstill, affecting the livelihood of many people, including migrant labourers. The tourism industry, a major revenue earner accounting for over 10 per cent of the State’s economy and 25 per cent of the jobs, lies in disarray.

The Chief Minister said there were four key aspects to the tasks that lay ahead: one, finding the necessary resources; two, deciding what kind of rebuilding Kerala should opt for; three, finding the raw materials required for the large-scale reconstruction activities; and four, ensuring that the people got back their means of livelihood, without which life can never be said to have returned to normal.

The government has since suggested that what needs to be done is not just “rehabilitation and reconstruction” but “building a new, better Kerala”.

A special one-day session of the State Assembly was convened on August 30 to discuss the State’s response to the disaster and how it should move forward. But the discussions turned out to be largely disappointing. While there were debates on the relief and rescue operations and the nature of the disaster, and on whether the disaster itself was largely a man-made one caused by poor dam management (see separate article), most members chose to remain silent on how Kerala should rebuild itself.

False development

Among the saner voices was that of former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan. He said: “There is no doubt that extreme rainfall had led to this disaster. But what multiplied the misery was the skewed policies Kerala has followed so far. The kind of development practices that we chose had prevented rainwater from seeping into the soil or flowing into the ocean and destroyed all our traditional water courses. Floodwaters could not but swell up and remain there, submerging thousands. When we built resorts, dams and roads on denuded hilltops, nature had no option but to react by pushing down hillsides and triggering landslides. It [the disaster] all began when we failed to recognise that ‘development’ required not just land, but also the hills, rivers and paddy fields. Our paddy fields, mangroves and wetlands proved unable to prevent the march of such false development. Over the years, our environmental protection laws were watered down. There was a constant stream of new land use norms. We learned that land was not a means of production but a commercial product. We started believing that water theme parks were more important than drinking water. We saw those who encroached on lakes to build big resorts legalising their acts by paying petty fines in courts. We pretended not to notice our narrowing coastline and floodplains and started believing that construction activities were the sign of development. We taught the people that construction activities required quarries and trying to bridle quarry owners was being ‘anti-development’. We mixed issues of ‘encroachment’ and ‘settlement’ to develop townships in the Munnar hills. It is this Kerala that we have to rebuild. We will have to do it by telling the truth, creating awareness and, most importantly, on the basis of clear policy directions.”

There is no doubt that the former Chief Minister was expressing the concern of a State in despair. In his concluding remarks during the debate in the Assembly, Pinarayi Vijayan referred indirectly to this concern when he said that he was disappointed at the “deliberate silence” of most of the Members of the Legislative Assembly on the key issue on which they should have offered suggestions: what type of reconstruction Kerala should opt for; whether people should be rehabilitated in areas prone to floods, soil erosion and landslides; and how the State should cross the big hurdle of finding raw materials for the huge task of reconstruction.

The best of intentions apart, and given the State’s narrow geographical area and high population density, it is anybody’s guess how successful the government will be in building a “new Kerala” once the disaster fades from collective memory.

A key test of what is to come would be the response of the powerful “anti-Gadgil Committee report lobby” and the major political parties to the latest order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and its consequences for the State (see “Unsettling report”, Frontline, December 7, 2013; and “Disquiet in the Ghats”, Frontline, September 30, 2016). On August 26, the principal bench of the NGT directed the Union Environment Ministry to finalise the long-delayed draft notification demarcating ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) in the Western Ghats within six months. It has prohibited the Ministry from making changes in the draft notification so as to reduce the area covering the ESAs without the same being considered by the tribunal. The operative part of the NGT directive said: “In view of the fact that any alteration in the draft notification may seriously affect the environment and especially in view of the recent incidents in Kerala, we direct that no changes be made to reduce the area of eco-sensitive zone in terms of notification dated February 27, 2018, without the same being considered by the tribunal.”

The tribunal directed that until the matter was finalised by it, “no environmental clearance should be granted and no activity adversely impacting eco-sensitive areas should be permitted in the areas covered by the draft notification”.