Kerala Floods

Extreme weather events: ‘Tough time ahead’

Print edition : September 13, 2019

Dr V. Venu.

Rajesh, a fish farmer, lost all the cages he had set up for catching fish, in the recent flooding in Kochi’s Kozhithuruth island in Kochi. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Interview with Dr V. Venu, Relief Commissioner and Convener of the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority, and Principal Secretary, Revenue and Disaster Management, Government of Kerala.

Yet another extreme weather-related calamity has happened within a year in Kerala. How is it going to impact the State’s plans to rebuild itself, after the disastrous August 2018 floods?

It is too early to say how the Rebuild Kerala initiative will be impacted. But I can say, by and large, the floods that we have gone through recently do not really impact on the long-term ideas that Rebuild Kerala has planned. In that sense there is really no deviation.

However, I think, what this has driven home to the political executive is the fact that hard reforms cannot wait. There are several aspects in the reform agenda we keep talking about, which need to be mainstreamed very, very fast.

Every Malayalee talks about land use. But nobody wants to bell the cat. But it is time that the government at the highest level says that after the floods of 2019, there is no way that we can live in denial. We cannot say that this problem does not exist. The latest event has brought out how we manage our fragile regions.

That calls for a relook at our building rules. We have flagged that in our [Rebuild Kerala] document, but we have not put a time limit. But now those are things which just cannot wait. How do we change our building rules? You have municipal building rules and panchayat building rules. Both are essentially the same creature in two different names. But neither addresses the core issues of the context.

The building rules are not contextual. Should the rules be the same for cities or towns, the lowlying wetland areas, the midlands and the highlands? Our rules still look at it very mechanically—what is the setback, what is the height, and so on. But we need to look at the context, whether the building is planned in a wetland, in converted land, and so on. Nobody should build in such places. Or in the highlands, we must say that nobody should build more than X square feet, because the local environment is not conducive to that. If a person has a plot of land, the building is the only concern for that person. But how is the road to be built there? If the access road has to cut a slope, we cannot allow that. So we have to incorporate all such contextual changes in our rules. We have to wipe the slate clean and start all over again. And that has to be done with the utmost urgency.

The other side is the issue of land use. Should we have homesteads and farms? In fragile areas, do we want people to stay there at all? We saw the tragedy that happened in all these places now. So how do you disincentivise people from staying there? Blanket bans won’t work. The government can say that if you are going to stay in such places, it is going to be much more costly, or that you cannot build more than 1,000 sq ft, you can only build a farmhouse, you cannot build a palatial house on a fragile location just because your son or daughter is in Europe. You may be able to afford it, but the rules will prevent you. You cannot build beyond a certain limit, because the area is fragile and the government believes that only agriculture should happen there. So that people will be forced to look at other options. And because they are giving up their rights at one place, will you give them more rights elsewhere? Such models of transferable rights have worked in many parts of the world. We need to think about these urgently.

But are these ideas practical, even when we think about it in the context of such a calamity? Kerala never moved in that direction after the big floods in 2018. For instance, our projects for rebuilding Kerala itself require an ample supply of granite. Was quarrying put under check?

Yes, about quarrying. How much and how long? It is very easy to say that quarries should be banned. It won’t work that way. So what is the long-term strategy? In ten years, what will be the demand for granite in Kerala? And how do you propose to meet that? Nobody has a proposal on that.

You cannot wish granite away. It is an essential component of buildings. It is easy for people to talk about alternatives. There are no alternatives. At this time, there is no alternative to stones that can be used on a large scale. You can do the odd building here and there, but is there anything so popular that you can replace granite with it? So we can study those technologies, but we cannot bring that into policies now. What we need to explore is, over 20 years how do we bring down our granite consumption? How do you bring that to be on a par with our extraction? Which are the areas where granite can be extracted safely?

But then, is there not the issue of high population density in the State? Demand would likely only be rising.

Isn’t that a misnomer? If you go outside the towns, there is still a lot of land that is available. Land is not the issue. The usage of land is the issue. Even in cities, for example in Thiruvananthapuram, step outside the city centre and you get long rows of tiny little houses, exactly like a village. A warren of tiny houses. We cannot do that anymore. Inside the cities, certain centres should have verticals. But only in those centres, so that we can keep these other places free… You cannot have a situation where everybody is able to build anywhere. That is the reason why people keep on converting [fragile land]. We incentivise large-scale conversion by saying, for example, “you cannot block a stream, but then, if it is only ten cents we will allow you [to build there]”. What is the logic behind such policies? Ten cents or one cent is enough for a water channel to disappear, for a padasekharam [contiguous paddy fields] to be destroyed. Our whole settlement pattern must change.

Have you made a damage assessment of the situation now?

Oh no! We still have 25,000 people in the relief camps. That is surely our priority now.

But is Kerala not already overburdened because of the devastation caused by the floods of 2018? What would be the scale of the damage this time?

I would say that we would be looking at a quarter to a fifth of the damage in 2018. Probably about a fifth, I would say.

After facing the biggest floods in nearly 100 years, and given the predictions about frequent extreme events, how prepared was Kerala for such large-scale devastation within a year? How did the State handle the aftermath, in comparison with last year?

It was far better. There is no comparison between the response of the government and government systems last year and this time. This time, in every department, in every action area, we were better prepared. For instance, we produced what we call an Orange Book, or our monsoon guidelines, that defines the action required from each officer, each machinery of the State government, each cog in the wheel. Those guidelines gave them clarity on what required to be done. So from the very top command centre to the very bottom, every person knew what needed to be done. That actually increased our efficiency, and decreased the response time.

Secondly, preparedness itself was much better. I will give an example. We evacuated 88,000 people from the floodplains of one river, the Panavaram river [in Wayanad district]. Last time, when the water level came up in this river, it did so very quickly. There were allegations that it was because of the opening of the dams. Of course, that was not the case. But tens of thousands of people were cut off for two-three days. We could not reach them because the current was too strong. This time the moment we got a warning that three Red Alert days were coming, we did not wait. We gave instructions. We had already mapped the flood-prone areas. So over 30,000 people went to relief camps; 55,000 people went to the places of relatives or friends, and when the flood rose, there was nobody there. The water level rose higher than last year in Panavaram. We did not have a single casualty. There was no complaint. The people were prepared. That was the kind of preparedness of the machinery.

Our response time improved tremendously; we sought forces in advance. On Day Two, the NDRF [National Disaster Response Force] was deployed already. It took six days last time. So the NDRF, the Army columns, the technical teams, they were all in the field within 24 hours. We have a control room coordinating the entire operation. It is a full-fledged division, and there are people to look at each aspect of an evolving situation.

Regarding the management of relief camps, nobody has any complaints, because we were prepared. The moment the need arose, we knew where each camp would be, because now the full list is there. Earlier we didn’t have it. Each person knew what he or she had to do. The local taluk officer knew, for example, how many camps he had in his area, how many people would be there, and the quantity of supplies he had to provide. The revenue officials knew what exactly they had to do. Overall, the management was far superior to what it was last time.

With regard to the nature of the calamity we faced in 2018 and 2019, were there any major differences in terms of what the State had to deal with?

What happened this year has only validated what the government has been saying all along. It was not the opening of the dams that caused the calamity last time. It was not a man-made disaster. It was an extreme climate event. This time also it was an extreme climate event. In the very same areas, like last time, water levels rose and people were evacuated. But this time the dam levels were only 30 to 40 per cent. So dams are not the problem. It is extreme climate events coming back to back.

If such events are to be repeated so frequently, what lies ahead for the State, with loss to life and property sure to become cumulative and enormous?

My thinking is that, first let us look at protecting people’s lives. That is paramount. Property, farmland, all that is subsidiary to this. From the point of view of managing and preparing for disasters, the best thing you can do is to have phased relocation of all vulnerable populations. We have already started this.

You mean, relocating people permanently?

Yes, permanently. The Chief Minister also has been saying that we must look at it with the seriousness it deserves. In all our previous discussions, it was just a good idea. “Ideally, we must move them; but they won’t move.” That is what we say. But we cannot do that anymore. We must say, this is top of the line. People who are in vulnerable areas have to be relocated. It should be our first priority. It could mean people living close to the sea, or extremely close to water bodies, rivers and floodplains, or in susceptible areas in the hills, they need to be moved. That is first. The second is gradual depopulation of sensitive areas by changing the laws.

But are we ready with the resources for it? Do we have the land for relocating people on such a scale, in the first place? Or the money?

We have the land. Land is not the problem. But we may not be able to find the resources. Say, here we are talking about rehabilitating 10 lakh to 20 lakh people. But in the long term, given the increasing probability of more and more extreme climate events happening, it is something we have to invest in. It is an investment. You should find external financing, or some innovative way to fund it.

How has this second devastation impacted the State’s finances and the financing of the plans to rebuild itself?

It is in a shambles. Last year itself, it was about 70 per cent that we got to spend under the Plan. This year also I believe we will end up with a Plan cut. Financing will have to move to critical areas. Normal budgeted projects will probably suffer. The Rebuild Kerala project—that we are only starting. We can always reschedule it, and it is not as important as the emergency management.

As of now, asking the Centre to raise the annual borrowing limit (in order to raise funds through market borrowings, including from international financial institutions) seems to be Kerala’s only hope to find more resources.

Yes, we will keep pushing that point. There is no way out.

How hopeful are you, about the Centre agreeing to it?

We have no idea. There is no indication…

Is it a bleak prospect for Kerala then?

Kerala, not only the government but the people also, will have to understand that the next five years are going to be very, very tough. The external environment is not favourable, the national environment looks unfavourable, our GST [goods and services tax] collections are way below target. So we have to look at a period where public spending will have to be limited, where finance will be harder to get. We have to tighten our budgets, tighten our belts, and brace ourselves to be very brutal with our public expenditure. Do only those things that are absolutely essential and make sure that every rupee that we spend goes to the right place. We do not have any space for error. We do not have any room for slack.

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