The Politics of Disaster in Kerala

Relief efforts in Kerala are being overshadowed by the government’s political posturing ahead of an election year. 

In 2002, Sir William Mark Tully, former Delhi bureau chief of the BBC, pointed out in his book, India in Slow Motion, that in India the government is most often the problem rather than the solution. Since August 8, 2018, this has rung truer than ever before in Kerala, a state in southern India experiencing its worst flood since 1924. Over 1 million people have been displaced and are now residing in relief camps, which are also flooded in many areas. The death toll is currently pegged at over 350.

According to the India Metrological Department (IMD), the rainfall in Kerala this year has been 42% higher than what it normally receives in the three months of the annual monsoon season. At a staggering 2,191 millimeters, the excess rains have destroyed several districts in Kerala, such as Ernakulam, Idukki, Malapurram and Kottayam. The rains have affected Kerala to the extent that the state government has estimated losses of over $2.8 billion, with over 82,000 kilometers of local roads damaged. Twelve state districts were on high alert since August 18, with social media timelines filled with posts asking to help families caught in the deluge, waiting to be airlifted to safety.

The National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) has launched its largest-ever rescue operation to save Keralites. The navy’s 72 rescue teams have already saved over 3,000 people, while the coast guard has assisted over 2,500. A breakthrough in rescue operations happened when fishermen — themselves a neglected class in Kerala — ventured into the remotest areas in 600 vessels to aid in the rescue operations. However, the situation is still dire, with many people still unsafe in the worst affected areas of the state.

According to journalist Jibu Elias, donations to the chief minister’s disaster relief fund weren’t enough to save people. The rescue mission required more helicopters and boats, which should have been provided by the central government. Lack of centralized coordination for the rescue efforts in the early stages, as well as lack of countermeasures with regard to the opening of dams, showcases that the government was underprepared for this kind of calamity.

Lack of Preparation 

The Kerala flood is being labeled as one of India’s worst natural disasters. India’s most literate state, with a population of over 30 million, has always been an example for the rest of the country in terms of its governance and infrastructure. Why didn’t Kerala manage to withstand the flood?

While many blame climate change for a persistent low-pressure system off the coast of Kerala that led to heavy rainfall, Madhav Gadgil, founder of the Centre of Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, pinned the reason on human incursions in ecologically sensitive areas. In 2011, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, also known as the Gadgil Committee, had brought out a series of recommendations for the protection of the Western Ghats, an ecologically sensitive forest area spanning the length of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. The committee had requested that  states put strong restrictions on activities like mining, quarrying and construction. The Kerala government had reportedly rejected the recommendations of the report at the time and refused to adopt them.

The disaster was further impounded by lack of preparation, despite several warnings of heavy rain by the IMD. According to a report by The Times of India, the situation of an impending flood and heavy rains in Kerala was discussed at length during a session in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, less than a month ago. Ministers from the state had reportedly submitted a list of demands to the government, which had responded with reassurances that the army and the navy were on standby to provide assistance in the event of a disaster.

N.K. Premachandran, a member of parliament from the district of Kollam, had flagged the loss of wetlands and exploitation of natural resources as the main reason for a potential disaster, meaning the administration wasn’t caught unaware when the floods finally came.

Disaster Politics

Two main concerns will plague the reinstitution of Kerala back to normalcy. First is the political situation: India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by the erstwhile prime minister, Narendra Modi, is facing flak for providing a paltry 5 billion rupees ($71.6 million) in relief to the state, despite Kerala’s chief minister requesting 20 billion ($287 million). The opposition Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, stated that the relief was too little. Modi also came under scrutiny by the media when he chose to honor Atal Behari Vajpayee, a former prime minister and BJP party veteran who passed away on August 16. While BJP politicians were busy organizing Vajpayee’s last rites, people in Kerala continued to fight against torrential rain and sweeping currents.

Modi’s decision to make an aerial survey of the flood came a little too late, as by then over 82,000 people had been displaced in a span of 9 days. Areas such as Edanad, Pandanadu and Thiruvanvandoor remained out of reach as roads were blocked by landslides, making aerial evacuation the only way to save people. While the BJP said that it was providing “full support” to the state, news of stranded family members kept pouring in on social media. Other states have come out in support of Kerala, with Maharashtra pledging relief of around $3.6 million, Uttar Pradesh $2 million and Chattisgarh $1.4 million; the latter also pledged to send $1 million worth of rice to afflicted areas.

Help has also poured in from the Middle East, where Keralites form a majority of the 8 million Indians who work in the region. The United Arab Emirates is offering help of $100 million to help rebuild Kerala.

However, the central administration continues to face a dilemma as to which area to focus on: airlifting food to flood-affected areas or evacuating people altogether. Relief camps, which saw the number of residents double between August 17 and 18, are complaining of food, water and electricity shortages. The camps are also at risk of flooding, raising a question on the half-heartedness and hurriedness of the evacuation effort, which seems to have had little thought put into it. A minister of legislative assembly from Ernakulam district told The Indian Express earlier this week that neither rice nor medical kits had reached relief camps in his area, one of the worst-affected in Kerala.

A big question that remains unanswered is whether the government delayed its rescue efforts in Kerala owing to the absence of its political clout in the leftist-dominated state. The state’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, is part of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), an evergreen thorn in the side of the BJP, which has failed to make in-roads into Kerala with its right-wing Hindu ideologies. Kerala’s unique demography has Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities, bound by a strong allegiance to Malayali culture, something the BJP has failed to emulate with its ideologies. Last month, Vijayan came back rather frustrated from a meeting with the prime minister, with most of his demands, including the allocation of more food to the state, going unaddressed.

What About the Dams?

The second issue that needs to be addressed immediately is the management of dams, with 33 out of 39 having been opened in Kerala during the floods as the high volume of water became unmanageable. According to Joseph Michael, an environmental activist, dams have many shutters and authorities could have opened one, two or all shutters, according to the pressure on the dam. However, many residents were not notified on time when dams were being opened, leading to many properties being submerged. Protocol was followed, but why was water held until it reached peak level so that it had to be released all at once? A big concern for residents of Kerala now is the safety protocols being followed, with further risks of submerging low-lying areas in the event of another disaster.

Concerns were raised by several Keralites on the safety of the Mullaperiyar Dam on the Periyar River in the Idukki district in Kerala, after water levels reached dangerously high levels. The dam is a disputed issue between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The former refused to reduce the water level despite repeated requests from the Kerala government in the event of heavy rainfall, raising concerns about the safety of people living downstream.

On August 16, the supreme court told both governments that an effort had to be made to reduce the water level of the dam from 142 to 139 feet. However, the issue of the safety of the dam went unaddressed. Mullaperiyar Dam, which was opened in in 1895, has developed several cracks over the years and in the event of it breaking, people of Kerala have more to lose than Tamil Nadu because of their location.

The real problem for Kerala will start after the water starts receding. The state’s chief minister said on August 21 that Kerala needed “massive” funds to get back on track and had raised a loan of 100 billion rupees ($1.5 billion) from the central government. Vijayan added that the loan limit would have to be extended. Garbage is piling up, threatening the spread of disease, and people are rebuilding their homes, and lives, from scratch.

The government’s sole focus right now should be to overcome the distrust toward the state and focus on rebuilding the lives of the people. The relief operation was a concerted effort by the people of India and beyond, and the focus in the future should be on rebuilding Kerala, not on getting a majority in the state in upcoming general election.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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Author: Aparajito Ray