Kerala floods: Sound and fury recollected in tranquility
by P M Ravindran on 29 Aug 2018 11 Comments

August 9, 2018, Palakkad: In a residential compound near a stream, three siblings had constructed independent houses and were living with the best of both worlds, the support system of the undivided Hindu family and the freedom of a nuclear family. Two of the houses, of which one was unoccupied temporarily, were single-storied, the third was double- storied. Early in the morning, the couple living in the single storied house heard animated voices from the other house and came out to see what was happening. They found water in their porch. And even as they looked, the level rose. Realising danger, they moved. The other family chose to move to their first floor and wait. But soon the first floor was completely under water and the inhabitants, senior citizens, could be rescued by canoes only by evening.


Five hundred meters away, in another old house, a 90-year-old retired professor was bedridden. His wife noticed water on the floor and its level was rising too. Before she could understand what was happening, she was waist deep in water. By the time rescue workers, all local youths, reached them, the water had reached up to their necks and the volunteers had to line up, wrap the patient in a blanket and carry him over their heads.


Soon a relief camp was opened in a school in the locality. And that was the first sign of the government waking up. Volunteers were mobilizing everywhere and moving the flood affected to safer areas and relief camps. While those in the forefront of rescue operations were all youngsters, elders chipped in by providing food, water and clothes. Unfortunately most of the clothes were used ones and there were practically no takers for them. The common refrain among the victims was that there had been no warning. 


To make matters worse, the water level in the dam here had reached its maximum level and had to be released. Power also failed. But within 24 hours the water drained off, leaving the affected houses in a mess. Mess is a soft term for a house having a three inch layer of slippery slush, all furniture, beds, linen, cushions and clothes soggy, refrigerators and washing machines toppled and dislocated. Nobody could move back soon. Hours turned into days. Those who had left their homes started the cleaning process, some after actually moving back in and the others commuting from their safe havens. They were almost done when there was another alert. Water levels rose and entered some houses again, sufficient to undo their efforts completely.


As it turned out, what happened in Palakkad was comparable to the trailer of a horror movie. The real show opened in the hill districts and down south. Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala, Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala, Chengannur, Patthanamthitta and a few more places bore the brunt of nature’s fury in the form of unprecedented floods. While rains, which had been continuing from early May and gaining intensity by the day, added the final blow, the calamity as such was man made, or more precisely, government made.


The reasons can be broadly classified into two heads: mismanagement of natural resources and failure to take preventive action. Worse, what seemed to dominate the media, apart from the heart wrenching scenes of the flood affected trying to escape in hordes, wading through neck deep water, some carrying the elderly on their shoulders, were the blame game and false propaganda by responsible public servants.


The mismanagement of natural resources has a long history. Starting from encroachment of the Western Ghats to quarrying and destruction of mountains and forests, sand mining, encroaching the flood plains and river banks, everything that has been happening in God’s own country had the connivance of those in government. Encroachments were periodically legalized with the government transferring ownership of land to the encroachers in much publicized pattaya melas. (Pattayam is the legal document of ownership of land.) After getting ownership of the encroached land, the same people would move to new pastures which would be legalized later.


Indeed, these people carry so much clout with the authorities that some of them actually specialize is buying disputed lands at throwaway prices and get the disputes settled in their favour. The discussion of the extent of this mismanage of land cannot be completed without referring to the report submitted by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) headed by Dr Madhav Gadgil. This report can also be the last word on the subject.


The mandate of WGEEP was to demarcate ecologically sensitive zones and suggest measures to conserve, protect and rejuvenate the ecology of Western Ghats region. Dr Gadgil submitted his report in 2011. It was literally thrown into the dustbin by self-serving politicians crying (falsely) that it was anti-farmer and anti-development. Even church leaders joined the chorus against implementation of Gadgil’s recommendations.


Taking into account the comments and suggestions made by different stakeholders, including State Governments and Central Ministries on WGEEP Report, the Ministry of Environment and Forests constituted a High Level Working Group (HLWG) to suggest an all-round and holistic approach for sustainable and equitable development, while keeping in focus the preservation and conservation of ecological systems in Western Ghats. This Group was headed by Dr Kasturirangan, a space scientist. He watered down the WGEEP report by keeping vast stretches of Western Ghats in the category cultural landscapes, which included human settlements and the sacred groves of Kerala, which are rich in biodiversity; these were kept out of the purview of ecologically sensitive areas.


Gadgil slammed this report saying that it had replaced the pro-people and pro-nature report of the WGEEP with an autocratic approach in terms of development and ecological conservation. However, the Kasturirangan report continues to provide the official yardstick for ecological activities since 2013.


The best thing that happened during the floods was the impromptu mass mobilization of ordinary folks from all walks of life in the rescue and relief operations. While the police and fire and rescue services personnel were the face of Government in the rescue operations, the health services and the employees of the State Electricity Board also can be given credit for doing a good job during the challenging times. District Collectors Raja Manickam, T.V. Anupama and Vasuki became heroes overnight due to their personal involvement in the relief operations.


T.V. Anupama, District Collector, Thrissur had to take a tough call to break the lock of the Bar Association’s hall to set up the relief material collection centre. Dr Bala Murali, District Collector, Palakkad could mobilize, via social media, enough youth to work in the relief material collection and distribution point set up in an indoor stadium. But apart from these officers, the involvement of Government , particularly at the higher echelons, was totally missing. It was the timely involvement of the techies and the applications they had promptly developed for locating stranded victims and coordinating rescue operations that mitigated to a large extent the failure of the Government to requisition Army aid. Even the fishermen folk moved to the flooded areas along with their boats, forgetting their own poverty and hardships, and did a commendable job in rescuing stranded people.


Not only had the Government of Kerala failed completely to comply with the expert panel’s recommendations, but it had been fudging funds as evident in the transfer of Rs 20.29 crores from the River Management Funds of nine districts to the Calamity Relief Funds of five other districts in 2006. An environmental activist, Dr P.S. Panikkar, pursued this information and sought details of expenditure from the Calamity Relief Funds of Kottayam and Kasargod districts. Failing to get satisfactory replies, he filed second appeals with the Kerala State Information Commission and did not receive any decision till he passed away suddenly in 2017. An application for getting copies of the file notings leading to the transfer of funds also got stonewalled with a reply that it had been destroyed by burning.


As worrying as the distress caused by the floods was the political blame game, particularly by the party leading the government. The Opposition alleged that there was criminal negligence on the part of the decision makers in releasing waters from dams and failing to inform the public. In this context, the effort by the Government of Kerala to blame Tamil Nadu for releasing waters from the controversial Mullapperiyar Dam and aggravating, if not causing, the flood situation can be considered to be hilarious but for the gravity of the situation.


It has been widely reported in the media how decision makers in Kerala waited for all the dams to reach maximum water level and released waters from 25 of them almost simultaneously. Media had also carried reports, way back in July, that the abundant rains had helped the State Electricity Board produce more electricity from its hydel projects and make some profit by selling it to other states. (This did not stop the Board from hiking prices for domestic consumers recently.)


The most serious of (false) allegations is a post by the CMO on Twitter that the United Arab Emirates had promised to contribute Rs 700 crores to the flood relief effort. This was denied by the Union Government. But it did not prevent the media, both social and mainstream, from going berserk with allegations that the Union Government had refused to accept the offer and even abusing the Prime Minister by name. Hoardings appeared in Malappuram thanking the UAE for the generous offer.


Even after the Ambassador of UAE clarified that no such amount had been offered, they harped on the allegation, adding that the Ambassador had been pressurized by the Central Government. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, whose office had initially made the false claim, changed tacks and claimed that he had been so informed by business tycoon Yusuf Ali in a private conversation. The social media went wild with a distorted version that if the Government of India refused to accept the official aid, Yusuf Ali’s Lulu Group would make the complete payment. The last thing heard on this was that Yusuf Ali has threatened to sue those who had spread this false information.


Another canard that gained ground was regarding the deployment of the Army in the rescue operations. While there is still doubt whether and when the Government of Kerala actually requested for Army help, the media was abuzz with speculations whether handing over relief operations to the Army would amount to handing over governance of the State itself to the Army. The statements of both the Chief Minister and his party secretary seemed to suggest that they at least believed so. A youngster in camouflage fatigues could be seen actually telling the Chief Minister, through a video that went viral on social media, that he was shocked to realize what a dimwit the Chief Minister was. It has been reported that the young man has been identified and a case lodged against him.


Even the armed forces, doing yeomen’s work in the rescue and relief operations, were not spared. COM state secretary of CPM and former Home Minister, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, made a false allegation that the Army failed to respond promptly even after the Government request. Another minister, Kadakampally Surendran, went on to comment that the Army could only stand by with rifles while the whole citizenry was involved in relief operations. As things turned out, he was treated like as unwelcome guest when the State Government finally gave a modest send off to the soldiers at the Headquarters of the Southern Air Command at Thiruvananthapuram.


There have also been enough reports of mismanagement and pilfering of aid material from relief camps. Public servants indulging in such acts have to be dealt with severely. Social media shared photos of CPM cadres distributing aid material in bags marked with party emblem and name. There was a case of CPM and CPI cadres fighting it out, alleging that one had collected stores meant for the other. But most unpardonable is the case of leaving tonnes of aid that has reached Thiruvananthapuram airport and various railway stations (addressed to the District Collector/ District Magistrate) uncollected. Despite this visible ineptitude, there is propaganda that more food grains are required and the Centre should provide them. Talking of food grains, the ruling party’s dirty tricks department has been spreading the lie that the Union Government was charging for the food grains provided as relief material. This, even after Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan had amply clarified that it had been provided free.


At the end of the day, an independent observer of the events that have been unfolding cannot miss the point that the Kerala Government and party have been more interested in getting political mileage out of human misery than in doing their job sincerely and honestly. The minister for coordinating relief operations in Kottayam district going to Germany on August 16 at the peak of the disaster to participate in Onam celebrations of Malayalis there only exposed the attitude of the state leadership towards the people who had put them in office and pampered them like boons from heaven. 

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