As the flood waters in devastated Kerala recede, the extent of damage can be better though still not fully assessed and the way forward charted with lessons from what has occurred.
The destruction caused by the floods, the worst since 1924, were flashed across India through images in the media. Around 300 precious lives were lost. 32 people are still missing. Millions of people were affected. We saw the raging waters of rivers crashing through homes, roads and bridges with relentless fury; we saw the plight of thousands of marooned people, of lakhs of people in relief camps, their sadness, suffering and fear beamed into our homes. We also saw the heroic rescue missions mounted not only by the defence forces but also by thousands of ordinary folk who risked their own lives to save others.
Since the floods started, the main focus of the state government has been to rescue families in areas that were flooded and to set up and run relief camps. In just three days from August 17 to 19, when there was a repeat of heavy rains, over two lakh people were rescued. There were over one million people placed in 3,274 relief camps. Even today, lakhs of people are not able to return home: in some cases, they have been rendered homeless; in other cases, their houses are very badly damaged or uninhabitable at present and require days of cleaning. Therefore, relief camps continue, requiring huge resources.
While the preliminary estimate of damages is put at Rs 20,000 crores, the Kerala government has warned that it could go well beyond. The challenges it has listed are implementing immediate measures to prevent outbreak of epidemics, of ensuring clean potable water, of restoring electricity, of restoring communications, of the reconstruction of lakhs of homes, of building roads, of repairing or rebuilding bridges. As an immediate relief, it has asked the central government to provide Rs 2,600 crores. So far, the central government has provided 600 crore rupees as monetary aid. The state government has also asked for a series of policy decisions from the central government to allow it to raise funds from the market. It has given the vision of reconstructing a "new Kerala."
The situation faced by Kerala is unprecedented. But the way the government and people of Kerala have responded to this grave calamity offers lesson for the rest of India.
The first important lesson is the need for focused political will and administrative acumen and efficiency to identify and meet multiple challenges without any partisan overtones. Relief and rehabilitation operations under the leadership of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government have received praise from all quarters and been described as "the best rescue and relief operations in recent memory." The Chief Minister's personal press briefings, sometimes twice a day, in the most difficult periods, with precise facts and details of the situation on the ground, gave tremendous confidence and helped to reduce panic induced by the disaster. He led the entire operations with close monitoring. This is a lesson for those prone to hyperbole and self-praise or those who cover their own failures through blame games.
The state government also reached out to the centre which provided the skill and experience of the defence forces' rescue teams to help people in distress. The close coordination between the centre and the state under the overall command of the state's civil administration ensured that rescue missions went off successfully. The wonderful work done by these rescue teams was deeply appreciated by the state government. Thus there was no scope left for any misunderstanding or miscommunication between the state and the centre which would have hampered relief operations. This is also a lesson.
The Kerala government also tried to involve all sections of political parties in the state in sharing information and reaching decisions. This is surely the only state government which invited the leader of the opposition to join the Chief Minister in the aerial survey when Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Kerala on August 11 and later, in joint visits to the relief camps. In the context of the highly-polarised political atmosphere in Kerala, this sent a strong message to the people that the primary aim must be the united will across parties to save Kerala and its people for which the cooperation of all parties is required. This political action of taking the opposition along, in spite of the often unhelpful statements of some opposition leaders even during the acute crisis, gave confidence to the people of Kerala.
In its plans for addressing the tremendous challenges for rebuilding virtually the entire state, the government has called a special session of the state assembly so as to ensure the democratic participation of elected representatives of the people from all parties in having a voice in taking such decisions. This again is a lesson for those who want to have an "opposition-mukt" polity.
In the wake of the floods, legitimate questions have been raised about the need for environment-friendly and sensitive policies. There has been criticism that the reckless destruction of ecologically-sensitive areas over decades is a factor in this tragedy. These are issues that can and should be discussed. What cannot be ignored is the impact of climate change and its connection to models of development. In its vision of "reconstructing" Kerala, no doubt the state government will keep these concerns central to its future plans.
The most important lesson to the country has been given by the people of Kerala themselves. Long years of the traditions and cultures of community and social work in Kerala across castes and communities came to the fore in the tremendous sacrifices made by the unsung heroes of the state, young and old selfless volunteers in the service of the affected people. Who could not be moved by the voluntary rescue missions led by thousands of fisherpersons, who, taking their own boats, risked their lives in heavy rain and turbulent waters to save their fellow citizens? The picture of the sturdy fisherman, bending down so that a senior citizen could use his back as a step to reach the boat that came to rescue her, symbolizes their bravery and courage. They have been especially recognized by the government for their great work. These fishermen belong to all religious communities, they are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, but not once was that a factor in their rescue missions. The spirit of Keralites, in this, their time of distress, difficulties and trauma, is something to salute, something to learn from.
Even as the entire country responded with sympathy and solidarity reflected in the spontaneous efforts of individuals and organisations to rush relief to Kerala, it filled one with dismay and anger that some sections in the political spectrum preferred to continue with divisive politics. Members of the Sangh Parivar posted hate-filled messages on social media asking people not to donate funds to the Chief Minister's relief fund. They said that this money would be used for the minorities and not for the Hindus. A member of the BJP IT team posted an utterly misleading and vicious message saying that only rich people were affected who did not need any relief. The newly-appointed member to the RBI Board, known for his proximity to the Sangh Parivar, tweeted that this was God's wrath against Kerala because of the Supreme Court's stand on the Sabarimala case. Not a single leader of the BJP or the RSS refuted or criticized such posts. To post such toxic messages at a time of deep suffering only reflects utter inhumanity.
It is hoped and expected that the central government will not be influenced by such low-level politics and will instead uphold the best federal principles in extending to Kerala all the assistance required for reconstruction.
(Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.)
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