The aftermath of the biggest flood of the century in Kerala has turned out to be worse than its immediate impact. The way the community responded to the tragedy by saving lives and bringing succour to the victims was heart warming. But hardly had the water receded after inflicting untold suffering, the spontaneous unity and sense of purpose of the people of Kerala, seen at the height of the crisis, withered away into blame game, political rhetoric, exploitation and outright lawlessness.
Television channels, which weathered the storm to bring the scenes of sheer horror of the fury of nature even at the cost of losing some lives, turned to the professional talking heads to apportion blame to everyone except themselves. Life appeared to have returned to normalcy even when thousands of people languished in relief camps, desperation writ large on their faces, unable to get back to their water-ravaged, reptile-infested homes. Lip service was paid to the suffering out there, but the debaters set their eyes firmly on the elections next year.
The first debate was on the role of the army in the rescue operations. The time taken in calling in the army, the delay in their deployment and their unfamiliarity with the terrain etc were on expected lines, but a suggestion made that the armed forces should be given a free hand to deal with the situation was patently untenable.
Even after the army stated that they would be able to operate only under the local authorities, the debate continued for a while. The state Government took it as an affront to them. A man dressed up as a soldier went viral on the social media by pleading for a free hand for the army. But, mercifully, the irrationality of leaving matters to the army was too evident to be bandied about for too long.
Environmentalists reveled in their prophecies of doom and warnings about how unsustainable development had provoked Mother Earth to strike back. Gadgil and Kasturirangan came back to life, arguing that if only the Government had enacted legislation on the basis of their recommendations, the flood would not have come. When someone hesitatingly pointed out that an even bigger flood had occurred in 1924, when the Western Ghats were pristine without human habitation, the answer was that deforestation had caused the landslides, which caused great damage this time. Some pointed out that these disasters were cyclical because the earth was recharging the underground water and restoring balance. Perhaps, it was the extraordinarily heavy precipitation that caused the heavy rain and flooding. Finally, the comforting thought was that Kerala was safe for a hundred years at least!
The management of the many dams in Kerala during the crisis was another matter of contention. It was alleged that the Electricity Board was delighted by the rising water levels in the dam and decided to hold it for a power bonanza. Moreover, sufficient warnings were not given when some of the shutters were raised in the emergency. The jury is still out on the facts of the case, but this has given the opposition another stick to beat the state Government with.
The trips made by a Minister of Kerala and the Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram to Europe at the height of the crisis set the tongues wagging on and off the small screen. The Minister confessed that it was an error of judgment on his part, particularly since he had waxed eloquent in an Independence Day speech about the grave situation facing the state just before taking off. It turned out that he had gone to Germany to attend a meeting of the World Malayalee Council, the importance of which was challenged, prompting some overseas Keralites to sue the commentator. The MP stuck to his guns that he had gone to Geneva to consult his former colleagues in the UN system and complained that “this visit has, within many quarters of the cacophonic Indian media and belligerent political class, been singled out, misconstrued and maligned in an assortment of ways.” The explanation he had given earlier that he had gone to attend the funeral of his former boss, Kofi Annan, was never mentioned in an article he wrote for ‘the Print’. The Chief Minister of Kerala, on the other hand, said that as far as he was told by the MP, he had gone to attend a funeral in Geneva. The visit of the MP initiated the debate, which is still raging about the desirability and feasibility of seeking foreign assistance. “There is no shame in taking the help extended to us by friends," said the MP.
I was one of the first to raise the issue of foreign assistance, when I realised that this crisis would be beyond our capacity to handle, particularly for the massive rebuilding ahead. In a tweet of August 16, I said “I have been urging GOI to relax its policy of not seeking international assistance and seek help in the case of the flood disaster in Kerala. I would request @Sushmaswaraj to take the initiative to prevent a major tragedy. The situation is beyond our national capacity to handle.” I had written a letter on similar lines to Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, an erstwhile colleague.
Acceptance of foreign assistance is a matter on which the Government has a clear policy, according to which, India would not seek foreign assistance, but aid offered by foreign foundations and other voluntary organisations would be accepted, but any other offers would be examined on the basis of requirements and other factors and appropriate decisions would be taken. As far as I can recall, such a decision was taken in 2004 to demonstrate India’s strength to take care of ourselves and to assist others in times of need as part of our superpower ambitions. The possibility of accepting foreign assistance in serious situations was never ruled out.
When the Union Government appeared to hesitate about receiving state-to-state assistance, the Chief Minister of Kerala announced the good news, presumably in good faith, that the UAE Government would offer Rs.700 crore to Kerala, which was corroborated by the Prime Minister in a tweet that he had received word from the ruler of the UAE that assistance would be made available as necessary, without mentioning any figure. But the moment there was some indication that the UAE offer might not be accepted, a battle royal began with the CPM suggesting that the PM was deliberately hurting Kerala and the BJP arguing that the CPM had deliberately spread the story of the UAE offer to embarrass the centre. The Congress Party wanted its own policy of 2004 changed. Tweets by former foreign secretaries, Shivshankar Menon and Nirupama Rao,urging acceptance of the offer made headlines in Kerala.
When the UAE Ambassador said that the UAE assistance was never quantified and that Foundations etc would continue to help, the CM clarified that he was told about the amount of assistance by a reputed industrialist of Indian origin. With the industrialist and the Central Government being silent, the UAE offer is in limbo. As a result, other countries are also hesitating to make any offer. The sooner the UAE offer imbroglio is resolved the better for Kerala.
Kerala is now grappling with not only rebuilding, but also reimagining Kerala as this is an opportunity to shape a new Kerala, free of the dangers human activity had created thoughtlessly. The lessons learnt from the deluge have to be studied before a new sustainable development programme is launched. But realistically, it looks difficult to build a new Kerala when the urgent requirement is to somehow provide homes to the homeless. Unless urgent action is taken to put a plan in place, the likelihood of history repeating itself is considerable. The saying that “no disaster should be wasted” is good advice.