The Great Fire of London raged for four days in 1666, destroying much of the city and leaving a lakh people homeless. The fire, however, created an opportunity to build the city in a new form, which quickly became the hub of the British Empire and subsequently the United Kingdom in the centuries which followed. I am confident that a resilient and determined Kerala will use the present crisis as an opportunity to rebuild itself as the most well-planned sustainable, green, and advanced State in the world.
I have been fortunate to have spent the best years of my life in Kerala. I have greatly learnt and evolved as an officer during my two decades in this fascinating State. I am therefore devastated at the damage to the life and infrastructure caused by the floods in the State.
Kerala is one of the most beautiful states of India, with a unique topography of backwaters, hill stations, beaches, richly diverse flora and fauna in its forests, and a hospitable, gracious and supremely proud population. This led to National Geographic Traveller magazine naming Kerala as one of the 10 exotic paradises of the world. It has been God’s Own Country in every shape, manner and form. Regrettably, the people of Kerala have undergone a natural calamity that tests their determination and fortitude.
Despite this, I am certain that the spirit, grit, courage, and resilience of the people of Kerala will ensure that they and the state will not only overcome this tragedy but also rebuild towards so much more, with pride and grace. I believe completely in the ability of the people of Kerala to once again become the best in class for tourism, infrastructure, and a valuable lesson and example on how to rebuild. The stories that are emanating from Kerala as the people respond to this tragic occurrence are both heart-warming and uplifting. And above all, they are indicative of the pride that the people of Kerala feel for their state and each other. Abandoning religion, caste and regional differences, they were able to prevail over the worst of nature’s fury, setting an example to themselves and the rest of the world.
The community and heroes
The entire community has bonded together as one, and not only saved lives, but continues to work tirelessly towards the rebuilding process. The state government along with the Kerala State IT Mission launched a rescue website which is best-in-class in terms of accessibility, approach, ease of use, and areas addressed. The site is comprehensive, robust, and has greatly enhanced the rescue and relief operations. Payments to the CM’s Relief Fund have been accompanied by an instantaneous signed certificate by the Finance Secretary of the State. The social media help group Anbodu Kochi has through a viral hash-tag #doforkerala became a key coordination group for assisting in relief and rehabilitation for flood victims.
Foremost in the relief effort has been the untiring and critical role played by the fishermen, and the relief and rebuilding efforts by civil servants. The clinical and unflaggingly effective response of the civil administration has been exemplary. The district in the most impacted regions of central Kerala have led the recovery and been both proactive and accessible.
Social media has been used to its utmost potential for updates, as demonstrated by TV Anupama, the district collector of Thrissur, updating responses to citizens in impacted areas including Mala and Chalakudy. K Vasuki, the district collector of Thiruvananthapuram, used social media and youth to streamline sorting, repackaging and distribution of material for relief measures. Other exemplary officers include Krishna Teja Mylavarapu, the sub-collector of Alappuzha, food safety commissioner M.G. Rajamanikyam, sub-collector NSK Umesh and Raja Gopal Sunkara. Many of them took full charge by unloading rice bags, supervising relief operations, and even wading through deep waters. Hari Kishore, the executive director of Kudumbasree Mission, worked with unsurpassed energy and vigour. The officers of Kerala have worked with passion, commitment, zeal, and enthusiasm rarely seen anywhere in the world.
This brings me to the selfless service and effort of the fishermen, who fearlessly treaded literally and figuratively beyond their mandate to answer their moral call of duty. Using their own boats and resources, over 1,000 fishermen and 500 of their fishing boats were extensively involved in the rescue operations, risking their lives to save countless lives. Their humanity and determination embody the spirit of the people of Kerala. Having worked closely with the traditional fisheries sector of Kerala for years, I feel proud of the risk taking ability of fishermen, their courage and determination to rise in a moment of crisis.
The collaborative partnership between the Centre, State, Navy, Air Force, Army, NDRF, and the civil services of Kerala in confronting and containing the impact of the floods has been admirable. Finally, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan led from the front, demonstrated seasoned and matured leadership and did not indulge in any political blame game. He has confidently steered the State.
The way forward
In the future, there are four primary concerns. Firstly, a massive effort must be made to prevent and control the possibility of any epidemics (dengue, chikungunya, malaria). For this, there has to be a collaborative partnership with people to spread awareness, enhance sanitation, and dispense necessary vaccines. Health agencies will need to play a critical role and work closely with the various organs of relief work, an effort that has already begun. Providing safe drinking water at all locations is a major challenge. Kerala has traditionally emerged as a role model in managing epidemics and natural disasters. This requires early detection based on constant surveillance, a swift response involving skilled hands, drugs and vaccines, and effective coordination. The extremely high levels of education and awareness make a massive difference, and I am confident that this will continue to be the difference maker in how Kerala handles this challenge.
The second major concern is the protection and provision of livelihood. The floods have dealt a severe blow to Kerala’s agricultural, agro-processing & plantation sectors. Having lost their crops, farmers are grappling with debts. Government will have to provide livelihood relief and banks will have to reschedule loans. Relief measures will have to be provided to help people pick up their lives and livelihood.
Thirdly, there is the challenge of restoring existing infrastructure facilities. There are power units, damaged roads, and destroyed homes. These have to be restored by the KSEB and the PWD speedily and effectively. Those whose homes have been destroyed have to be assisted and fully supported.
Fourthly, this is a unique opportunity for Kerala to create a model of green growth and sustainable development through usage of local materials. This requires working with the finest master planners, some of the best architects and undertaking scientific master planning and detailed engineering. The cities of Kerala must have the best technology for waste management, sewage and drainage pipelines and disaster management plans. This must become an integral component of rebuilding Kerala.
Kerala is a highly eco-sensitive region of the Western ghats where sacred groves, backwaters, lagoons, inland waterways and paddy fields converge and integrate. Over the years, there has been mindless construction, illegal encroachments, blockage of water bodies and lack of holistic planning. Special care needs to be taken to preserve, rejuvenate and conserve these assets which gave Kerala its uniqueness and distinctiveness. This is a unique opportunity for Kerala to create the most sustainable infrastructure based on green growth carrying capacity and become a model for the rest of the world in rebuilding after a major natural calamity.
Responsible tourism must once more become the backbone of Kerala. A lot will be accomplished institutionally, but what gives me and every citizen of India the hope and confidence that Kerala will rebound and again achieve excellence, are the stories of local heroism, initiative, passion, courage, and altruism. This is God’s Own Country in every way, and now it’s time for the rest of the world to witness how it recovers and becomes a more greener and a more sustainable version of what it has once been.
(The author is CEO, NITI Aayog. Views expressed are personal).