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KERALA FLOODS- SOUND AND FURY RECOLLECTED IN TRANQUILITY

P M Ravindran; raviforjustice@gmail.com

09 August 2018, Palakkad. Scene: a residential compound near a stream where three siblings
had constructed their independent houses and were living with the best of both worlds, the
support system of undivided Hindu family and the freedom of a nuclear family. Two of the
houses, of which one was unoccupied temporarily, had only ground floor, and the third was
double storied. Early in the morning, the couple living in the single storied house heard
animated chatting from the other house and came out to see what was happening. And they
found water in their porch. And even as they were looking at it the level was rising! They
realized the danger and 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 using canoes only by evening.

500 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. And before she could understand what
was happening she was waist deep in water. By the time rescue workers, all local youth,
reached them water had reached 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 the UP 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 fore front 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
amoung 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 had 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 in any short time. 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.
Though water levels rose and entered some of the houses again it was just sufficient to undo
their effort of the earlier days!

But as it turned out what had happened in Palakkad was only 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, with
obvious connivance of those in government, had been anti-nature. Encroachments were
periodically legalized with the government transferring the 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! In fact these people carry so much clout with the
authorities that some of them actually specialize is buying disputed lands at throw away prices
and get the disputes settled in their favour! The discussion of the extent of this mismanage
ment of land cannot be completed without referring to the report submitted by the Western
Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) headed by Dr Madhav Gadgil. In fact this report can also
be the last argument 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. However, it was literally thrown
into the dustbin by self serving politicians of that time crying (falsely of course) that it was anti
farmer and anti development. Even the church leaders had joined this chorus against impleme
ntation 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 had 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, out of the purview of ecologically sensitive areas. It was natural that Gadgil
slammed this report saying that it had replaced the pro-people and pro-nature report of the
WGEEP with 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 mass mobilization of the 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 also
became heroes overnight due to their personal involvement in the relief operations. Of these T
V Anupama, District Collector, Thrissur even 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 , using social media, enough and more youth to work in the
relief material collection and distribution point set up in an indoor stadium. Apart from these
the involvement of the 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.

It may be pertinent to note here that not only had the Government of Kerala failed completely
to comply with the expert panel’s recommendations but also 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 5 other districts in 2006. An environmental activist, Dr P S Panikkar,
had pursued this information and sought the details of expenditure from the Calamity Relief
Funds of Kottayam and Kasargode districts. Having failed to get satisfactory replies he had filed
2nd appeals with the Kerala State Information Commission and had not received 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 much worrying as the distress caused to the common folks by the floods have been the
political blame game indulged, particularly by the party leading the current government in the
State.

One of the allegations made by the opposition is that there was criminal negligence on the part
of the decision makers in releasing waters from dams and failing to inform the public. This is an
open secret amoung the public. In this context the effort made 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 well reported in the media of how the decision makers in
Kerala waited for all the dams to reach the 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 to produce more electricity from its hydel
projects and make some profit by selling it to other states. (However it had not stopped the
Board from hiking the price for its domestic consumers recently.)

The most serious of (false) allegations is a post by the CMO on twitter that UAE had promised
to contribute Rs 700 crores to the flood relief effort. This was denied by the Union Government.
Bu 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 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 the 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 deploying army in rescue operations. While
there is still doubt whether and when the Government of Kerala had actually requested for
army help, the media was abuzz speculating whether handing over relief operations to army
would amount to handing over the governance of the State itself to the army. The statements
of both the CM and his party secretary seem to suggest that they at least believed so. A
youngster in camouflage fatigues could be seen actually telling the CM, through a video that
had gone viral on social media, that was shocked to realize what a dimwit the CM was. It has
been reported that he has been identified and a case charged against him.

Even the armed forces, doing yeoman work in the rescue and relief operations were not spared.
It was the state secretary of CPM and former Home Minister, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who 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 people were involved in relief operations. As things turned
out he was treated like an unwelcome guest when the State Government finally gave a modest
send off to the soldiers at the Headquarters of Southern Air Command at Thiruvananthapuram.
There have also been enough reports of mismanagement and pilfering of aid material from
relief camps. But public servants indulging in such acts had to be dealt with severely. Social
media also shared photos of CPM cadres distributing aid material in bags marked with party
emblem and name. There was even a case of CPM and CPI cadres fighting it out alleging that
one had collected stores meant for the other. But the most unpardonable is the case of leaving
tones of aid that has reached Thiruvananthapuram airport and various railway stations
(addressed to the District Collector/ District Magistrate) uncollected. This visible ineptitude
notwithstanding, 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 the 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 decision makers in Kerala Government and their party followers 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 16th August (at the peak of the disaster) for participating in the Onam
celebrations of the malayalees there only exposed the attitude of the state leadership towards
the people who had put them in their current offices and been pampering them like
nobodyelse!

28 Aug 2018

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