After nearly two weeks, the flood waters have finally begun to recede from the worst-affected regions in Kerala. Onam, probably the biggest festival in the state, came and passed almost unnoticed by the distracted populace. While the threat from water is abating, the state is now bracing to cope with the aftermath: protect against epidemics that often accompany natural disasters of such epic scale.
The administration will have its hands full—once the rescue and relief phase is over, focus on rehabilitation will begin—even while it will have to fend off the predictable political barbs that will come its way. In short, it will be the toughest challenge ever faced by Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan in his political career.
Past precedent suggest that it could well be the defining moment for the chief minister and his regime.
At the time of independence, India had inherited a bankrupt economy and inflamed communal passions inspired by the partition of the country.
A clutch of leaders led by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel ensured that India tided over this difficult phase. More recently, the duo of Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh shored up India’s finances and then shepherded the country through a difficult phase of accelerated economic reforms—setting the base for the big push in economic growth that followed at the turn of the new millennium.
A year into the new millennium, on Republic Day in fact, also saw Bhuj, located in Gujarat, suffer a very high intensity earthquake.
The fatalities were upwards of 15,000 and the number of injured in multiples. It was a defining moment for the incoming chief minister Narendra Modi, who spearheaded, which even his most bitter critics concede, a very impressive relief and rehabilitation programme.
A similar challenge lies before Vijayan and Kerala. Mercifully the fatalities are nowhere what was witnessed in Bhuj.
But the damage, particularly to the infrastructure and livelihoods has been devastating.
The immediate agenda will be to provide short-term relief to the affected and mitigate the fallouts like the spread of disease.
The fiscal costs of providing adequate emergency health care and restoring the damaged infrastructure will only further strain the already overburdened state exchequer of Kerala. Presumably, the Union government, keeping with its espoused dharma of cooperative federalism, will foot part of the bill. So far, despite prickly responses from some of his cabinet colleagues, Pinarayi Vijayan has struck the statesman note and actually praised the Union government for their interventions.
As they say, pleasant bedside manners are a good doctor’s calling card.
At the same time, Vijayan will have to address the more vexing trade off—something Kerala and the rest of the country have conveniently overlooked—between environment and development. The devastating floods in Kerala have brought forward this issue rather dramatically and unexpectedly.
The real Vijayan legacy will be in providing for a sustainable model that will probably take decades to evolve—but the blueprint can be readied now in consultation with all stakeholders, including the citizens.
An all-round buy-in is essential if the state has to provide for a robust mitigation mechanism against future instances of extreme weather—a phenomenon whose frequency is on the rise. In this, Kerala can provide the marker for the rest of the country, which are equally susceptible to extreme weather as we saw with the floods in Kashmir valley and Uttarakhand.
At the moment as Madhavan Nair Rajeevan, secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences pointed out there is no policy defining even water management stored in reservoirs in the scores of dams across the country.
In a conversation with the Indian Express newspaper last week the secretary said, “As per my understanding, no big reservoir has a decision support system. So we don’t know when to open them, how to open them… I am not attributing the Kerala floods to an individual. There is a common perception that in India most of the flood management systems are not supported by science… I am very sure we don’t have the decision support system and we need it."
Clearly, Vijayan has his task cut out for him.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.