The most common narrative even as the flood waters were rising across Kerala was not on the losses it was causing but on the rescue and relief operations—more so by the ordinary people. Ironical though it might seem, the huge tragedy that hit the beautiful state has left many with far more positive emotions than negative emotions.

The behaviour of various entities involved in the rescue and relief activities was not on expected lines. Fishermen who had not yet recovered from the onslaught of hurricane Ockhi, did not think twice about using the only asset they owned, their boats, for a risky operation. Much to the surprise of many, millennials were at the forefront of coordinating the rescue operation and gathering help from around the world. The political leadership moved away from the limelight and allowed the local administration to take charge. The divisions of caste, religion and politics that are so strong in Kerala society vanished in the flood waters.

How did this new behaviour emerge in a short period across various sections of society? It is a clear example of how strong emotions can create new, even paradigm shifts in human behaviour. The human brain generates strong waves of empathy when it encounters individual stories and not when it hears statistics dished out by a government official.

Kerala is an empowered society where individuals at local levels take initiative. The initial help for the flood victims came from here. Modern media, television channels and newspapers in Kerala helped spread hundreds of emotional, individual stories around the floods. These images of fellow Keralites in distress and selfless individuals’ helping acts stirred further helping actions. 

How long will this heightened emotional state last? Will it help more purse strings to be loosened to help in the reconstruction of Kerala?

The memories around the Kerala floods, like any other event in our life, will be subjected to the human brain’s routine processes of forgetting. The brain, as part of its efficiency drive, will start forgetting memories related to the floods and replace it with memories that are relevant at other points of time. This is inevitable. The big question is whether we should allow these memories to be forgotten. How can these shared emotionally-salient memories become the foundation of rebuilding Kerala?

The government is hoping that the 20,000 crore required to rebuild Kerala can be generated from the donations of Keralites spread across the world. But for that to happen, we need to trigger the right emotion of empathy. The human brain best develops empathy when it can visualize an individual who needs help. Instead of giving a broad, state-level picture of the losses, the government should prepare a list of losses at both the individual and local level. Local-level losses should be further divided into heads such as loss of bridges, roads, hospitals, and educational institutions. The more “micro" this list is, the better documented these are using photographs, the easier it will be for the donor to visualize the recipient of his help. An option to choose the exact destination of one’s donation will only increase the commitment of the donors to help the victims.

The local media is already full of stories of ordinary people who are going out of their way to help the flood victims. More such stories of selfless help will create a new social environment where helping victims becomes a new social norm. 

This terrible tragedy and its aftermath holds many lessons even for future generations. There is a need to build social artefacts and mechanisms that rekindle and shape the community’s memory of this disaster. The Kerala government has many things to learn from the way memories of the Holocaust have been preserved.

Memories get encoded through a process called consolidation. Emotions play an integral part in memory consolidation. More than merely capturing the facts of the tragedy, care should be taken to capture the various emotions that were a part of this disaster. Real-life stories and first person narratives of those who were a part of the calamity or relief efforts should be recorded. These stories and visuals that capture the various moods of this tragedy should be used to construct museum-like permanent structures. Case studies and textbooks need to capture and commemorate the effective crisis management by the state, district administrations and ordinary folk. Movies based on this calamity can play a key role in reinforcing emotions. 

Onam is a festival where Keralites commemorate a time when people of the state lived in perfect harmony and peace under King Mahabali. In a way, the floods created an opportunity for Keralites to come together as a community. Now on, every year, the week that the floods ravaged Kerala should become a time to commemorate this spirit. It is coincidental that every year, this week will be very close to the Onam season. Schools and colleges across Kerala should use this week every year to renew one’s faith in the unity and strength of humanity.

Some of the biggest tragedies of the world have given rise to some of the most significant positives changes in history. The Kerala flood is an event that has all the ingredients to create paradigm shifts in Kerala society. Not effectively utilizing this flood as a catalyst of change will be a loss that might be bigger than the physical losses caused by the flood itself. For that, the flood marks of Kerala should be preserved for posterity. 

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

Close