Opinion | Time to take the politics out of relief
In spite of the massive losses, Keralites have dealt heroically with the floods, mobilizing a gigantic volunteer force across their inundated state
I was listening to BBC Radio 2 the other day in the car and after the usual offering of ‘easy listening’ tracks the news came on. The bulletin led with the floods in Kerala. The worst natural disaster in the southern state’s history, the floods have devastated 12 of its 14 districts, killed over 370 people since 1 June, left nearly a million homeless (now living in temporary shelters) and caused damage worth at least ₹20,000-30,000 crore.
By all accounts, the search, rescue and rehabilitation work has been commendable, with chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan praising the assistance he has received from the central government. The army, navy, air force and coast guards, he said, “have been fully involved with the rescue operations from the beginning they were part of the planning and execution”.
Yet, if floods come, can politics be far behind? As with the Jammu and Kashmir floods in 2014, there were attempts at politicizing the rescue and rehabilitation work.
Arguably, the two fiercest rivals in Indian politics are the Communists and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological wellspring of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that rules at the centre. It was therefore not entirely unexpected that when floods ravaged Kerala—home not only to the only surviving Communist government in India but also to the largest number of RSS branches in any state—political mud-slinging would break out at some point.
Kerala, where political violence has claimed the lives of many local Communists and RSS activists, was being ‘punished’, claimed the votaries of that broad swathe of militant Hindu ideology called Hindutva. After all, this was a state that had no qualms about eating beef (the local delicacy is ‘beef fry’), despite being Hindu majority. And so it went on.
An audio clip posted by a man identified later as an employee of the BJP’s information technology (IT) cell urged Indians to be careful about how much and to whom they donated to. The people of Kerala are pretty well off, the man claimed, and, therefore, will not accept low-quality rice. If you must give, he said, give to the Seva Bharati, an organization working among the marginalized that draws its inspiration from the RSS. In another incident, the Army was forced to step in and distance itself from a video circulated on WhatsApp in which a man dressed in Army fatigue cautioned against donating, saying only the rich had been hit.
When floods hit the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2014, separatists stopped the Army from delivering assistance in some parts. In 2013, devastating flash floods in Uttarakhand were blamed by former water minister Uma Bharti on atheists, who apparently thought nothing of defecating near the ancient Hindu temple of Kedarnath in the holy state.
However, the answer to flooding, she said, lay in linking up various rivers of India, a vast engineering project aimed at supplying water-deficit areas with waters from rivers in spate—thus offering a ‘scientific solution’ to a problem diagnosed as religious (atheists defecating near a temple). Her successor, Nitin Gadkari, said this week agreements on starting work on five river-linking projects—the whole idea is opposed by environmentalists as dangerous, bad science and fanciful—has been completed.
That may take same time. In the meantime, public attention on the Kerala floods has fortunately moved from politics to the likely causes—real causes—and gaps in rescue efforts, a reminder of the Supreme Court’s 2014 plea to the government to come up with a “national response” to such calamities.
The central government, it said, should consider forming “a unified agency for proper co-ordination of rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations, prioritizing supply of food, drinking water, medicines, fuel and other essential supplies”, as also for the restoration of communication and provisions for health-care facilities.
Far from setting up such a body, the government, it appears, is pinning hopes on its two existing agencies—the National Disaster Response Force and the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM)—although they are inadequately staffed. As many as 16 posts are vacant at NIDM, a Mint report showed last week.
In Kerala, reports have also pointed to a problem of possible mismanagement of its 53 large dams, with authorities failing to release enough water before the onset of monsoon rains (the dams need to be relatively empty before the rains come in so there’s no overflow).
Proper dam management is important for flood control in India, which is “highly vulnerable” to floods. Out of the nation’s total area of 329 million hectares (mha), more than 40 mha is flood-prone, and flood-related damage is rising. The average annual flood damage from 1996 to 2005 was ₹4,745 crore, compared with ₹1,805 crore in the previous 53 years.
Major floods are occurring at a rate of more than once in five years, and are being seen in areas that are not considered flood prone.
According to the Central Water Commission, floods between 1953 and 2017 have affected nearly 900 million people, killed more than 107,000 and caused damage to property worth ₹3.6 trillion.
In spite of the massive losses, Keralites have dealt heroically with the floods, mobilizing a gigantic volunteer force across their inundated state, with many among its large overseas-based population chipping in with assistance.
Chief minister Vijayan has pointed to the need for more central assistance because, he told The Economic Times, “the loss of lives, livelihood, homes, roads, bridges, agriculture, powerlines and public infrastructure will have far reaching impact on socioeconomic fronts”.
But there is tremendous resilience in what is India’s most developed state by a mile. “Kerala has set many examples for the world. We will certainly set another example in rebuilding and rehabilitation,” Vijayan said.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1
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