The 74-year-old Kerala chief minister was to leave the state for a 13-day trip to the US on 19 August, for treating an illness—information about which is kept a closely guarded secret, but a person close to him, requesting not to be named, said it is related to a prostate nerve.
However, far from getting any rest, he was still at work, 10 hours after walking into his office in a corner of the state’s official headquarters called Secretariat. The day is nowhere near its end, a couple of back-to-back meetings with officials are still to be held. It has been like this for the entire week.
The chief minister has been widely praised for steering the state administration that has been trying to cope with the worst deluge since the state came into being in 1957. The Kerala floods that ensued has caused colossal damage to the small state and left more than 380 people dead and over one million others displaced.
Vijayan’s leadership will continue to be crucial during the massive rebuilding exercise that will now begin in Kerala. The state has estimated around ₹ 20,000 crore would be needed to rebuild public infrastructure such as roads and bridges. That’s a huge amount, given the state’s finances. Kerala has a revenue deficit of ₹ 12,860 crore, or 1.7% of the state gross domestic product (SGDP).
In an interview, Vijayan speaks about the challenges before the state and how the state administration is planning to overcome them. Edited excerpts:
What are your thoughts at this moment?
A disaster has fallen upon the state, it needs to get its head above the water. This is what everybody wants. But we are not seeing it in that way, we are thinking a bit different. We see it as an opportunity to create a ‘Nava-Keralam (New Kerala). We need projects to do that.
This will be a massive exercise. Will money be your biggest obstacle? By your own estimate, about ₹ 20,000 crore needs to be spent from the public purse to repair damaged roads, bridges, provide compensation for the victims and so on. Given that Kerala is already cash-strapped, how will you raise this money?
Money is a big hurdle, but it can be met. In that, we will need complete support of the Indian government. Two important personalities visited the state when the disaster struck, first the Union home minister (Rajnath Singh) and then the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi). Both were very emotional after seeing this sight (of the waterlogged areas). So naturally, the centre’s support should be coming to Kerala. In that way, we will not only be receiving support from the centre, but we will also be able to receive aid from other international agencies. There are many international agencies which can support the rebuilding, some have readied to support Kerala. We should be able to contact all of them. In order to do so, both the nation and the state should go ahead with the same focus.
Are you looking at a World Bank loan?
We will discuss with all international agencies, including World Bank. With World Bank, we are planning to begin talks. We will start the discussions without much delay. We are still at the phase of recovering from the disaster, that’s why the discussions haven’t started yet. But we will start the talks really soon.
Personally, can you tell us about your experience during the crisis. For instance, at the peak of the crisis, your press conferences were entirely devoid of emotions. You stayed on a central message that help is on its way. Was it deliberate?
(Smiles) That’s what one should say, no? We should not be sitting with this thought that we have lost everything. We should gain self-confidence and think ahead.
Are you sad that even before the human tragedy is fully over, a nasty public relations war is playing out in the open with the centre on the so-called ₹ 700 crore UAE (United Arab Emirates) aid. The UAE ambassador to India has said that no official aid has been communicated so far.
Why should I be sad? In reality, it is what they said they will give. Even the Prime Minister thanked them for it. Hope you saw his tweet (PM Modi had tweeted on 18 August: “A big thanks to @hhshkmohd for his gracious offer to support people of Kerala during this difficult time. His concern reflects the special ties between governments and people of India and UAE.") So I don’t know what exactly is the confusion. I am not clear what is the need for this confusion. First of all, Indian government’s policy formulated to receive donations during such a disaster puts it very clearly that such donations can be accepted. Then I don’t understand why should be there a hindrance to it.
The opposition Congress leader in Kerala, Ramesh Chennithala, has accused the government of inappropriate dam operations and has asked for a judicial probe. He thinks it caused the tragedy more than the rains. Why don’t you do a full disclosure? Release all internal messages, minutes of the meetings, etc. It was done in the US post-Katrina. It could also serve as a classic document to prepare the state against such disasters in the future?
That’s not a problem. But now is not the time for it. We should be concentrating on the present crisis now, right? But we can think about it, no issues.
Personally, do you think something could have been done better?
We did what we can in a situation like this. The India Meteorological Department said to me that the rains (in August) will be 95% (of the long period average), or 5% above or below it. It rained 164%. What can we do?
What will you do to make it never happen again?
For that, we are planning to do a study engaging an expert group. Will such a disaster come again? What can we do, both at the state and the centre level? We will engage a national or even internationally acclaimed expert organization to carry out such a study.
But will it lead to policy-level changes? Wouldn’t it lead to conflicts? For instance, from here onwards there will be an outcry for more curbs on urban development and quarrying to restore the ecological imbalance that contributed to the flood damage. But, if anything you may need to immediately relax quarry regulations to meet the demand for metal, stones and other minerals to rebuild the public roads.
It is a quandary. We cannot do without quarrying in a limited manner, only that we should not be allowing unlimited quarries. We may have to stop quarrying in some specific (ecologically sensitive) places. We should never face a situation where we are short of minerals for development works.