Kerala floods: From neck deep in water to a new Kerala

Loss to Kerala is huge, it cannot be measured. According to the Kerala government, Rs 20,000 crore is the estimated loss. But human agony and loss is beyond any calculations

PTI photo
PTI photo

VK Sreelesh

Kerala Chief Minister’s announcement that we will not rebuild Kerala, but will build a ‘New Kerala’ makes it very clear that Kerala will stand on its own feet and will regain the loss with new glory and perspective. It is a very positive sign and it has enthused new spirit among Keralites.

Loss to Kerala is huge, it cannot be measured. According to the Kerala government, Rs 20,000 crore is the estimated loss and that is why they demanded only 10% of it, but the Modi government gave only Rs 500 crore. The irony is that United Arab Emirates has given Rs 700 crore as relief to Kerala.

Human agony and loss is beyond calculations. Jyothi Murali has called up the information centre at Calicut railway station several times in the last three days. This nursing teacher based in Calicut of Kerala on Malabar Coast desperately wanted to know when the trains would start plying again. Wringing her hands in angst, she has been glued to TV for two days for flood updates. It’s because her husband, brother, and 17-year-old son have been stranded in a hotel in Pala, in Kottayam district in the south.

The trio went in their car to bring home her niece who is studying at a training centre for a competitive exam in Pala. The area surrounding the hostel where she is staying has been engulfed in water. Students have been asked to go home. The trio could not go any further ahead. Roads have been inundated. For the past two days they have been staying in a hotel. They have no spare dress to change, and no textile shops are open. What worries Jyothi most is her husband’s heart condition, for he underwent bypass surgery two years ago. There are many such agonies.

Cut to Calicut railway station. The information centre has been handling overwhelming queries from desperate passengers. Only answer they have been repeating for the past two days is “No trains, all cancelled”. Joythi knows only too well that her situation is nothing compared to the vast devastation rains have brought on to the rest of Kerala for the past fortnight.

Around 365 people have lost their lives. Thirteen out of Kerala’s fourteen districts were on red alert. Road and rail services are in disarray, and South and north Kerala are cut off at many places. Two international airports in the state have shut down as the runway flooded.

Yet, how the state stood strongly to this calamity, also reflects the real strength of Kerala.

The disaster cuts across all class and social strata. Situation in the north Kerala is relatively calm. However, hill terrains suffered landslips, inundation and water logging, prompting authorities to shift more than 20,000 people in three districts Malapuram, Kozhikode and Wayanad to relief camps.

Earlier, Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who is at the helm of rescue operation said, “The only good news is that rains have reduced in certain areas of the state and we are planning to rescue all those who are waiting hopefully by the end of this day.” In that respect, Tuesday was a sunny day, giving much relief to Kerala. During all these days, Kerala has witnessed massive rescue operations, more than dozen helicopters, National Disaster Response Force ( NDRF), police personnel, and community volunteers, and general public worked in tandem to fight the biggest tragedy Kerala ever faced. At least 51 of the total 53 teams of the NDRC have been deployed.

The worst affected were Paravur (Kollam district), Kalady (East of Periyar river in Ernakulum district), Chalakudy (a municipal town on Chalakudy River in Thrissur), Perumbavoor (Ernakulum), and Muvatupuzha (east of Kochi) and huge task of re-building new Kerala is ahead.

The disaster cuts across all class and social strata. Situation in the north Kerala is relatively calm. However, hill terrains suffered landslips, inundation and water logging, prompting authorities to shift more than 20,000 people in three districts Malappuram, Kozhikode and Wayanad to relief camps.

The heaviest rains that Kerala ever had since 1924 left what popularly called God’s Own Country at the mercy of both nature and help from other states. Crops and properties roughly valued at more than Rs 1,000 crores have been damaged. This is more than what the state can afford. Authorities are yet to take stock of the number of houses collapsed in flood waters. There emerged video clippings of a sturdy new house cascading like dress from a clothesline. This could be one of hundreds of houses to face the same fate.

In the beginning, in June it was just a normal monsoon rain. Over the weeks, rains continued to gather momentum and began pounding the state. By mid-August, situation spiraled out of control in hill terrains, and areas around dams. Water levels in those including Idukki dam, the biggest in Asia, stood at a few feet short of their full capacity.

Then there emerged news of deaths from landslips across all hill districts. Families sleeping in their homes had been wiped out in seconds. Caked bodies were fished out of neck-deep dirt. On the other hand flooding across low-lying lands put lives of thousands in disarray. Many died in flooding waters. The day after water level at Idukki dam reached 2,400 feet, just three short of its full capacity, all sluices were opened.

Following this, four shutters of Idamalayar dam in Kochi were opened. More water from the 22 dams that were opened started overwhelming the shores of many rivers, running into living rooms of houses. People climbed rooftops, and called for rescue. Even upstairs wasn’t safe. Everything including valuables, books, government documents, medical reports, medicines, dresses, and utensils began to float in the water.

A lot of people, until recently better off, have next to nothing to eat or dress, except what they were wearing. Flooding left houses in irreparable conditions; stagnant water causes indoors to reek from toilet and gutter sewage. It is yet to fully understand whether things would lead to some disease outbreak. Possibility of waste from toilets and gutter to seep into wells is very high.

Amid this widespread calamity, Madhav Gadgil, a Harvard-educated ecologist hailing from Pune dubbed the situation in Kerala as man-made. He led a Commission formally known as Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel( WGEEP), later for short Gadgil Commission, which in August 31, 2011, submitted a report to the Government of India. The Commission studied the ecology of Western Ghats, an extensive region that make up ecologically sensitive hills and dales, and wetlands spanning over six states, 44 districts and 142 taluks. The Commission classified certain areas as “ecologically-sensitive zones” (ESZs). And most of calamities took place in these areas, according to reports.

Many environmentalists believe that the Commission’s recommendations, if implemented, could have helped assuage the situation. The commission recommended strict restriction in some areas on mining, quarrying, construction of huge buildings, and use of land for non-forest purposes. Speaking to the media, Gadgil blamed “irresponsible environmental policy” as the cause of situation in Kerala. A lot of environmentalists link extensive quarrying, replenish and wetlands, and flattening of hills to the ongoing calamity.

According to VS Vijayan, a panelist with Gadgil commission, wrote in Madhyamam Daily that in 2007 there was 7,66,066 hectors of wetlands, and what left of it today is just 1,65,486 hectors. Areas of backwaters in the state has reduced to 40,826 hectors from 3,48,111 hectors. Wetlands absorb excessive rains, thus working as a natural mechanism to thwart floods. “Had there been enough wetlands, the tragedy at this scale could have been averted,” he wrote. His views seem sensible given the situation today.

However, what many environmentalist dub “mafia” who run quarries and mining facilities, stirred up people who live in hills against the report, which almost nobody read at the time. In the face of mounting opposition, a committee led by Kasturirangan examined the WGEEP report. After his report was published, the Hindu in 2013 reported, “The Kasturirangan report has thrown open the ecologically sensitive areas of Western Ghats to mindless exploitation which would seriously hazard ecology, according to its critics”.

Much water has flowed since, and is more so in the floods that have lashed Kerala today. There is a general apathy in Kerala toward hills, dales, wetlands, and backwaters. Mindless construction spree, land filling, encroaching of ecologically sensitive areas continue unabated. Many view the latest calamities as the aftermath of these aggression. However, the poor, as everywhere, are the worst victims of floods. What they have garnered through hard works over the years has been wiped clean in a flash. Authorities should wake up to their realities.

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