By Ramanath Jha
An unprecedented deluge, not experienced in the last hundred years, has ravaged and overwhelmed the state of Kerala, snuffing out the lives of over 370 men, women and children. As the heavens opened up in gay abandon, torrents ripped through villages with fearsome fury. Landslides, house collapses, mass burials, drowning and death in myriad forms took heavy human toll. By the time normalcy is re-established, many more would be counted dead, recovered from homes, rivers and mud, or having fallen prey to disease.
Communication became one of the worst casualties as roads disappeared, mobile phone networks became inoperative, electricity was conspicuous by its absence, an international airport announced closure and the Railways suspended many of their operations. The popular Indian tourist destination – God’s Own Country, lay battered and pulverised.
On an average, Kerala had received about 41 percent more than normal rainfall. But this was not equally distributed. Some of the districts were hit much harder. Idukki district in the north, for instance, received 89 percent excess rain. The situation was made worse by overflowing dams that were in danger of bursting and wreaking untold havoc and destruction. Dams across the state, therefore, had to open their gates to try to ease the crisis, which in turn made the flooding more severe.
Search and rescue operations over all affected areas were launched by India’s armed forces that included units of the Indian Army, the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard, with fleets of boats, motorboats, aircrafts and helicopters to save thousands stranded on roof tops, trees, upper floors of houses and elsewhere, left marooned without shelter, food, drinking water and medicines. They were assisted by other central forces. The National Disaster Response Force deployed close to 16 teams to provide support to local authorities in Kerala to evacuate residents. Four teams were airlifted from Guntur and Arakkonam to assist the district administration of Ernakulam. Ten columns of Army, a unit of Madras Regiment along with personnel of Navy, Air Force and NDRF were engaged in relief and rescue work in badly-hit districts that comprised Kozhikode, Idukki, Malappuram, Kannur and Wayanad. The state agencies, local fishermen and voluntary organisations also joined the rescue mission. The last reports indicate that more than 220,000 people have no home to go back to and more than 650,000 people are living in thousands of relief camps.
The administration has begun distribution of relief material comprising drinking water, food packets, fodder for cattle, tonnes of milk and medicines. It is heartening to see that state governments, private organisations and individuals have all rushed to offer help and assistance in various ways to Kerala in its hour of need. PM announced an immediate aid of Rs 600 crore. Telangana, Maharashtra, UP, Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab, Delhi and many others pledged assistance in cash and kind. These of course, do not come close to covering staggering losses suffered by the state. Preliminary estimates put this figure around Rs 20,000 crore. Lauding authorities for their efforts to rescue flood-hit residents of Kerala, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet, “I salute the people of Kerala for their fighting spirit. I would also like to appreciate the wide support and solidarity from people across India towards Kerala during this unprecedented situation”.
A political slanging match trying to apportion accountability would also be a sad feature that we shall witness. The first indications are that this was not a sudden event that had caught the state completely unawares. The IMD (Indian Meteorological Department) had provided adequate prior information of unprecedented rainfall. Over three weeks ago, MPs from the state had raised the critical issue of state preparedness to battle such a calamity in the Lok Sabha. The matter of floods had been discussed by the Centre and the state, but the follow-up action lacked the kind of intensity that such a major perceived calamity demands. MPs had flagged unplanned release of water from reservoirs. Larger issues of uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources and ignoring ecology were also raised.
While the world debates the causes of global warming and climate change, there is enough empirical evidence that the effects of the phenomenon are already a huge challenge. India figures among the top five countries on all the three benchmarks of the number of disaster events, disaster victims and economic harm on account of natural disasters. Climate change is most likely to make this worse. Storms and hurricanes that have happened in the near past have shown that their severity is increasing. Extreme heat and extreme cold, droughts and floods are now a growing part of our lives, and India is especially vulnerable to them.
Such densification will enhance the vulnerability of cities. In the event of a major disaster striking a mega city, we would be staring at an urban nightmare that we have not witnessed before.
This does not mean that India has not worked on disaster management. There are instances of exemplary disaster management seen in the past. Odisha government’s handling of the very severe cyclonic storm Phailin, which hit the state’s coast on 12 October 2013 has earned fulsome global praise. The state evacuated as many as 983,553 people from the coast and the death toll was kept to 21. This was against the backdrop of an earlier Odisha cyclone of 1999 that killed over 10,000 people.
What has since happened is that while we have upgraded our disaster systems, disaster has shifted its goal post, making it wider and deeper by introducing climate change and rising urbanisation into its fold. At the national level there has been a competent response. The National Disaster Management Authority has developed a holistic National Disaster Management Framework emphasising the interdependence of the economy, environment and development with a focus on mitigation and preparedness, along with post-disaster matters of response, recovery and reconstruction. Institutionally, there is greater integration of the agencies dealing with climate change (Environment Ministry) and disasters (Ministry of Home and National Disaster Management Authority). However, this new paradigm of disaster ought to be sufficiently imbibed by the states. The dovetailing of climate change into disaster management by all vulnerable states will help rivet more attention to pre-disaster planning and policies making climate change mitigation an essential component of disaster risk management.
Men, women and children across the country need to be supported in espousing and integrating risk reduction concerns into their day-to-day lives, livelihoods and occupational patterns. This requires a massive education programme for disaster risk mitigation and management that becomes second nature in the lives of citizens.