Kerala, After The Flood: Underprepared India needs rapid rescue and planned rehabilitation to combat disasters

Editor's Note: Described as one of the worst since 1924 by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the rains in Kerala have left over 350 dead and rendered thousands of people homeless. According to the latest tally, 80,000 have been rescued so far. Over 1,500 relief camps have been set up across the state that currently house at least 2,23,139 people. In a multi-part series, Firstpost will attempt to analyse the short-term and long-term impact of these unprecedented floods on the lives of the people, economy of the state, and the environment.

Politics can never come into play as to who gets relief during the time of disaster. The first response from any disaster management authority should be humanitarian and to save lives.

Yet, unfortunately, in the case of the Kerala floods, there have been fringe elements coming out of the woodwork, making insensitive remarks, about who should get relief in the flood-hit state.

The people in Kerala didn’t ask for the disaster, considered the worst in a century, which has already claimed the lives of some 250 people and displaced another 10 lakh people. Nobody in their sane minds would attribute religious beliefs, political leanings or financial status of the victims, to decide who should be saved. Response to any natural or man-made disaster should be immediate to ensure people are rescued from the danger zone and shifted to safety.

Flood victims unload food and relief material from an Indian Air force helicopter at Nelliyampathy Village in Kerala. Reuters

Flood victims unload food and relief material from an Indian Air force helicopter at Nelliyampathy Village in Kerala. Reuters

Level of preparedness

What was obvious from the start in the Kerala floods, was the lack of preparedness of the state to face a disaster of this magnitude. Many more lives could have been saved if only the disaster management team had not responded with knee-jerk reactions.

The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) defines disaster management as "the organization and management of resources and responsibilities for dealing with all humanitarian aspects of emergencies, in particular, preparednessresponse and recovery in order to lessen the impact of disasters".

Yet, in Kerala, right from a wrong call on when to open the sluice gates; to releasing the water after the dams had overflowed; to not issuing adequate warnings to those living downstream and not ensuring everyone had been evacuated or reached to safe places – the government was grossly unprepared.

Although the government had issued a red alert and advised people living on both sides of the Periyar river to move to safer places, the flooding of houses, happened as people believed that the sluice gates would be opened in phases. Obviously, there was a communication gap.

Dam safety expert N Sasidharan as reported in a Firstpost piece said, "The authorities waited till the water level in the Idamalayar reservoir reached its capacity of 169 feet. If it was opened when the water level reached 165 feet, it would not have necessitated the evacuation of many people in the downstream areas. This is the result of poor planning by the disaster management authority."

This view was corroborated by another dam expert, Nayan Sharma, in a Firstpost interview, who said, "It is a known scientific reality that no gate of any dam with a full reservoir should be opened all of a sudden. It should be opened gradually within a long span of time to prevent flooding. But in the case of Kerala, it was seen that the gates of 35 dams were opened at the same time, which resulted in the massive flood."

Rescue efforts

As has been the practice in India when dealing with disasters, it’s the military that swings into immediate action to lead the rescue efforts. The armed forces are trained to be focussed, unflappable under pressure and lead coordinated rescue and relief efforts.

In Kerala too, whether it was in airlifting or rowing out stranded people; or reaching drinking water, food, clothes and medical supplies, it was the armed forces that were in the forefront.

This is not to take away from the efforts of good Samaritans and corporates and other state governments, who rushed aid, men and material to the beleaguered state. And, this is the goodwill we need to tap into and create trained rescue teams, who can be rushed in during times of disasters. We are a one billion plus nation, with enough resources, skill sets and abilities which can be called upon.

Corporates have the funds and would be more than willing to invest in the training of these disaster management teams as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR). Changes in Company law in 2014, has mandated that businesses with annual revenues of more than Rs 10 billion must give away 2 percent of their net profit to charity. Other than donating to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, corporates are constantly looking for opportunities to put this money to good use.

The disaster management teams thus formed, should comprise all sections of society — employees from relevant government departments — like fire, police, local administration, employees of corporates, students from educational institutions and ordinary citizens.

Our National Policy on Disaster Management directive is to put a proper disaster management system in place. The themes that underpin the policy are: Community-based disaster management, including last mile integration of the policy, plans and execution; Capacity development in all related areas; Consolidation of past initiatives and best practices; Cooperation with agencies at the national, regional and international levels; and Compliance and coordination to generate a multi-sectoral synergy.

Relief and Rehabilitation

The floods might have receded in Kerala, but the focus now shifts to relief and rehabilitation. The state has ahead of it, a long and arduous climb back to normalcy. The long-term impact of a disaster could take the toll of a state and its people.

In the short term, Kerala would have to prevent the outbreak of epidemics in the relief camps, while it continues to provide food, drinking water, clothes and medicines to those in the camps. And, in the long term, it would have to get into the reconstruction of the state. Landslides and floods have destroyed homes, private and public property, businesses and trades. Skilled teams of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, builders would be needed to clean, repair and rebuild homes, offices, private and public infrastructure. This would include repairing and rebuilding bridges and roads, which caved in during the floods.

In response to a public interest litigation, a division bench of the Kerala High Court suggested that the state government start immediately the exercise of assessment of the damages caused in the flood and also formulate a long-term concrete rehabilitation plan.

Kerala would need financial aid, men and material to build back the state. Many people have lost their livelihoods and would need help to get back on their feet.

So, it is not clear, why the Centre would refuse financial aid being offered by other countries for flood relief operations in Kerala. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has reportedly offered $100 million (around Rs 700 crore) Qatar has offered about Rs 35 crore ($5 million) and the Maldives has offered $50,000 (Rs 35 lakh) for the flood-affected people in Kerala.

The total loss from the floods is estimated at Rs 21,000 crore, with an immediate demand of Rs 2,500 crore, so any help should be welcomed, especially as this is being offered for a natural disaster. If the country continues to refuse foreign aid on the premise that it wants to be self-reliant, then Kerala would have to borrow heavily from the market. Central aid has only been a paltry Rs 600 crore, and the financial aid offered from other state governments is not much either. Many state governments also have floods in their own states to worry about.

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The July rescue of the 12 young footballers and their coach from a flooded cave in Thailand, which caught the world’s attention, could not have been as successful if Thailand had refused outside help. Several international experts -- engineers, doctors, military personnel and divers were involved in the rescue of the boys and their coach. Thai authorities, 13 foreign divers and five Thai Navy SEALs undertook an intricate operation, that also cost the life of one Thai Seal diver before the trapped children could be rescued.

When Japan was hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011, 91 countries offered financial aid and help in rescue efforts. Among these 91 countries, was India too, which was ready to send search and rescue teams and relief material to Japan. The Indian Navy was also on standby to send its ships to Japan.

Seeking humanitarian help from a willing international community does not take away from our national pride. How quickly Kerala rebuilds itself would depend on how quickly it gets all the help it needs – whether from within the country or outside the country.

Also Read

Kerala, After The Flood: India needs to go beyond leaning on its military for relief and rescue to deal with disasters

Kerala, After The Flood: Tendency to back development despite warning from ecologists creates ground for future disasters


Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 15:59 PM

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