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Disaster Management

Disaster Management

On the afternoon of August 8, the GoAir aircraft from New Delhi would have reached Kochi on time. The pilot had even announced the expected time of landing. It landed about one hour late. The reason was poor visibility because of heavy rains. As the aircraft hovered over Kochi, I feared that it might be diverted to another airport in which case we passengers would have suffered a lot.

The taxi driver who had come from Kayamkulam to pick me up told me that even on the ground, the visibility was poor. Such was the intensity of the downpour. I learnt later that our flight was the last to land at Kochi before the airport was shut down till August 11.

While crossing the Periyar on the way to Kayamkulam, I saw the Shiva temple on its banks where tens of thousands of people assemble on Shiv Ratri. It was virtually submerged. Only its red roof could be seen from the bridge across the river at Aluva. It was the water from the Periyar that inundated the runway forcing the airport authorities to close down their operations.

Fortunately, the rains subsided in the catchment areas of the Periyar allowing the airport to resume its operations a few hours before the announced time. Many areas in the northern part of Kerala were not so lucky. The rains caused landslides and flash floods that washed away hundreds of houses, people, cattle and birds.

Wild animals like elephants were found floating in the water trying to save themselves. I saw the video of a hapless farmer, hailed as a Karshakashri, who showed his farm and house flattened by the flood. He gave a count of the coconut and Areca nut trees, banana plants, spice trees, cattle and chicken he had lost. He was left with nothing.

Even at the time of writing, the bodies of all those who were killed in landslides and floods have not been recovered and their last rites performed. 

One good thing that has happened in the state is that the ordinary people have spontaneously responded to the disaster in a befitting manner. When the medical team at Malappuram did not find a secure place to conduct a post-mortem of dozens of bodies recovered from under the sand and soil, the faithful in a village allowed their mosque to be used as an autopsy centre.

The thought that it would desecrate the mosque did not occur to the Muslims as bodies of Muslims, Hindus and Christians were brought there for post-mortem. Extraordinary stories of courage and compassion have come from the worst-affected regions of the state. A cloth-seller who emptied his shop to give clothes free of cost to those who lost everything in the flood is today a Hero.

The common people have behaved in ways that will do them proud. Yet, some nasty fellows used their social media accounts to show the government in a poor light and thereby discourage people from contributing to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. 

Whatever be the drawbacks of the Fund, it is the only Fund whose utilisation can be verified and found out through an application under the Right to Information Act, watered down by the Modi government. I was once offered a job by a newspaper owner who wanted me to handle the money the newspaper had collected in the name of relief.

“The funds have been accumulating and we do not know what to do with the money. Since you have been associated with Deepalaya, you are the right person to manage the money for us”, said the Chief Executive of the newspaper group. I politely declined the offer. One question that came to my mind, though I did not ask it, was “why did the newspaper collect funds when it did not know how to use it properly?”

The readers who sent the money to the newspaper must be in fool’s paradise assuming that their money was used to mitigate the hardship of some people. Little did they know that it was lying dormant in a bank account, earning simple interest. Under the circumstances, the CM’s Fund remains the best bet, to which this writer will also contribute once he can raise some money.

This time Kerala was not the only state hit by rains. Reports of death and destruction came from Karnataka and even Maharashtra. As mentioned, the affected people stood up as one person to meet the challenge. However commendable their conduct was, was it a substitute for proper disaster management?

This writer is a layperson and is hardly in a position to comment on such subjects as climate change which induces heavy rains. A recent poem put it succinctly. There was a time when children said, “rain, rain go away, come again another day, little Tony wants to play”. Many of the people were not like the late Victor George who specialised in rain photography but they all enjoyed the rains.

Today, rains cause dread among the people, who realise that the car vipers are inadequate to wipe off the rains lashing the windscreen. There must be some reason why the rains have become so fearsome. At the root of it is climate change.

The other day, I read a detailed article with photographs on the flood that devastated Munnar in Kerala. It was the British who found that the salubrious climate of Munnar was good for the cultivation of tea but when the floodwater came, it did not spare either the plants or the planters. Munnar was wiped clean.

It took many decades to bring Munnar to its present position as one of the hot tourist spots. The other day, my friend Chidu Rajghatta posted a few satellite pictures on his Facebook wall. He wanted his friends to identify them. Some of them succeeded, others did not. They were upside-down pictures of India. 

For an astronaut orbiting the earth, there are no distinguishable boundaries except the seas and the Himalayan Ranges that demarcate the landmass called India which also includes Pakistan. Madhav Gadgil is an ecologist whose report on saving the Western Ghats is discussed every time natural calamity strikes the south. Thereafter, it is simply forgotten.

He begins his book Equity and Ecology by describing an imagined satellite picture, unlike the real picture Chidu shows. Let me quote him: “Let’s for a moment imagine that such an image had been available for that momentous year 1947 when India attained freedom.

“If we were to contrast that fictional image with one captured for us by a satellite today, striking differences would be readily apparent. The earlier image would have much smaller areas of barren rocks and urban sprawl; fewer large bodies of water, but many smaller lakes freer of weeds at the peak of the monsoon; much more extensive tree cover, but a far lower extent of crop fields retaining their greenery even at the height of the summer.

“Satellite pictures, real and imagined, help us understand the radical changes in the Indian landscape over the past seven decades. 

“It is a landscape in which the natural world is continually being replaced by a world of artefacts: where trees, shrubs and grasses are giving way to plantations and crop fields, roads and buildings; where rivers are being increasingly impounded with waters diverted through underground tunnels to turn giant turbines or merely being disciplined to flow along paths straight and narrow; where old wetlands are being drained and new ones created in the form of waterlogged fields”.

All this has created a crisis. The floods are a symptom of the crisis. Man has been playing havoc with nature. Many of the areas, considered part and parcel of the Western Ghats, have been flattened to fill marshy lands to erect malls and multi-storied buildings. The dams are becoming shallower and shallower because of the accumulation of silt.

Forests have been encroached upon to build townships and farms. Last week, a Malayalam newspaper published a large picture on its front page. It showed a mini forest surviving the flood water that flattened everything around it. In Meghalaya, one can see the sacred groves surviving while soil from their surroundings has been washed away over the decades.

If the hills of Meghalaya are barren, except for the sacred groves, it is because of the indiscriminate cutting of trees. On a visit to Andaman and Nicobar islands last year, I was shocked to find timber plants sprouting everywhere. At this rate, the islands would lose much of their green cover with disastrous environmental consequences.

Climate change is a reality which those in power refuse to recognise for it would strike at their comforts. When a former MP demanded implementation of the Gadgil report in both letter and spirits, some thought it necessary to take a funeral procession of the MP. Nature has left enough for man to meet his needs but not enough to meet his greed.

Alas, this realisation is yet to dawn on the powers that be.

Vikram Seth writes in his The Elephant and the Tragopan: An Ecological Fable in Verse:

“You say the town is short of water

Yet at the wedding of your daughter

The whole municipal supply

Was poured upon your lawns. Well, why?

And why is it that Minister’s Hill

And Babu’s Barrow drink their fill

Through every season, dry or wet,

When all the common people get

Is water on alternate days?

At least, that’s what my data says,

And every figure has been checked.

So, Bigshot, wouldn’t you expect

A radical redistribution 

Would help provide a just solution?

To expect a redistribution is out of the question when the richest man in India has a skyscraper to live where lakhs of litres of water is consumed every month by a family which has five or six members. In Kerala, an air-conditioner was a rarity a few decades ago. Today it is so common that non-air-conditioned saloons do not attract customers.

One person who benefited from this year’s flood is Kerala’s minister for power, MM Mani. Last year, he was the villain of the piece. Even his party men accused him of opening the dams and causing floods.

Nobody cared two hoots for the fact that a river like the Achenkovil caused floods at Pathanamthitta and Pandalam though there is no dam across this year. The floods this time was not at all caused by the sudden opening of dams. If at all, the dams were opened, they were opened long before they became deadly. 

Can this be called disaster management? Before that, what is disaster management? It can be defined as the organization and management of resources and responsibilities for dealing with all humanitarian aspects of emergencies, in particular, preparedness, response and recovery to lessen the impact of disasters. In the wake of the Super Cyclone that hit coastal Odisha, the government and the private sector built hundreds of cyclone shelters which remain useful.

Given the frequency of floods and other disasters, there should be a proper disaster management system. Meteorological technology has developed so well that weather forecast is no longer what it used to be, “rains moderate or heavy may or may not happen”. Quick warnings and steps to move the vulnerable to safer places are the first steps.

Caritas and CASA are two agencies which have godowns in different parts of the country where relief items are packed and kept. They can be delivered at short notice to the needy people. Such practices need to be replicated. Ordinary people can be trained to lend a helping hand to those hit by natural calamities.

More important than all this is the need to stop all the ecological violations happening with impunity. Development does not mean turning verdant hills into water bodies and waterbodies into airport runways and meat-processing factories. Development needs to be redefined. 

The rich man who uses public transport should be the youth’s icon, not the turncoat MLA in Karnataka who bought a Rolls Royce with his ill-gotten wealth. In short, let’s be in a position to bequeath to the coming generations a better India to live in than the one we inherited.

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 19th August 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 34)