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People Vs The Floods

People Vs The Floods

With God’s own havoc beginning to subside and bits of the available transport infrastructure now being spared from actual flood relief and made available to end television crews’ misery of being stuck on the edge of an impassable sheet of water that then becomes their static footage of the floods, TV reporters and anchors have now started praising the role of ‘locals’ in the rescue and relief work. Surprise, surprise!

The relief response in Kerala has been as stupendous as the floods themselves. The official machinery worked, with armed forces units and the National Disaster Response Force working in tandem with, and as coordinated by, the local administration. Helicopters and naval and coastguard boats rescued people stranded atop homes and other elevations.

But the biggest rescue work was done by Kerala’s fisherfolk, who arrived with their boats, strong bodies and generosity of spirit and spent tireless hours moving people to safety. A million or so people made it to schools, churches, community halls and other large buildings that turned into functional relief camps.

Ordinary people ran the camps. Volunteers turned up in droves. Food and other essentials materialised. The information technology-savvy set up networks to register calls for help and guide rescue workers, supplementing the official call centre and helplines. No great leader had to order such work to be organised. Relief came into being, organised spontaneously, some under the auspices of some agency or the other, the rest with the unbidden ease with which seeds below the parched soil start sprouting once the rains arrive.

Why is Kerala’s proactive response to the floods so sharply different from the passive victimhood that mostly characterises the flood-affected in the rest of India? The answer lies not in the state’s superior level of literacy, but in the political empowerment of the people over generations. Political empowerment is a term that evokes allergy in the urban elite, if it does not go above their head altogether. Development, they have heard of and like, imagining it in terms of roads, ports and pools of light representing prosperous towns in satellite photographs at night.

When pressed about human development, they will concede the need for building schools, hospitals and toilets for the masses. They see people as recipients of doles of development, much like cattle in a stall that grow as they are fed all the right nutrients. Political empowerment sees people not as the passive objects of development but as its subjects: those who actively demand education, healthcare and civic services and force the government to deliver.

After anti-caste movements loosened the ties of traditional power in Kerala early in the 20th century, left politics organised practically every section of society into unions. Other political parties set up competing unions and associations.

Toddy tappers have their organisations, bar owners, their own. Nurses, teachers, transport workers, rubber tappers, rubber dealers, merchants, restaurateurs, industrialists, bank employees, bank officers, civil servants, pensioners, rail and road passengers, everyone is organised, not just industrial workers.

Those non-Malayalis who watched on TV some militant sloganeering by a clutch of the rescued seeing off their rescuers might have wondered what exactly was going on: they were voicing their vehement thanks, in the idiom of organised expression imprinted on Kerala’s consciousness by the countless episodes of organised assertion of rights by countless unions on countless occasions.

The man who stood on all fours, his face barely above the water, so that old women could step on his body to climb into the rescue boat, did so out of empowered generosity, not because it was his station in life to serve as a footrest.

Such empowerment has created individuals out of the social layers, stacked one on top of the other according to their ritual status, that formed traditional society. Now that every Malayali is acutely aware of his sentient status, there also is a huge appetite for nit-picking fault-finding, likely to show up in full flow once crisis gives way to rehabilitation.

Empowerment has produced not atomised individuals incapable of relating to other individuals but social beings who can combine decisively when the situation demands it.

Why, it may be asked, have not such empowered citizens produced prosperity at scale. Blame that too on the Communists. Having identified overthrow of capitalism as their goal, the Communists could not offer building prosperity as the coherent goal of all organised sections. So, the different sections pursue sectional, often conflicting goals. The result is a gaggle of empowered sections of society and collective dysfunction.

The floods offer a common purpose, around which all sections rally, to great productive effect. If building broad-based prosperity, albeit capitalist, can be openly accepted as a common goal, nothing can hold back Kerala’s growth at warp.

(Courtesy, The Economic Times)

(Published on 27th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 35)