Kerala Floods: India’s Disaster Déjà vu

By Shankkar Aiyar| Published: 19th August 2018 04:00 AM

Kerala, Gods Own Country! Who could curse God’s own country? Of course it would have to be man.  The floods in Kerala, the worst since the 99 floods witnessed in 1924, have already claimed nearly 400 lives and lakhs are homeless. While the 1924 disaster followed an estimated 3,368 mm rainfall across three weeks, the 2018 disaster comes in the wake of just over 2,000 mm of rain since July 1. The images of submerged homes, videos of marooned people recording messages pleading for rescue, the stories of old, young and ailing persons struggling to stay alive are shocking and gruesome beyond belief. The scale of relief operations gives a sense of the magnitude of the tragic disaster.

As of Saturday, 57 teams of the NDRF involving 1,300 personnel, 435 boats, two ships, 38 helicopters, 20 aircraft manned by teams of the Air Force, five companies of paramilitary troops from the BSF, CISF, RAF, ten columns of the Army, 10 teams of the engineering task force, 82 teams from the Navy, and 42 teams from the Coast Guard have been deployed just for rescue and relief. The loss of human and animal life, of livelihood and standing crops/plantations and the scale of post-disaster rebuilding and rehabilitation that will be needed can only be imagined.

Déja vu, which literally means already seen, has French etymology dating back to the early 20th century. In the last few decades, at least in the context of governance, you could say déja vu has acquired naturalized Indian etymology. The annual episodes of floods and the death, destruction and disease that follow are virtually a calendar event. Between 1953 and 2017, across 65 years, floods have inundated a total of over 460 million hectares.

The number of people or population impacted across over sixty annual episodes by the floods is over 2 billion. Crops worth `1.09 lakh crore, over eight million houses worth over `53,000 crore, and six million cattle have been destroyed. Through the 60 years, over 1.07 lakh lives have been lost and public wealth of over `3.05 lakh crore destroyed. Indeed, on an average, 31 million people and seven million hectares of land are impacted by floods every year. Annually, over 1,600 lives are lost due to floods.

Every post-disaster committee report and reviews by parliamentary standing committees have a common screenplay—of steps not taken, of funding not provided, of projects not completed, of allocations not spent, of forecasting systems missing or dysfunctional. Systemic apathy is agnostic and prevails regardless of the geography and the political ideology. Regardless of the state and the regime, there is mindless construction on the banks of rivers, leading to landslides. Siltation and illegal construction causes flooding of rivers, lakes and ponds. Brazen and unchecked encroachments into floodplains, haphazard rules that allow for change in land usage and wholesale violation of basic tenets of planning in urban areas drown sanity and cities.

Year after year India witnesses, discusses and pushes past disasters, and frequently disasters acquire the hues of a sequel. Every disaster is painted as if it is all nature’s fault. Yes, the trigger is always a kind of black swan event—the rains in Kerala, the flash floods in Kashmir, the downpour in Chennai or the record rains in Mumbai. Every event is aggravated by criminal neglect of ecological tenets. 

An expert group which looked into the July 2005 disaster that left over 500 dead pointed out that there were clear man-made reasons for the floods. These included changes in land use, occupation of floodplains, erosion of mangrove setbacks, siltation of rivers and water bodies, and indiscriminate disposal of solid waste, topped by crumbling infrastructure and systems. The findings of Mumbai would resonate with those in Chennai, Bengaluru, Gurugram or any metropolis. Man-made interventions clearly worsen a natural event.

Social media is awash with allegations and attributions. The Kerala floods for instance, it is being claimed, were caused by wilful disregard and rejection of the Madhav Gadgil report on the Western Ghats. Large parts of regions impacted by the rains were ostensibly classified as ecologically sensitive zones by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel. The Gadgil Committee had taken a severe view in the 2011 report. The elected and the electors were up in arms in three states and it was shelved and a new report with a “balanced view” was adopted. The jury is out and for sure there will be a commission or a committee which will look into acts of omission and commission.

There is no disputing there is a clear pattern. Kerala in 2018, Gujarat in 2017, Chennai in 2015, Jammu and Kashmir in 2014, Uttarakhand in 2013, Assam in 2012, UP, Bihar and Odisha in 2011, Ladakh in 2010, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in 2009, Kosi-Bihar in 2008, UP, Assam and Bihar in 2007, Mumbai in 2005. The geographies are different, the spatial spread is different, but there is a common theme. Every disaster has a predictable course. The narrative gathers grief and anger about warnings ignored, about encroachments, about violations of land use and topography tenets. This is followed by reports of warnings ignored and acts of commission and/or omission and the worst cut—non-implementation of recommendations by disaster review committees.

On July 26, 2005, Mumbai was marooned by 944 mm of rain. In 2017, Mumbai needed less to be flooded and crippled. In 2018, it is not very clear if the Madhav Chitale report did get fully implemented, whether the precautions and preventive measures advocated are part of the system. In 2013, the Ravi Chopra Committee looked into the Uttarakhand disaster and recommended measures. As always, implantation is in a fuzzy zone—and Uttarakhand faces floods again. The story is not dissimilar in Chennai. The Indian context lends itself most eloquently to the phrase déja vu. This must change. But will it?shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com

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