Though waters have receded in the districts of Kerala, normalcy is yet to return to the lives of tens of thousands of people affected by the floods. The week-long rescue operations were a testimony to the innate willingness of the people to save others while risking their own lives: the daring fishermen who ventured into dangerous waters and the selfless service of our armed forces and police. The commendable role of political leadership and civil administration cannot be overlooked.
The relief operations that started simultaneously brought to fore dedication of the millennial generation in organising and dispatching relief materials. Without a demur, the youth worked night and day, making full use of their social media networks to bring succour to those in distress. Generous offers of help came in from people from all walks of life, from within the state, from all over India and from several other countries. Kerala is overwhelmed by this solidarity.
Each stage in the process of rescue, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction makes the preceding one look simple. Rehabilitation and reconstruction pose greater challenges than rescue and relief. The task of rehabilitation poses a web of problems that defy standardisation.
To appreciate the complexity of rehabilitation, it would be useful to visualise the reality of the night when floodwaters gushed through the hitherto-safe havens of houses. Within a few minutes, the water not only carried away the possessions acquired over decades, but invalidated the people’s idea of the future. The flood made no distinction between classes, castes or social positions. Some losses can be made good but there are several that cannot be compensated.
In assessing the damage and losses, governments tend to follow certain norms and standardisation. In a situation like this, assessing the damage becomes so complicated that any attempt at standardisation will be a mockery. There could be claims which the government has no means to verify. A middle-class family could have lost all their possessions worth many lakhs, but the losses of a relatively poor family in the neighbourhood may be much less. When the government decides on compensation, there could be allegations of unfairness, corruption and partisanship.
There are instances where currency and gold could be lost. New houses constructed with borrowed money have been destroyed. Older people who need their medication and sometimes valuable medical equipment find themselves totally helpless. How do we assess, leave alone compensate, the small, accumulated savings, prized possessions bought with hard-earned money, cattle, crops, vehicles, furniture, clothes, books and documents—all gone in a jiffy? Small and medium traders who had stocked their shops with merchandise, some paid-for and some bought on credit, in anticipation of Onam sales have lost it all.
Leo Tolstoy has made this insightful observation in the opening sentence in Anna Karenina that all “happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Nothing could convey the situation of post-floods Kerala better than this. The floods have impoverished families in diverse ways. It ranges from losses that can be compensated to those that cannot be. Every family has many issues to tackle. And every problem calls for a different response. The effectiveness of rehabilitation can be judged only by the extent to which the post-rehabilitation state approximates the pre-calamity situation. Unless the complex mix of the problem is fully understood and empathised with, rehabilitation will be an unfinished or shoddy work.
How to minimise the trauma of every family in distress is the question. Government action by definition is characterised by insensitive procedures, lengthy waiting periods and cruel rejections. Delays can make any boon a curse. Condescending attitudes of officials can convert any assistance to alms. Corruption can exacerbate the situation; rigidities can make it impossible to resolve. With the best of intentions, the government’s usual methods have to be discarded in favour of a responsive and flexible approach.
But flexibility is a dreaded word. It is common knowledge in bureaucracy that flexibility is the Achilles heel responsible for corruption. So even when the value of flexibility is understood, the fear of the possibility of corruption that flexibility might cause (or at least the fear of allegations of corruption), makes governments cringe at the suggestion of a flexible approach. So in the interest of safety, flexibility is sacrificed at the altar of efficiency.
The moot question is whether such thinking can be allowed to spoil the show. Is not the scale of this calamity so colossal that the small risk of corruptibility should be taken? Bureaucracy is not an alien entity but consists of people belonging to this very society. But when organised into a system, it is trained to play safe. Yet the corrupt ones take all precautions and ‘safely’ engage in corruption; while the non-corrupt, out of fear of being targeted with corruption allegations, become almost pathologically rule-bound and rigid. Essentially, this leads to the deadening of our sense of compassion.
Transparency in decision making is an effective antidote to insulate honest officers from allegations. The system should have the mandate to take any decision necessary for total rehabilitation, within a set of broad parameters, in a transparent fashion. It should have the freedom to seek the help of specialists, follow innovative practices, offer packages that will hasten rehabilitation, engage civil society and voluntary organisations. It is in the chrysalis of compassion a new Kerala waits to be born.
Former Chief Secretary to Government of Kerala and currently Director of Institute of Management in Government at Thiruvananthapuram