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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 45 New Delhi October 27, 2018

Floods in Kerala or Nature’s Fury

Sunday 28 October 2018


by K. Saradamoni

The floods in Kerala just before the State’s widely known festival of Onam appear to have subsided. But the havoc these caused will take a long time to be resolved. The government and people, including young adults, responded with concern and determination. Both money and materials, including food, medicines and other essential articles, poured in.The Chief Minister’s Relief Fund received generous support from many sources outside the State and also the country. The fishermen rushed in and offered service beyond description.

While appreciating this solidarity, we cannot close our eyes to the reasons behind this calamity. Newspapers have brought out the story of a flood in 1924. It was before the present State of Kerala was formed. What my mind wandered through in these days was the rains in our younger days. It was also in the pre-Kerala era in the State of Travancore. We were aware of the two rains that came. One coincided with the opening of schools after summer vacation. The other was during October-November.

Many of us had tiled houses, mostly single-storyed. Around that there was the sandy space where we could play.Various plants and creepers flowering and others created our world. Beyond was the compound where trees like coconut, mango, jackfruit and others stood. Medicinal plants were in plenty. Running around these trees, playing hide-and-seek, watching our paper-boats float in the water around the coconut trees was most enjoyable.

In the last few decades I live in Trivandrum, the capital of the State. The house and the compound are smaller. Still we have some coconut and other trees, flowering plants etc. We have sand around our house. It was the practice earlier. Things started changing. Tiles, which prevent the seepage of water, appeared in a big way. Building material and the buildings themselves changed beyond imagination.

I started with my childhood memories because rain, trees and plants were close to our lives. Today children do not show the joy and enthusiasm with rain, plants or nature in general because of the changes that have come about in the State.

Agriculture was the first priority in free India’s efforts to develop the nation. It included land, water, labour, seed, fertiliser etc. The new State of Kerala too shared the importance of agriculture. Being a Communist-led government it noticed that land was mostly owned by big landlords and the tenants and labourers who actually worked in the fields had no security in work or wages. The Party raised the slogan, ‘Land to the Tiller’. Paddy cultivation continued. Kuttanad and Palghat were the major rice bowls. Families in many other places cultivated paddy in wetlands near their homes. Banana, varieties of vegetables etc. were culti-vated in the non-paddy lands. Water was available in plenty. There were wells, ponds, lakes and fortyfour rivers which provided sufficient water for all purposes.

I am happy that I undertook more than one study of paddy cultivation in the State without realising that the State would in my lifetime itself discard agriculture as a major occupation. This did not result in a major catastrophe because many among the paddy landowning families had some non-agricultural income coming from sources like jobs in government or private agencies, small business etc. There were artisans engaged in the production of pots and pans, brass or bronze utensils, weaving handloom fabrics etc. Above everything, an average Keralite led a rather simple life. This was shaken in a big way in the last one or two decades.

Another important event was that Keralites began to move to other countries in a big way. I don’t think that the agricutural labourers were there. Slowly the exodus became bigger. Today one can see highly qualified Keralites in many parts of the world. This exposed us to many new things. One area where major changes happened was building houses. Material and manpower changed. Previously an engineer and a few workers with experience could do the job. That changed. Architects and new tools appeared. Bulldozers which could easily pull down huge trees or mountain sides conquered the scene. Buildings came up anywhere and everywhere.

We hear that all of them are not occupied and that this is to convert black money into white. This is something the government has to view as a serious matter. Another dangerous develop-ment was buildings—educational institutions like medical, engineering colleges, mostly private, tourist resorts, restaurants coming up in a big way very near to water bodies like lakes, rivers and the sea. Neither were the environmentally fragile mountain ranges left out.

The government’s development of roads and railways suddenly increased. Many of them went through the earlier paddy lands. During the recent floods we repeatedly heard that when the Kochi airport was being planned, experts pointed out that the land considered for the airport was the flood plain of the river Periyar. It was proven right.

Another development was the sudden growth in the number of cars, two-wheelers usually known as scooters. There was a time when one saw a few Ambassador cars on the road. Now Ministers, senior officers and many others travel in the latest model of cars. I know many people who have more than one car and other vehicles. The havoc these cause on the roads and neighbourhood is huge. Accidents are regularly reported, but we seldom hear of any action against the culprits.

It was said earlier that we have been trapped into a consumer society. Without the sanctions of the government so many shops—malls included—would not have come up here. The not-so-rich are also attracted by the glamour of these places. The latter may not have savings or high regular income. But there are financiers ready to help them. The government has agreed to lend one lakh rupees to those families who have lost their homes in the floods.

A very dangerous after-effect of consumerism to which we succumbed was the arrival of plastic about which we had no knowledge. Everything that we bought came in plastic cover or wrapped in plastic. It took a very long time to make the people understand the danger behind plastic. Later, bodies like the Corporation, began to educate the people about the dangers of plastic and similar material. It cannot be said to be a complete success. One can see waste, plastic, old bottles, used batteries, bulbs left on the wayside. There have been reports of hospital waste heaped in places near water bodies.

It is almost three years since the television channel Asianet showed us how polluted all the rivers in the State are. I have not heard about any action taken by the government. This should not surprise us as an earlier government had given permission to the American Coca Cola company to use water from one of our rivers. Water in the whole region got polluted and a tribal woman activist died.

We are constantly hearing about a new Kerala to be built. The present State of Kerala was formed following the Central Government’s policy of reorganising the States on the basis of the language spoken by the majority of the population.

There were educational institutions both for women and men in the region. Health care facilities too were available. People by and large had inherited knowledge about health and hygiene of the humans as well as the surroundings. All these appear to have been forgotten as time went by. In this, our media, print and electronic, has a role. Newspapers and journals in their initial stage did not have advertisements. Today, the survival of the entire media depends on advertisements. Even while discussing the recent floods, the TV channels gave time to the advertisers who displayed Italian and Rajasthan marbles for use in flats. The same is true of newspapers and journals too. Even a non-entity like me gets by post advertisements from major builders and agencies that store materials like cement, steel bars etc.

Even before the floods there have been discussions on environmental issues in which small groups known as evironmentalists partici-pated. More discussions, involving more people, should take place before a final plan is made. There may be people who think that it is not necessary or possible. Let me remind ourselves that it was under the CPI-M’s leadership that vibrant discussions on People’s Planning were carried on here. I have seen ordinary working class women in such discussion groups. I do realise that it would not be that easy today as the Kerala society has moved away from what it was twenty, thirty years back. Solidarity, collective action etc. are not in our vocabulary today. Contributing to the flood relief fund is a different thing.

The government is constantly talking of building a New Kerala. We have to insist that people’s opinions and suggestions be heard. They might not have come forward with a memorandum, but we saw many women and men expressing in clear words what they have lost and what that meant to them. Their immediate needs may be a home and essential goods. It is not difficult to make them understand issues like climate change and the possibility of another flood or drought. Discussions on a Kerala where the losses, in case of another calamity should be minimal should take place, involving women, men and children from all walks of life.

I shall elaborate this by one or two examples. The government understandably wants to raise the income levels. Wages and salaries in the State today are far above what they were when the State was formed. It is also true that the unemployed and homeless are still here. One area which the government tries to promote is tourism. It is true that in this tiny place between the Western Ghats and the sea there is enough to see, enjoy, relax or even photograph or write about. Can we say that we have safeguarded these treasures? I went to Munnar to see the special Neelakurinji plants that flower once in twelve years. Recently my daughter went to the place again. It was after the floods. She enjoyed the flowers and the forest trek. What bothered her was the large number of multistoreyed resorts that have come up in that fragile area since our trip together.

While tourism can raise income levels, it is also an area which demands utmost care from the organisers. Let me give one or two examples. One is the Kovalam beach in Thiruvananthapuram. It was a peaceful beach where you could spend a long time enjoying the breeze and water splashing over your feet while watching the setting sun. Today the whole place has been captured by resorts, shops and eateries. The never ending noise drives you away. The other is the Fort area in the capital itself which is an important heritage site. It was also a quiet place. Today it is an overcrowded noisy shopping area. The government, while talking of building a New Kerala, has to do some serious rethinking as to how tourism can be promoted without harming nature.

I am not sure that is happening. Thiru-vananthapuram district where the capital city stands was spared in the recent calamity. But one cannot be too sure of this. The Western Ghats and the sea are closer here. Besides, this was mostly wetlands. Most of the construction in recent times has taken place by filling up wetlands and paddy lands. This includes the University, large number of IT companies and tall residential flats coming up everywhere. This has to be taken seriously.

We heard about opening and closure of dams many a time during the floods. The dams are for irrigation and generation of electricity. There was a time when the government seriously talked about solar energy. We need to think of wind and waves too as sources to generate electricity. At the same time we have to take extra care not to waste electricity. When the new State was born, there were many homes without electric connection. The situation is different today. There may be a few homes without electric connection and all possible gadgets. We have not cleaned the State completely of the menace of plastic. It will be a very difficult task to tackle electronic waste.

From reports that reach us, it is clear that normalcy has not come everywhere. We are yet to know about the number of dead, age-sexwise. We also have to know about the loss families have incurred. These include homes, household goods, money etc. During the floods itself we heard of water taking away libraries. This morning there was a news from a place where children have lost school bags and books.

Let us have clear and complete information about the loss. This should be the priority. And not more roads, railway tracks and airports. What we should plan are mutually caring and supporting communities. Even before the floods some architects here have built mud and bamboo houses. They can be popularised. It is the responsibility of the people we voted to power to understand what ordinary citizens are discussing and demanding.

To end, we are here only for a short period, most probably lesser than many trees. Let us love, respect and care for the surroundings, water and mountains. Let us pass on this to our youngsters including tinytots.

The author is a renowned economist and concerned social activist based in Thiruvananthapuram. She is the former President of the National Federation of Indian Women.

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