Why the Calamity in Kerala is a ‘National Disaster’?

kerala floods

The south Indian State of Kerala has been going through a calamity of unimaginable proportions following the unexpected turn in monsoon rains which played havoc with the state’s life and livelihood. Floods and landslides were unprecedented. Displacement too witnessed massive rescue operations and relocation. Nearly a million people are directly affected. It may take several months and years to restore roads, bridges and cultivable lands. Thousands of houses were perished in the disaster. Shops and local markets were completely gutted in many districts.  Rail, road and air transport routes were paralyzed for several days.

The situation being serious, there are persistent calls for declaring it a ‘national disaster.’ Except BJP, all major political parties have made repeated pleas to the Union Government to do so. But the Modi Government is reticent on the issue so far and some of the officials even make technical arguments for not declaring it as ‘national disaster.’

Everyone knows that a mere declaration of such a calamity as ‘National’ won’t serve any purpose. It should be effectively followed up with coordinated action at different levels – from the local, national, regional to international levels.

Regarding the technicality of a declaration, it is true that the National Disaster Management regime does not call for such a conceptualisation of calamities for effective intervention and action. The only conceptualization is in regard to its nature and type. The Disaster Management Act defines a ‘disaster’ in terms of ”a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man-made causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area.” It does not specifically mention the intensity in terms of its locale. However, many officials in Delhi believe that a call for a disaster as ‘national’ is an attempt to shift the onus on the Union Government in terms of burden sharing.  Hence, it is ‘political.’ This is a one-sided view, undeniably.

More than the technicalities, we need to have a collective ‘national’ mind-set in a diverse system like that of India to deal with such eventualities in states located far and wide. When we make such a declaration, it shows a collective social commitment to rescue a state from an impending collapse. It is true that even without an official declaration, other States in India have come up with generous support. However, a declaration will also help the State government seek international support from diverse sources. The reason why some GCC countries have come up with support is that the Keralites constitute a significant proportion in the GCC demographic base.

Admittedly, the central forces such as army, navy, air force, NDRF, CRPF etc have already been put in place at the disposal of the State government and they are effectively working under the State mechanism. That means, we don’t need to hand over the entire thing to the army. These are all for emergency rescue operations. And that is surely the top priority.

More than this, the second stage of ‘recovery operations’ is even vital and it needs well coordinated measures to bring the state back to normalcy. This is important for a state like Kerala which had, long back, earned international acclaim for its human development index, including life expectancy, literacy and education. Recently, even national agencies acknowledged Kerala as the top state in India in governance. Yet, even as the State’s performance in social and governance index remains high, the economy has been on a downturn path due to multiple reasons, including the reverse trends in global commodity trade. Since the demonetization and the introduction of GST regime, the economy has been struggling hard to meet even the basic requirements. This has been accelerated by the reverse trends in Kerala’s migration pay-off. Thousands and thousands of migrants are coming back to Kerala from the GCC countries every month, following the localization drive and austerity measures put in place in these countries. This would have a telling impact on the remittance scenario. The return migrants are already in distress conditions in many places.

Added to the complexity of these problems is the dwindling price of cash crops which constitute a significant percentage of the State’s agriculture sector and economy. What actually happened to the thousands and thousands of hectares of cultivable land in the wake of the disaster is known to everyone. It may take perhaps years for the people to recover their livelihood terrains. Poor and medium level farmers are the hard-hit people here. They lost their houses, farming land and local markets.

Kerala is the most dependent of all states in India for essential commodities such as rice and vegetables, medicines and other items, besides cloths, household articles, electronic and computer items, automobiles etc which sustain its social living standards. All South Indian States supply many of these essential items on a daily basis. These economies also depend on Kerala’s markets and hence they are also likely to lose ground if the state is not recovered immediately. The tragedy is that many of them have laboured for several months to make a reasonable income for the whole year through sales during the Onam season. They are literally shattered. More than 6 lakh people are already shifted to emergency camps. Nearly a million people are directly affected. Another three to four million people will have to bear the consequences at the secondary level. The number of people indirectly affected will be several millions. It’s not an exaggeration of numbers given the dependent nature of the social and economic exchange relations in Kerala.

The situation really calls for a coordinated action on the part of the State and Union Governments. The Union Government should also make an appeal to international agencies, including the UN to provide humanitarian assistance for the thousands of displaced people to restore their habitat.

The author is Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.  The details of his profile are available @ http://kmseethi.com/ Prof Seethi can be reached at [email protected]


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