This column is written with a mixed feeling of sadness, happiness and apprehension; sadness because of the trauma and loss, people including one's own near and dear ones suffered during the floods. Water had never entered our home on the bank of Pampa river ever since 1924 and no one expected such an eventuality. Think of the irreparable damage caused to thousands of homes of the rich, poor, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The rising waters and the floods have treated everyone alike without any discrimination!
One is happy that the people of Kerala and the entire country put up a united front to help the devastated state come to terms with the unprecedented calamity. People from Kashmir to Kanyakumari contributed whatever they could and there were media reports on such activities. One received a number of pictures of a ‘langar’[free kitchen ] in Kochi run by a UK based Sikh charity Khalsa Aid with the comment, ”While 98% are debating on TV and floods …2% [Sardars] reached Kerala and started a Langar”! In ground zero it was heartening to see people cutting across all socio-cultural-religious and political barriers working shoulder to shoulder to help each other. The Indian armed forces, the NDRF [National Disaster Response Force] and local agencies ensured that everyone affected by the floods was rescued.
Most of the Malayalam news channels, given to a staple of acrimonious talk shows and debates with not so sober anchors, behaved in the most responsible manner even as Kerala was reeling under the rigors of the flood fury. Leaving aside the usual contents the channels concentrated on excellent reporting on the ground situation and rescue operations.
What was projected by the media was essentially the resilience of the Malayali on the face of such hitherto unimaginable floods even in areas where it never occurred. Without any differences of caste, creed, religion or community everyone joined hands to survive. Almost all religious institutions were thrown open to be relief camps. One watched the large dining hall of a temple where the nurses who are Catholic nuns were ministering to those who needed medical help. It was a reality that in many a relief camp food was cooked and served by people belonging to the three major communities. No questions were asked in any of the relief camps about the caste or religious identity or their financial or social status. One is constrained to mention these realities after disquieting tidings came from hate mongering groups or bigots in many channels. When asked about the veracity of such false information, one of the volunteers argued that when blood of rare groups is donated by donors, their caste or religious identities are never questioned by anyone.
Here are some stories from the Malayalam newspapers and television news channels which prove the communal amity during the worst days of the floods.
65 year old Subramanyan hailing from Chithirapuram died in a relief camp in a Government High School. The parish priest of the local St. Ann's Church while visiting the camp came to know about Subramanyan's demise. The son and son in law of the deceased person who couldn't find a place to arrange his funeral told the priest about their plight. The priest then allowed the funeral to be held in the church cemetery!
Chengannur was one of the worst affected areas during the floods. Chengannur, incidentally has a mixed population of religious communities. Fishermen mostly Latin Catholics, hired trucks and brought their mechanized boats and rescued thousands of stranded people. Before rescuing them the fishermen never asked the affected their community or religious identities! The people and government were really grateful to those fearless fishermen for rescuing the flood affected people. The government announced that those fishermen would be felicitated and given cash rewards. The fishermen refused to accept any money and said they only rescued people in distress for which they wouldn't accept any money! They were just doing their humanitarian duty!
A Malayali Naval commander Vijay Varma and his team had rescued a pregnant woman Sajida Jabeel in their helicopter and admitted her in the Naval base hospital. Sajida delivered a baby boy the same afternoon. The naval rescue team led by Commander Varma visited the mother and the newborn with gifts; it was a photo op for the print and electronic media!
The fishermen who did commendable rescue operations during the unprecedented floods have gone back to their routine. They are actually people on the edge eking out a living pursuing a dangerous and adventurous profession. They are simple folks who are neither politicians nor foot soldiers of greedy politicians. They do not angle for publicity or are inclined to showing off. On the other hand after the rescue operations were over there were ugly claims and counterclaims from the politically motivated volunteers. It is alleged that some of the youth and voluntary agencies of political outfits who are essentially jobless party workers were boasting about their wonderful contribution in rescue operations. The social media had enough to prove this. Some of them with clout managed to collect funds spreading a canard against legitimate agencies like the Kerala Chief Minister's official relief fund. The allegations were that the funds received by the official agency would go into ruling party coffers and so no one should donate to the official Chief Minister’s relief fund!
One's intention is definitely not to denigrate voluntary organizations run by political parties but to bring to sharp focus the communal overtones of certain social media messages. It is indeed unfortunate that even the genuine efforts of a beleaguered Kerala government are being portrayed as efforts to indulge in corruption. One has received plenty of social media messages not just sarcastic but abusive of Kerala government. Another publicity blitz on social media was by a senior functionary of the IT wing of a major political party exhorting people not to send relief materials to Kerala as the victims were rich people! The most obnoxious of such messages received by one is asking people not to contribute to Kerala relief as half of the state’s population comprised minority communities and that they have food habits not acceptable to the majority community! Whatever has happened to political sobriety and propriety in our beloved country? There is a hue and cry among Malayalees against the head of a news channel owned by a ruling party leader who hails from Kerala for his alleged reference to the people of Kerala as ‘shameless people’!
One’s apprehensions are two -fold. We witnessed fantastic rescue operations by the NDRF, armed forces, fishermen and young local volunteers. It is only the beginning of a more arduous long term relief and rehabilitation plan which according to some experts should not be a ‘band aid’ approach. Thousands of homes have been destroyed and many more thousands have been rendered unlivable. The worst affected area is Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala which lies below the sea level. With all sources of drinking water damaged, even if the houses are made livable, there will be no safe drinking water which would mean a possible outbreak of water-borne diseases. Further, the north east monsoon is imminent [starting in October] and if there are heavy rains like what we have seen during the south west monsoon, the suffering of the people in Kuttanad will further aggravate. Incidentally, from Tuesday [28th August] this worst affected area will witness a massive clean- up operation of houses in which over ten thousand government workers will rub shoulders with over 50000 local volunteers!
The second apprehension is an attempt by the vested political interests to communalize the situation to play vote bank politics. Already there are theories going round the media, especially the social media as to what caused the great deluge in Kerala. According to some it is wrath of god as the sanctity of the age old traditions of one of the holiest temples of the state has been subjected to judicial scrutiny. Another section argues that the sanctity of sacraments is being ridiculed and it is divine retribution. Then there are also astrological reasons attributed to the deluge along with Nostradamus like predictions of impending doom or prophesies of such calamity.
How should a secular, democratic country react to a natural phenomenon of floods? A country on the threshold of sending an Indian to the final frontiers of space in 2022? In fact the terrible disaster which has damaged the environmentally fragile Western Ghats was predicted by Prof. Madhav Gadgil who had studied and submitted a voluminous report in 2011. He had listed the damage done to Kerala’s eco system as illegal activities by greedy people such as indiscriminate use of encroached forest land for cultivation, quarrying, reclamation of paddy fields and water bodies for real estate, and sand mining. Similarly a denizen of the worst affected Kuttanad, the revered scientist Dr. M S Swaminathan had prepared a ‘Kuttanad Package’ to redeem the area from destruction. Had the political class heeded Prof Gadgil’s and Dr. Swaminathan’s recommendations for concrete remedial action, the present man made disaster could have been averted. When there is ample scientific reasoning, how can we attribute the deluge to divine wrath?