During his days as an itinerant monk, Swami Vivekananda had passed through Travancore and he was quick to observe the divide among sections of people and he described the state as a mad house. Not much later when on his way to Chicago to attend the World Congress of Religions, his steamship had passed through the Malabar Coast he was witness to the deck hands operating on the steamer. These were the local boys from the region, who were also called laskars, and he was charmed by their agility, their friendliness and the way they moved about. They were like water babies. At that time he made a remark which was significant; he said that when the country becomes free one day its navy should comprise wholly of these seafaring young Moplas, as the Muslims there are called. He probably was not aware of the famous admiral of the Zamorin rulers of Calicut in the fifteenth century, Kunhali Maraikar, who had guarded the trade route of the Arabian Sea from pirates and also made it safe for Haj pilgrims. There is an Indian Navy frigate named after this remarkable admiral.
If the great Swami were to visit the state now to witness the rescue efforts that were carried out during the recent floods there he would have been immensely pleased to see the way the people of Kerala, and outside as well, rallied for the rescue and relief work. He would even have been touched by the manner in which ordinary people came to the rescue of the helpless and trapped women and children and the elderly. Some of the amazing instances of individual acts of bravery and innovativeness that these people displayed have been chronicled by the television visuals, and the latest communication tools have been put to maximum use in reaching out to these people in distress. In this effort, civil society has shown a remarkable sense of compassion, responsibility and initiative that one would least have expected from any society.
When the boatmen who ventured into the interiors of the farmlands and saved the trapped women and children, when they navigated through the rivulets and ponds and tricky water eddies they were not doing this at the behest of anybody. It was sheer humanity that these mostly faceless people had displayed. Some even went on to say that this was a thanksgiving gesture for the help that was rendered to the fishermen who were caught in Cyclone Ockhi last year when the Coast Guard and Navy ships mounted a magnificent rescue operation. The vignettes of small children donating their entire savings for the relief fund, the teams that came from Kutch and Rajkot in Gujarat and joining in the rescue operations, the people of Srinagar in Kashmir collecting funds for sending to this distant state, because when they had faced a similar flood some years ago they had received such help. These were not isolated instances. All these showed how society at large rallies to the aid of the distressed even in these cynical times. Even politicians and television artistes and the media, always looking for contentious issues to make the evening debates lively, restrained themselves and chipped in with their constructive bit. The role of the television channels particularly and the media in general has been commendable.
There would be occasion for finger pointing, there would be enquiries on the causes of the disaster, and the worn out cliches of climate change and environmental degradation that would be spouted. There have always been debates over water conservation and the mindless frenzy of building of development projects. There would be chat shows on man’s greed and vanity and the wanton urban expansion. There would be experts doing their post-mortem on the price of development, and whether there is need for a check on unbridled consumption, and whether a more modest life style and social harmony is not a better alternative than these senseless aping of the developed Western models. Doubtless the name of Gandhiji would be invoked and of his relevance and his conservative, even antiquated, views in the present context.
About the role of civil society one need to commend the way it has risen time and again on occasions such as these. And this has come as a surprise to some of the Western observers who have been witnessing the chaotic way things function in this country. The train disaster at Kadalundi, near Calicut, is one instance. When three bogies of an express train plunged into the river from an old bridge in 2001, the noise woke up the surrounding villages. And from the nearby mosques the call went out and within minutes huge crowds had collected in pouring rain and they rescued the people trapped in the bogies. Auto-rickshaw drivers pooled all their vehicles and rushed the injured to the nearest hospitals and the Calicut Medical College Hospital within minutes. The district collector and police chief were amazed at this public initiative even before they could react. Not just that, the khalasis, the traditional dhow operators at the nearby coast, rushed in with their ropes and bamboo poles and lifted the submerged train bogies, much before the Naval and Indian Oil’s heavy duty cranes could arrive from Kochi. This civic society effort so moved the poet Gary Snyder to remark that even without the experience or grim memories of a holocaust or World War II civil society in this state has shown such amazing solidarity. A similar accident happened in Peruman in the same state, when a train fell into the Ashtamudi lake in the rain and flood of 1988 and here too the fishermen were the ones who reached the place immediately and carried out the rescue operations.
The initial rescue efforts were more or less and now begins the arduous task of reconstruction and restoration of the disrupted structures and public facilities. This is a long and difficult assignment when all the ingenuity and patience of the officials and volunteers would be tested. Agencies like the National Disaster Management Authority and the civic agencies would have to work in tandem and with patience to bring some semblance of normalcy. There is enough expertise in this area and they would, hopefully, all be working together.
What are the lessons to be learnt from this experience? Warnings had been issued periodically about the fragility of the Western Ghats and the destruction of its forest cover over the decades. There had been protests and signing of protests and filing of cases against the denuding of these forests on the slopes and the dredging of the rivers for sand. The Madhav Gadgil report that had described in detail the destruction of this ecologically fragile system had been taken note of but so strong is the development lobby that it persuaded to dilute the recommendations and had another panel headed by Dr. Kasturirangan set up which set less rigorous stipulations. What has been lost sight of is not the haggling over minor details and the overall impact this would have on the whole mountain ecosystem.
The swift 44 rivers that flow from the mountain range to the sea has been dredged of sand with the result there is no possibility of the water seeping in and sustaining the water table. Some of these rivers have almost become a pale shadow of their former form. Such depletion of water sources that should never have happened in a state like Kerala where the monsoons have been bountiful, indicate the insensitivity and callousness of those at the helm. It is all the more regrettable that this should be taking place in a state that has an energetic and active environment movement which by its sustained efforts managed to save the Silent Valley. The only redemption is the civil society that has risen to the occasion time and again and extended a helping hand to the needy and distressed.