Kerala refuses to learn from the bitter aftermath of recurring natural calamities

Mukkalam region in Kottayam district devastated by landslide and flood.

(Editor's Note: This is the third part of a four-part series by Malayala Manorama. Click to read first part and second part.)

Kerala has been confronting a daunting challenge of late. Unfortunately, the State's response to the recurring natural calamities so far indicates that it is not up to the task in lessening the impact of frequent high intensity rains as well as the resultant landslides and floods that continue to claim lives and waste large tracts of land.

The savage floods of 2018 was one of the worst natural calamities that Kerala had witnessed. The State had then considered it as a once-in-a-century occurrence.

A year later, the belief was shattered as Nature unleashed its fury once again on the State. With the rain-related tragic incidents recurring since 2018, the "once-in-a-century" justification got a silent burial.

The Kerala government and experts made us believe that each tragedy was a learning opportunity to prevent its recurrence in future. Yet, have we learnt any lessons from the climate-related tragedies that have been revisiting the State on an annual basis? Hardly, it seems.

Disaster management is not a slew of steps initiated after a tragedy had struck. It also entails averting the occurrence of disasters through scientific means and measures. The disasters at Koottickal and Kokkayar last week reflect the inadequate preparedness in managing disasters.

Signs of laxity

Despite multiple disasters, Kerala still lacks a weather forecast mechanism, as is evident from the weekend disasters that struck Kottayam and Idukki districts. We have not deployed enough rain gauges to measure the severity of rainfall, or automatic weather stations or radars to predict rains. The State government cannot wash its hands of after writing its demands to the Centre. We should have alternative arrangements if the Centre has been delaying in accepting the State's demands.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinaryai Vijayan

Why private agencies?

The Kerala government had decided to seek the assistance of private weather monitoring agencies after realising the shortfalls in the information passed on by the Central Met department. The government sought the help from private players such as Skymet Weather Services, the Weather Company of IBM, Earth Networks and Windy for 'precise' weather forecasts. The move to seek private weather monitoring agencies' help was made based on the model followed by Odisha, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Kerala has sought taluk-based weather forecasts from these firms, and has been shelling out Rs 1 crore as fees. The existing laws, however, prevent Kerala from using the information gathered from private agencies for disaster mitigation activities. Help from the National Disaster Response Force could be sought only based on official forecasts by the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

Incidentally, information provided by private agencies did not help in foreseeing the tragedies in Idukki and Kottayam.

Clean river plan goes off track

The State government has not implemented its announcement that the rivers would be cleaned of silt and garbage accumulated in the 2018 floods. The mining of accumulated sand from the River Pamba was stalled after it ran into a political controversy. Allegations of widespread corruption put the brakes on the move to desilt reservoirs. The 'Room for River' plan, modelled on the Netherlands' project, did not take off as expected.

Whither Rebuild Kerala?

The government had in 2018 decided to rebuild Kerala on par with international standards, and a three-year, Rs 31,000 crore plan was formulated with the slogan 'Nava Kerala Nirmanam', i.e., constructing a new Kerala. The plan even caught global attention, but over the stipulated three years, administrative sanction was granted only to projects worth Rs 7,803.95 crore, and merely Rs 627.87 crore was spent for the purpose. Additionally, there is no clarity on when the remaining yet-to-be-commenced projects would be completed.

A screengrab of Rebuild Kerala website.

Meanwhile, the government triggered a controversy by diverting the first installment of 1,779.58 crore from the World Bank to pay the salaries of its employees. The loan amount was granted as part of the Bank's development policy. Following the diversion of the loan amount, the World Bank decided to release the next installment only after the completion of the projects included in the second phase. The government even sparked another row by spending Rs 50.90 lakh for refurbishing the office of Rebuild Kerala.

Funds in the wrong hands

Adding to the government's woes, allegations of CPM local leaders pocketing the compensation for the flood-hit surfaced in several districts. In Ernakulam, a few leaders were arrested, and it became a talking point in the elections that followed.

Following the 2018 calamity, the government introduced a flood cess and raised Rs 1,750 crore in two years. It was recently found that several merchants, who collected crores of rupees as cess from the customers, did not remit it to the exchequer.

The Central government, meanwhile, alleged that the State had not utilised Rs 2,904 crore granted to it after the 2018 floods. Though the State denied the allegation, it affected the flood relief efforts in 2019.

The Chief Minister informed the Assembly last year that his Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF) received donations to the tune of 4,756.22 crore, and Rs 2,630.68 crore was spent. He, however, did not provide the details of the remaining amount, and the latest CMDRF accounts are not available.

Incidentally, the distribution of compensation to those affected by the 2018 floods has not been completed, reportedly due to the lack of relevant documents, legal issues and discrepancies in the bank accounts of the beneficiaries.

Rehab still a mirage

Rehabilitation of those affected is the primary duty of the government soon after a disaster. However, rehabilitation of those affected by Cyclone Ockhi in 2017 has been dragging on.

Kavalappara natives who lost their homes in landslides in 2018.

Those who had escaped the earlier landslides in Kavalappara, Puthumala and Pettimudi have not been properly rehabilitated. As many as 23 families of tribesmen, who had lost their houses to Kavalappara landslide, have not yet received the government-promised houses. Sixteen families are still living in the relief camp at Pothukal. Another six families rented accommodation on their own.

During the previous Assembly session, the Opposition alleged that the government had not provided aid to families who had been living in Puthumala, which suffered an estimated loss of Rs 52 crore in the landslide.

In a separate development, the calamity-affected people informed the High Court that the land allotted to them at Pettimudi was not habitable. They submitted to the court that the land allotted at Kuttiyar Valley was 32 kilometres from Pettimudi, and the nearest public distribution outlet was several kilometres away. The High Court sought the explanation of the government based on their petition.

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