By T.J.S. George,
How many will learn how many lessons from the floods that devastated Kerala and Kodagu? The most important lesson is bound to go unlearned — that, ultimately, these were again examples of Nature collapsing under the impact of human greed. We were warned of it five years ago when cloudbursts and landslides turned Uttarakhand upside down, killing nearly 6,000 people. It was adjudged a man-made disaster with hydroelectric dams, illegal mining and construction activities upsetting Nature’s balance.
The same greed-driven factors have been threatening most of the Western Ghats as Madhav Gadgil warned seven years ago. Land exploitation and illegal quarrying had reached dangerous levels. But the profiteers behind such exploitation always get support from government leaders and political parties. So the Gadgil Report was subverted. Gadgil has pointed to the Kerala disaster and warned that Goa would be next. To see what he means, we only have to take a drive along certain areas of interior Goa that have been turned by mining companies into gaping holes in the earth. The miners and their political friends earned Rs. 35,000 crore in profits as an inquiry commission found.
The story is the same whether it be Kerala, Goa or Kodagu where entire plantations have disappeared in flood fury. Converting paddy fields and forest lands into resorts is an easy way to make money. When the natural movements of water are blocked and when hill slopes are cleared of vegetation, Nature breaks into landslides, debris flows and rock falls. But we refuse to learn lessons as greed dances with corruption.
The depredation that wrecked Kerala threw light on the best and the worst that make up our country. The way the local people rose to the occasion was both inspiring but humbling. Individuals and groups plunged into rescue operations disregarding all political and religious differences. Coastal fishing communities transported 700 boats by lorries to the affected areas and helped move 65,000 people to safe shelters. Social media groups set up online control rooms and call centres manned by hundreds of volunteers. Prisoners in the State’s jails prepared food in vast quantities in addition to contributing Rs. 12 lakh from their prison-work wages. The authorities closed the gates of a dam to save a flood-trapped elephant. Four men risked their lives to save a dog that couldn’t swim against a strong current. The media did a great job combining responsibility with dedication. The Chief Minister showed timely leadership and instilled confidence in people while coordinating relief activities. He was even courteous to the media. What the world saw was a spontaneous people’s movement with the “We shall overcome” theme as a driving force.
This groundswell of voluntary action by a people who refused to be cowed down by catastrophe added weight to the help that rushed in from outside. The Armed Forces, Central teams with special skills, and flood relief experts from Odisha were so brave that the locals took them as family. The message was: This is a country that citizens can be proud of.
But one sinister streak marred the whole scenario. Discordant notes came from the religious right and, astonishingly, from the Central Government. A Swamy’s comment that Kerala was punished for eating beef may be dismissed as the ranting of a mental case. But what about a man from the BJP’s IT Cell who uploaded an audio clip and text saying that the flood-affected people were mostly from well to do families who therefore deserved no assistance. He still asked for donations, but to a BJP-sponsored platform. There were others who said contributions should not be sent to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund because the money could go to the minorities.
Just as BJP voices went against the public mood, the Central Government took positions that seemed partisan. Was Delhi piqued that its Rs. 600-crore aid to Kerala was followed by UAE’s Rs. 700-crore offer? It saved face by announcing that the 600 crore was only a preliminary step. It caused outrage when it said that it would charge rice allocations to the State, then saved its face by saying the rice would be free. Its ban on foreign government’s contributions marred its face beyond saving. There are rules and precedents that make the ban decision untenable. But that is not the real issue. The real issue is that the Government of India has given the impression that it is inimical towards the Government and people of a State. This is unprecedented and it bodes ill for the future.