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subin dennis

In battling floods, Kerala is also forced to fight the hostility of the Indian government

Originally published: Morning Star Online by Subin Dennis (August 25, 2018)   | 

THE communist-ruled Indian state of Kerala, hit by the most severe rains and floods in nearly a century, has had to overcome not just nature’s fury but also the active hostility of the central government in Delhi led by the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Even in normal years, Kerala receives an annual average of 2,924.33 millimetres of rainfall, the highest among all “big” Indian states, and more than double the annual average in the UK.

But this year, from June 1 (the onset of the south-west monsoon which brings the bulk of India’s rainfall) to August 21, Kerala received 2,387mm of rain — 41 per cent more than normal.

Furthermore, a large chunk of the excess rainfall occurred during a very small period of time. During the period from August 1 to 19, Kerala saw 758.6mm rainfall, 164 per cent more than normal.

During the week between August 9 and 15, Kerala received 257 per cent excess rain. Idukki district, which was the worst-hit, received 679mm of rainfall, 447.6 per cent more than normal.

The result of such torrential downpour was massive flooding and landslips which affected all 14 districts in the state. The state has 80 dams, including 42 major ones, most of which had to be opened to release water as water levels rose alarmingly.

As flood waters inundated roads, homes and buildings in towns and villages across the state, people had to be evacuated in large numbers. People marooned in homes surrounded by water were rescued in mammoth rescue operations led by the state government, with the help of the central forces.

In Kuttanad, a major rice-growing region which lies mostly below sea level, about 250,000 people were evacuated in three days.

As of Wednesday, August 22, more than 1.2 million people were staying in 3,314 relief camps in the state.

The numbers have been coming down in the subsequent days as people have started returning to their homes, most of which have been damaged by the savage floods.

Some 5.4 million people have been directly affected by the floods and 373 people have died as a result of rain havoc since the end of May.

The rescue and relief mission has been widely hailed as one of the best in the history of such operations in India. The resoluteness and efficiency displayed by the Keralan government, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has come in for widespread praise.

The state government’s preparations to confront the exigencies of the impending flood began in July. The people were alerted about the rising water levels in the dams, and those whose homes were certain to be submerged if dam waters were released were evacuated. Blockages downstream were cleared. The rains from August 8 onwards were, however, much beyond all predictions of the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

But the people of Kerala rose up to the occasion to confront the challenge head on. The state government mobilised its entire machinery, with top civil servants, ministers and local governments having been entrusted with responsibilities in July itself. However, the scale of the challenge was such that the generous help of the central forces were needed.

This is where the CPI(M)-led government had to battle the intense cynicism and hostility of the BJP-led government at the centre. The number of armed forces and equipment that the central government sent to Kerala turned out to be much less than promised, and hence grossly inadequate.

The state government asked for 5,000 soldiers, 100 helicopters and 650 motor boats for the rescue operations, while the centre allotted just 400 soldiers, 20 helicopters and 30 boats.

This is where the ingenuity and power of the mass movements of Kerala came into the picture. Kerala is the state in India with the best human development indicators, and the left-wing mass organisations of Kerala and the communist-led governments they brought to power are credited with its achievements in fields such as education and health.

The very same mass organisations—student and youth organisations, trade unions and so on—mobilised their members and supporters to organise relief missions.

So did a large number of other political organisations and civil society groups. Massive numbers of young people plunged into rescue work with all their might, as volunteers in control rooms at 14 district administration headquarters and in flooded places across the state.

Thousands of Keralites within Kerala and across the globe, using internet and phone networks, collected information and GPS co-ordinates about people stranded in different places and passed on the information to the control rooms and rescue teams in the state.

Perhaps the most crucial role was played by the fishermen who joined the rescue mission with their fishing boats.

Thousands of them, many of them mobilised by trade unions, came in from the southern districts into the flooded regions, with more than 600 boats.

They waded into the waters even late at night, when everybody else had returned from the rescue operations. It is estimated that the bulk of those who were rescued — as much as 60 per cent in Kuttanad for instance — were evacuated by fishermen.

The state government has undertaken to repair their damaged boats, and instructed local governments to give them a grand welcome when they come home.

Considering the extensive losses suffered in the deluge, the state government has asked people all over the world to contribute generously to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF).

The mass organisations and the youth who were involved in rescue work are now enthusiastically involved in running relief camps, and in collecting, transporting and organising relief material.

While help has been pouring in from across the globe, the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS — the BJP’s parent organisation and street wing) and other RSS-affiliated organisations have been going on an extensive campaign to scuttle the relief efforts.

Not only did Delhi refuse to send sufficient number of central forces for rescue operations, it also has been reluctant to allot funds for relief and rebuilding.

The centre has so far only sanctioned six billion rupees (£67 million) as aid to Kerala, while the losses are provisionally estimated to be more than 200bn rupees (£2.2bn).

As if the antagonism of the centre is not sufficient, the RSS-BJP has been actively spreading fake news to undermine the efforts of the state government and the people.

One video circulated by the RSS’s social media handles involved a man in army uniform claiming that Pinarayi Vijayan was not allowing the army to work in flood relief operations.

Following this, the army itself came out with a clarification, stating that the man in the video was an imposter spreading disinformation about the rescue and relief efforts.

The RSS-BJP has also been actively campaigning to discourage people from donating to the CMDRF. In a viral audio clip circulated by RSS networks, Suresh Kochattil, a member of the BJP’s IT cell, claimed that the flood-affected people in Kerala are rich.

He sought to spread misinformation about fund utilisation from the CMDRF, and asked people to donate to an organisation called Sewa Bharati instead.

Unsurprisingly, Sewa Bharati happens to be an RSS-affiliated organisation, involved in spreading hatred, in religious-sectarian riots and even in child trafficking.

The people of Kerala, led by their communist government, remain unbowed by such malicious attacks.

They are determined to rebuild their battered homes, lives and livelihoods.

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