The Challenge of Reconstruction

I thank the Chairperson of the Organizing Committee, Shri N. Ram and my friend Shri M.A. Baby for inviting me to inaugurate this important International Conference for Rebuilding a Resilient Kerala.

A philosopher might observe that nature is antinomian. How else can we explain that God’s Own Country has been devastated by forces that the orthodox among us would attribute to God and the rationalists to nature. It is perhaps not prudent to delve into Plato’s argument that God is good and can therefore be source of good only except for justifiable punishment that may emanate from God; so unjustifiable punishment must come from elsewhere.

The grim facts about the disaster that struck many parts of the State of Kerala are well known. Its details are heart rendering impact and consequences in human and material terms. About 500 lives were lost and by any standard, the destruction of 20,000 houses and 10,000 km of roads amounting in monetary terms to a burden of Rs 30,000 crores, is immense. Equally devastating is the impact on farmers whose crops have been destroyed; particularly damaging has been the losses in products like

rubber, paddy, cardamom and black pepper. Nor is the loss in service sector and tourism to be ignored.

By August 20 when the floods starting receding, nearly 12.5 lakh people were rescued through individual and group efforts and remarkably well coordinated work by the state machinery and the armed forces.

It is only a technicality of the law that depicts it as a disaster of serious nature – L3 – and not a ‘national calamity.’

Much has been said and written about nature’s fury. Some of it could have been anticipated. The ecological fragility of the Western Ghats, depicted as ‘biodiversity hotspot under a high degree of threat’ which extends up to the state of Kerala, has been intensively studied by experts who classify much of Kerala within one of the three ESZs or Ecologically Sensitive Zones. The 2011 Gadgil Committee Report generated some controversy. It was followed by the 2013 Kasturirangan Report which is said to have watered down the recommendations of the earlier report.

Other experts have opined that a flood by itself is a natural phenomenon and becomes a natural disaster only when ecological norms were ignored. This ongoing debate between ecology and environment on the one hand and human need and human greed on the other, along with comprehensive assessment of the human-environment relationship, does not seem to be heading for an early settlement.

These debates were overtaken by deluge of last August and added a sense of urgency to relief and rehabilitation. Yet, and while commending it, some hard questions are unavoidable. What was the human contribution to it? Did human habitation habits, construction of buildings in the path of the flow of water, contribute to it? Were any essentials rules or guidelines ignored in the construction and management of dams?

Today’s seminar is focused on, as the invitation letter to me put it, ‘medium-term and long-term rehabilitation and to the task of building a new and resilient Kerala’.

Sequentially speaking, therefore, it is important to know what was done in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. One newspaper seems to have summed it up by saying that the flood ‘is reinventing the spirit of social engagement and sacrifice in a society that has embraced the path of materialistic pursuit and crass commercialism with rare zeal in recent decades.’ The grim situation, it added, ‘opened up enormous human possibilities for collective, selfless action. Good Samaritans were there everywhere, saving victims from the jaws of death, setting up relief camps, and reaching food and clothes to those who found themselves homeless. Kerala reinvented itself.’

Allow me to dwell a little on ‘resilience’. It is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources

of stress. Psychological research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. It is thought and action that can be learnt or developed. Social support helps the process.

The people of Kerala have shown that they have this capacity under stress. The challenge now is to sustain it in the period of rehabilitation and reconstruction. The Hon’ble Chief Minister has spoken about it at some length and the task now is to shape it in practice on a continuous basis. His emphasis on restoring the livelihood people and of the small scare establishments along with other aspects of reconstruction was people-focused. His focus on mode of reconstruction and on environmental changes in the aftermath of the flood is timely and can be ignored at great peril in the future.

One of the themes for this conference relates to learning from the experience of other countries. Natural disasters are, regrettably, a fact of life and the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security has developed a World Risk Index in which India, along with many other countries, figures in the ‘high chance of disaster’ category. The risk of disaster gets aggravated if the societal backdrop is vulnerable.

Kerala is in the list of ten most flood prone regions of India and given this susceptibility, the question of coping and adaptive capacity assumes critical importance. Enough has been written about their immediate and remote causes; the critical questions however are these:

• How much of this analysis has gone into the operational and maintenance manuals of operatives at all levels of the state machinery?

• What lessons have been learnt at supervisory levels? Has a list of Do’s and Dont’s been made and updated in the light of this experience?

• Will the participants in this conference discuss candidly the mistakes made and lessons learnt?

The question of financing the reconstruction is of immense importance. The obvious sources are state government and Central allocations. The possibility of emergency funding from international institutions within accepted norms should be also explored. The public of Kerala responded magnanimously in the immediate aftermath of the crisis; this has to be sustained.

These are some of the questions that this conference will address. I congratulate the people of Kerala on their resilience and wish them success in their endeavour.
Thank you