COVER STORY

Hope floats

Kerala expects the rebuilding process to be an opportunity to revitalise the economy

PTI8_11_2018_000092B Measured steps: Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan visiting flood-hit regions in Wayanad district | PTI

NEVER LET A serious crisis go to waste’’ is a quote attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli. Malayalis may or may not be familiar with it, but that is exactly what they are doing. Faced with an unprecedented deluge, which devoured district after district and took hundreds of lives, Kerala has pulled off the near impossible.

Well, almost.

Not everything was perfect. In fact, there were moments of helplessness and despair. But the rescue and relief operations that the state carried out in the past few days could well be a chapter in the history of disaster management.

The job is only half done. As Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who has been a reassuring presence during the crisis, said, rebuilding Kerala would be a herculean task. Yet, the state remains optimistic. Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac said funds would not be an issue, as secular, egalitarian minds would help. “From individual donors to foreign countries to big industrial houses, all are willing to support us. We will raise money through the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board as well,’’ Isaac told THE WEEK.

According to him, Kerala would require at least Rs 25,000 crore for rebuilding. He said the state had approached the Union government for permission to levy a cess to raise money and had sought an exemption on the goods and services tax. The state also plans to raise certain taxes. Isaac said the rebuilding process would generate lakhs of employment opportunities.

With rescue operations almost completed, the government plans to close the 3,274 relief camps across the state, and send 10,28,000 people staying there back to their homes. “Ensuring their return to their homes is our top priority. It will bring back the much needed normalcy in their lives,’’ said P.H. Kurian, additional chief secretary in charge of revenue and disaster management. He said local self-government institutions (LSGs) would take up the task of cleaning up massive quantities of solid waste left behind by the receding waters. “The fact that we have one of the best functioning LSGs in the country will be a great boon at this time.”

T.K. Jose, secretary of the LSG department, said local self-government institutions played a crucial role in the relief efforts. “We could face this catastrophe this efficiently only because of the strength of our local political leadership. They will continue to play a crucial role in rebuilding as well,’’ he said.

The catastrophe has brought out the best of the much hyped Kerala model. “Our cooperatives, our unions, our matured political systems, our public health system, our empowered public, all have helped us survive the crisis,’’ said Lawrence Harold, managing director of Matsyafed (Kerala State Cooperative Federation for Fisheries Development). Harold took the lead in mobilising fishermen from the southern districts for rescue operations. He said Matsyafed would set up a permanent rapid action force of 200 members, which could be used in similar situations.

Even as Kerala is basking in the glory of having pulled off a near impossible task, the lessons it learnt have not been lost on its leaders. “We may have survived the flood, but the lessons that it has taught us are not to be forgotten,’’ said Isaac. “One should not take nature for granted. If we build convention centres and hotels on river basins, these things are bound to happen. The government will ensure that the water carrying capacity of the river basins is strengthened,’’ he said. Kurian, too, agreed that Kerala should correct its wanton ways of construction. “There has to be a whole new approach towards building houses. Priority to verticals would be one of them,’’ he said.

Sekhar L. Kuriakose, member-secretary of the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority, said a practical land use policy that accounted for the hazards that the state faced, was the need of the hour. “Also, we have to put an end to the quarry blasting in red zones,’’ he said. “It is our collective responsibility to see to it that Kerala does not face a similar situation ever again.’’