Open Letter to the Prime Minister on the Catastrophic Floods across Kerala and Kodagu

From,

NATIONAL ALLIANCE OF PEOPLE’S MOVEMENTS

To,

Shri Narendra Modi,
Prime Minister,
New Delhi,

Dear Prime Minister,

We the undersigned, on behalf of National Alliance of People’s movements and numerous others alliances, networks, organizations and concerned citizens, academics, activists are writing to you with utmost anguish regarding the catastrophic floods all across Kerala and parts of southern Karnataka, that have completely thrown the lives of millions of people out of gear and shaken the socio-economic cycle of these areas, particularly Kerala.

As is already known, the devastating floods triggered by a combination of heavy rainfall and opening up of gates of multiple over-flowing dams, has left 13, out of 14 districts in Kerala in disarray. As per available figures, at least 370 people have been confirmed dead and a whopping 12 lakh people are in more than 1,500 relief camps, having lost almost everything and requiring various forms of necessities to restart their lives from scratch. Thousands of houses have been completely damaged. While those in the high ranges and forest areas have been affected by landslides and landslips, people in the low lying areas of all the districts have faced flood submergence.

As a matter of fact, the state received a record rainfall of over 2,344 mm from June this year which led to 34 of the 39 dams in the state opening their shutters flooding the entire state. The state has also been reeling under landslides, which further accentuated the disaster. According to preliminary estimates the state government faces losses worth 4,441 crores (of the total 20,000 crore loss) on account of roads being destroyed alone, with at least 220 bridges being damaged and 59 of them are still under water, making transport and communication with some of the worst affected regions very difficult.

Although water levels are considerably receding, the impact of the flood is massive and would take very long for the state to reach some semblance of normalcy. Due to the rains and landslides, there has been severe damage to houses, businesses, schools, banks, markets, hospitals as well as other public institutions and essential infrastructure like roads, bridges, power and communication lines. There has been a colossal impact on the agriculture, with upto 40,000 hectares of farmland destroyed especially rice and plantations such as cardamom and pepper. Additionally, loss of livelihoods and huge death of livestock has caused immense suffering. The adivasis villages and hamlets, especially in districts like Wayanad and Attappady (Palakkad) have been affected very badly. Relief workers and volunteers from the ground have been sending repeated appeals that there is severe scarcity of food grains, eatables and essentials.

Despite the magnitude of the disaster across Kerala, unprecedented in the past century, the central government has till date, not taken adequate measures, recognizing the monumental scale of this calamity and has not pumped inadequate support required on the ground, be it in terms of deployment of relief personnel or funds. Infact, at the height of the floods, a couple of days back, the nation watched with utter shock and helplessness, as elected MLAs went viral requesting for more helicopters, choppers and rescue personnel to save the stranded people. The humungous task of relief has been possible largely due to an agile political leadership at the state level and joint ownership of the crisis situation by leaders from different political affiliations, the bureaucracy, the army, navy, air force, common citizens of the country and most importantly the courageous fisher folk, who saved the lives of thousands of people, putting their own lives at risk.

While we do appreciate and welcome the spirit of federal friendship that has led about 23 states across India to contribute a little above 200 crores, what is most disturbing and plain unacceptable is that the Centre, which must assume utmost responsibility in such a situation, released a paltry 100 crores initially and only after hue and cry from various quarters about the insufficiency of this amount vis-à-vis, the scale of disaster, promised an additional 500 crores, which is also meager. This nonchalant approach is a classic case of too little, too late.

While the total estimated loss the state of Kerala has incurred amounts upto 20,000 crores and Kerala requested the Centre to provide at least 2,000 crores as interim relief to cope with this calamity, it is shocking to say the least that barely 25% of the interim relief and a paltry 3% of the overall loss value has been provided by the Centre, as grant. This has indeed led many people to question the differential and partisan treatment being meted out to the state, that too in times of such distress. The true constitutional spirit of our federal structure lies in the responsibility of the Centre to treat all states with equity and such partisan approaches are markers of a great disservice to the Constitution, on which you have taken oath. As citizens of this country, may we ask, why the Central government which has spent upto 4,000 crores for the Kumbh Mela, 3,900 crores for the Sardar Patel statute and 4,800 crores on publicity has totally misplaced its priorities in allocating resources to the State of Kerala at this juncture when floods have wrecked havoc in the state?

It is indeed a matter of national shame for all of us that while the UAE Govt. promptly announced a 700 crore support package, our own national government’s grant falls short of that! Is this the ‘Desh Bhakti’ that is being honked into people’s lives everyday in so many depressing ways? The empathy that such a situation should garner is evidently absent and quite visible to the entire nation, not just the people of Kerala. We are extremely dejected to note that the Centre is not willing to accept the offer of 700 crores from the UAE, as a mark of goodwill solidarity for the people of Kerala who have contributed immensely to that country’s economy.

The Centre’s position, claimed to be based on a 14-year old policy of ‘non-acceptance of foreign government aid’ can always have an exemption in crisis situations, as specifically provided for in Clause 9.2 of the National Disaster Management Plan issued in May, 2016 by the Govt. of India (your government, to be specific). This clause allows the Central Govt. to use its discretion to accept ‘goodwill support by foreign governments during disasters’ and we strongly assert that this discretionary power must be used with utmost accountability and fairness, in the interest of the people of Kerala and in consultation with the State Govt, and not in an arbitrary manner. Both the Chief Minister and the leader of the Opposition in Kerala have requested for this money to be allowed and you are expected to take a prompt and positive decision on the same. Likewise, India also needs to make a formal appeal with the United Nations for humanitarian aid in this situation, since the loss of 20,000 crores incurred by Kerala is massive and all avenues need to be explored.

We have also been noting with concern multiple ways in which the Centre’s role during relief work has affected the situation on the ground. Firstly, it was reported that huge quantities of relief that came from abroad were piling up at the Customs for a couple of days, as import tax had not yet been exempted for these consignments. It required a specific appeal from Kerala to Govt. of India, for an exemption notification to be issued. Before one could heave a sigh of relief on this, we then came across news of the Centre’s stipulation to Kerala to pay back Rs 233 crores for the 89,540 MT rice, failing which the same amount would be deducted from relief fund promised. Although Mr. Ram Vilas Paswan, the Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution has ‘assured’ that such a deduction shall not be made, there is still some concern and lack of clarity on this front, as to whether this ‘assurance’ is only a temporary respite. This is further affirmed by the fact the letter issued by the Ministry regarding payment for rice is not officially withdrawn, yet.

What has kept the people of Kerala afloat amidst all this crisis of nature and the State, is the spirit of volunteerism from Ministers to ordinary citizens, youth and the heroic fisher folk who rescued people’s lives, becoming an example in disaster management, globally. The overwhelming support pouring in from other states and non-state actors both nationally and globally also provided limited financial and unlimited moral succor. As of today, the state is in its last phase of rescue operations, eve as another intense phase of challenges including attending to needs of lakhs of people in relief camps, health crisis, shifting of people back to permanent settlements etc. looms large.

However, while thousands of people were involved selflessly in the rescue work and frantic appeals from all over were being made to support the relief activities, certain persons associated with the BJP and Sangh Parivar have been trying to shamefully discredit these efforts and mislead people, particularly through spiteful social media campaigns. At a time when people were drowning and starving, this is the height of inhumanity and your silence on this, like on many other things, is not anymore surprising.

As you must be aware, Kodagu (Coorg) in Karnataka has also faced terrible devastation, with valleys becoming rivers and farm plantations, houses being washed away, resulting in severe distress to the farmers and farm labour. While according to the Chief Minister’s statement, at least 12 persons have died and over 4,320 rescued, activists working on the ground inform us that anywhere upto 10,000 people are affected. In terms of infrastructural losses, at least 845 houses have been damaged, 123 km of road, 58 bridges, 278 government buildings and 3,800 electric poles have been affected. While the state government has tried to pitch in and provide some relief, as the Centre you need to increase the relief fund support to this region as well, so that it restores itself to some normalcy within a few months.

As people suffer in Kerala and southern Karnataka, we think that, as the Prime Minister of this country, you must step in to declare this as an unprecedented disaster and in the true spirit of federalism, promptly provide all help necessary to address the immediate as well as subsequent needs of the flood-affected peoples.

While relief and rehabilitation at this point is an issue of utmost priority and our focus must be to do all that is required to restore normalcy, stability and security to people’s lives and livelihoods, we would be failing in our duty as people’s organizations and concerned citizens if we don’t draw attention to the deeper causes that are complicating and leading to such disasters. Our empathies are very much with the people of the state and the government which is facing a very serious challenge of Himalayan proportions, particularly with inadequate support from the Centre, which we hope will change.

While nature has unleashed her fury in all her might, the same has been compounded by the pursuit of a debilitating development model, over decades, that has accentuated the crisis. Infact, India is becoming a nation of recurring water-disasters, be it in Uttarakhand, Assam, Bihar, Chennai, Mumbai and elsewhere and a lot of this also has to do with the development paradigm being imposed by a neo-liberal state, regardless of the party-in-power and unsettling the ecological balance in a given area. Taking the immediate example of Kerala itself, where the implications of filling up of 27 dams within a couple of weeks and releasing the same due to torrential rains, to prevent dam-breakage was not adequately considered, we witness that risk assessments are not factored into the planning and development of these projects, as a matter of priority. Our water governance models, thus require a radical review.

It must not be ignored that Kerala and Karnataka, situated in the fragile Western Ghats region can only take in so much of stress in terms of interference with the natural ecosystem. Quite recently, studies by the scientists from Indian Institute of Science (IISc) have also attributed the repeated landslides and flash floods in Kodagu to large-scale destruction of natural vegetation in the name of ‘development’ in the last four decades. Sadly, vegetation cover of over 50% four decades ago has come down to 18 % in recent years in the region.

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests constituted the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, led by Scientist Madhav Gadgil in 2010. The Panel pointed out many serious concerns such as premature siltation of reservoirs in the Western Ghats states, especially those in the steep valleys, due to massive encroachment and deforestation of catchment areas, quarrying etc. Amongst other things, the Committee recommended that the entire Western Ghats, spread over six states, including Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa be declared ecologically sensitive, Governments impose a ban on certain new industrial and mining activities in the area and called for strict regulation of many other “developmental” works in consultation with local communities and gram panchayats.

It was indeed an unfortunate situation that the Gadgil Committee report was sidelined and contested by both by the Centre and the concerned States. The K. Kasturirangan Committee, which was subsequently constituted by MoEF & CC to “examine” the Gadgil Committee Report in a ‘holistic and multidisciplinary’ manner in its Report of 2013, severely diluted the recommendations of the Gadgil Committee, effectively suggesting that only a third of the Western Ghats be identified as being ecologically sensitive. We understand that while there are certain reservations about the Gadgil Committee Report, the significance and relevance of the same needs to be certainly revisited in the light of the recent floods.

We wish to make it clear though that it would be inappropriate to place the entire onus for the current state of affairs on the people, particularly the marginalized sections, since this a ‘development model’ that the political-bureaucratic-business interests, across states and political affiliations, have imposed on the citizenry, with very limited choices for the latter. Besides, there has been a general reluctance by
successive governments to implement environmental laws and in many instances, active violations have gone unchallenged and unaddressed.

India is highly vulnerable to climate change because of high physical exposure to climate related disasters (65% is drought prone, 12% is flood prone, 8% susceptible to cyclones). The Kerala State Action Plan on Climate Change identifies Allapuzha, Palakkad as well as the hilly districts of Wayanad and Idukki as Climate Change hotspots that will be most impacted by Climate disasters. A quick scan of the current situation in the state shows that the predictions based on the degree of climate sensitive sectors, tribal population, impact on life livelihoods and biodiversity etc clearly point towards these worst affected districts of Kerala.

Whether in the Western Ghats or Eastern Ghats, the coastal or forested areas or Himalayas and river basins, across the country, decentralised development planning is crucial and central to sustain the ecology as well as the economy of the communities residing in or dependent on these. It is from this angle that the governance models being adopted by the Centre and states, across country and across parties, needs a serious review, within the constitutional framework. We think that preserving the ecology and sustaining people’s livelihoods and access to resources are deeply intertwined and public policy must be crafted and implemented in ways that sustain both of these ends.

As NAPM and other people’s organizations, we fully stand with the people of Kerala and Karnataka in this time of extreme crisis and distress. Considering the extent of devastation; economic as well as livelihood-loss faced by the people, we call upon the Central government to:

1. Declare the situation in Kerala a severe and grave national situation requiring immediate as well as long-term holistic interventions.

2. Allocate the Rs. 2,000 crores interim relief requested by the Govt. of Kerala to speed up the relief operations at the earliest and additional financial resources as required by the State.

3. Fairly Implement Section 9.2 of the National Disaster Management Plan to permit the goodwill support of 700 crores by the UAE Govt. as well as support by Thailand, Japan and other nations.

4. Allocate appropriate relief to the Govt. of Karnataka, as requested for providing necessary support to flood-victims in Kodagu.

5. Provide requisite resources to enable rebuilding of roads, bridges and other necessary public infrastructure in both the states, in keeping with ecological concerns.

6. Provide appropriate technological and technical expertise to help restore communications throughout the state as well as support for hiring additional relief workers, vehicles etc to speed up the relief process.

7. Provide adequate sustenance support to the farmers, workers, fisherpeople and forest-dependent communities who have lost their livelihoods due to the calamity, including waiver of agricultural loans.

8. Formally Appeal to the United Nations to grant humanitarian aid to Kerala.

9. Ensure that ‘disaster-management’ is carried out not in a top-down, infrastructure-intensive manner, but in a decentralized way, responsive, participatory to the local needs and ecological concerns of the affected areas.

10. Ensure Particular attention be paid to the rights and concerns of marginalized sections including Dalits, Adivasis, women, children, elderly, disabled and transgender persons in the relief and rehabilitation works, ensuring fair access to relief and non-discrimination.

We also urge you to ensure, through the Union Environment Ministry, proper implementation of environmental laws in order to protect the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats and seriously consider the recommendations issued by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, 2010 by inviting and involving multi-disciplinary experts, scientists, sociologists, environmentalists,
diverse people’s organizations and Save Western Ghats Movement, representatives of farmers and workers organizations and representatives of all political parties, through a series of public interactions and hearings that could evolve into an action plan to conserve the ecology and people’s economy in the Western Ghats.

We look forward to answers and actions from you and your Government on this humanitarian issue of gigantic proportions and full co-operation to the Governments of Kerala and Karnataka.

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