To sum up: Kerala neck deep in water; wondering why - and whither

Hapless men and women calling out from rooftops and through windows for rescue teams;  children crying for food;  women in labour close to being denied transfer to hospital, but finally transported there via godsend of boats;   humans stranded inside inundated homes dying tragic deaths;  rescue teams both civil, military, voluntary and official all joining hands to pull the cut-off people and deliver them to safety;  official machinery put on emergency gear all over the state; charity in cash and kind pouring in from within and outside the state;  mobile phones – the ones with battery charge left that is – working overtime in search of succour or missing dear ones; travellers stranded mid-way due to breakdown of rail and road transport, with little or no clothes to change caught off guard and making unexpected stay in hotels or with relatives.

That may summarise the frightening picture with massive floods and consequent damage that has hit Kerala so menacingly as not seen or remembered for decades.  The death toll is unprecedented,  the material damage is massive and the formidable nature of water hitting some areas is educative for people's mindset, habits and training,  in the midst of the colossal crisis.

News agencies reported on Saturday afternoon that death toll in the flood in the past eleven days touched 180.  On Friday came news of 15 deaths from a landslip near  Thrissur, central Kerala. Thirteen out of Kerala’s fourteen districts are in red alert.  Road and rail services are in disarray, and South and North Kerala are in truth cut off at places. Because of flooding on the runway, the two international airports in the state have been closed, and the one in Kochi is declared closed until 26th – as of now. 

Earlier on Friday, Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who heads the rescue the operation in virtual vanguard said, “the only good news is that rains have come down in certain areas of the state and we are planning to rescue all those who are waiting preferably by the end of this day”.  Rescue operations are well under way, despite the task at hand being enormous; more than a dozen helicopters, National Disaster Response Force ( NDRF), police personnel, and community volunteers, and general public work in tandem to fight the biggest tragedy Kerala ever faced.  According to the latest update by NDRC,  more than 4,000 people have been rescued from 44 flooded areas in nine days.  Fifty one of the total 53 teams of NDRC have been deployed, speaking for the ubiquity of the situation.  They used 339 motorised boats,  2,800 life jackets,  1,400 life buoys,  27 light towers and 1,000 raincoats.  In all they distributed 1,00,000 food packets and arranged for another 1,00,000 soon.   Provision has been made for supply of milk powder as well. The railways has provided 1,20,000 water bottles. Another 1,20,000 bottles are ready to be despatched.

Indeed, there was a let up in rains in some places on Friday and generally on Saturday and a slice of the sun began to peek out of clouds at some places.    Surging waters from Periyar River, originating from Western Ghats,  and its tributaries engulfed most of the low-lying areas and small towns in Ernakulum and Thrissur districts. The worst affected include Paravur (Kollam district), Kalady (east of Periyar river in Ernakulum district), Chalakudy (municipal town on Chalakudy River in Thrissur), Perumbavoor (Ernakulum), and Muvatupuzha (east of Kochi).

Until late in the evening on Friday, most areas of Aluva of Ernakulum district is under water. More than 2.23 lakh people are staying in 1,568 relief camps across the state.  People keep sending SOS video clips to TV channels, and call up alert-phone numbers.  One video clip reportedly called desperately for food for “150 people” stranded in Chalakudy. The disaster cut across all class and social strata. Over 50,000, according to news agency IANS, are  lodged in camps in Ernakulum and Thrissur alone.  Meanwhile thousands may still be waiting for rescuers in their high-rise apartments.  Helicopters started airlifting stranded ones. In one daring move, a pregnant woman was airlifted from a flooded place in Earnakulam, hours before she gave birth to a baby at a military hospital there.

There is a crippling shortage of food and dress, and basic amenities. The situation is beyond the tiny southern state’s squeaky machinery to tackle. District officials have been working round the clock to streamline relief works and alerting people about potential risks. Officials continue to go to interior villages on the flanks of flooding rivers alerting people with updates.

Situation in the north Kerala is relatively calm.  However, hill terrains suffered landslips, inundation and water logging,  prompting authorities to shift more than 20,000 people in the three districts  of Malapuram, Kozhikode and Wayanad to relief camps.

The heaviest rains that Kerala ever had since 1924 left what is touristically called God’s Own Country at the mercy of both nature and help from other states.  Crops and property roughly valued at more than 1,000 crore rupees have been damaged. This is more than the state can bear.  Authorities are yet to take stock of the number of houses that collapsed in the flood waters. There emerged video clippings of a sturdy new house cascading like dress from a clothesline. This could be one of  hundreds of houses to face the same fate.

In the beginning in June it was just a normal monsoon rain. Over the weeks, rains continued to gather momentum and began pounding the state.  By mid-August, situation spiralled out of control in hill terrains, and areas around dams.  Rains began to fall in floods, inundations, and waterlogging, throwing life out of gear, especially in Southern Kerala as well as hill stations in north Kerala. In what many old people termed "never-before-seen rains", whose cause is still being debated among academics, water gushed in to dams.  Water levels in those including Idukki dam, the biggest in Asia, stood at a few feet short of their full capacity.  Then there emerged news of deaths from landslips across all hill districts. 

Families sleeping in their homes had been wiped out in clean sweep overnight. Caked bodies were fished out of neck-deep dirt. On the other hand, flooding across low-lying lands put lives of thousands in disarray.  Many died in flooding waters.  The day after water level at Idukki dam reached 2,400 feet, just three feet short of its full capacity, all sluices were opened.  Following this, four shutters of Idamalayar dam in Kochi were opened.  More water from 22 dams that were opened,  started overwhelming the shores of many rivers,  making unwelcome entry into living rooms of houses.  People climbed rooftops, and called for rescue. Even upstairs were not safe.  Everything including valuables, books, government documents, medical reports, medicines, dresses, and utensils began to float in the water.

A lot of people, until recently better off, have next to nothing to eat or dress, except what they were wearing. The floods left houses in irreparable condition; stagnant water causes indoors to reek from toilet and gutter sewage.  It is yet to fully understand whether things would lead to some disease and outbreak.  Possibility of waste from toilets and gutter to seep into wells is very high.

Amid this widespread calamity, Madhav Gadgil, a Harvard-educated ecologist hailing from Pune dubbed the situation in Kerala as man-made.  He led a Commission formally known as Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP), later for short Gadgil Commission, which in August 31, 2011 submitted a report to the Government of India.  The Commission studied ecology of Western Ghats, an extensive region that make up ecologically sensitive hills and dales, and wetlands spanning over six states, 44 districts and 142 talukas. The Commission classified certain areas as “ecologically-sensitive zones”(ESZs). And most of calamities took place according reports in these areas.

Many environmentalists believe that the Commission’s recommendations, if implemented, could have helped assuage the situation.  The commission recommended strict restriction in some areas on mining, quarrying, construction of huge buildings, and use of land for non forest purposes. Speaking to media, Mr Gadgil blamed  "irresponsible environmental policy" as the cause of the current situation in Kerala.  A lot of environmentalists link extensive quarrying, reclamationn ofwetlands, and flattening of hills to the ongoing calamity.

Dr. VS Vijayan, a panelist with Gadgil commission, wrote in Madhyamam Daily that in 2007 there were 7,66,066 hectares wetlands, and what  is left of it today is just 1,65,486 hectares. Areas of backwaters in the state came down from 3,48,111 hectares to 40,826 hectares.  Wetlands absorb excessive rains, thus working as a natural mechanism to thwart floods.  “Had there been enough wetlands, the tragedy at this scale could have been averted " he wrote.  His views sound sensible given the situation today.  However,  when the Gadgil report was out,  sections whom many environmentalists dub “mafia” who run quarries and mining facilities, stirred up residents of the high range against the report, which almost nobody read at the time.  

In the face of mounting opposition, a committee led by Kasthurirangan was commissioned to examine the findings of the WGEEP report and to suggest alternatives wherever necessary – a ploy as it turned out, to placate the irate population and soften the steps. After his report was published, The Hindu in 2013 reported,  "The Kasthurirangan report has thrown open the ecologically sensitive areas of Western Ghats to mindless exploitation which would seriously hazard ecology, according to its critics".

Much water has flowed since, and is more so in the floods that lash Kerala today.  There is a general apathy in Kerala toward hills, dales, wetlands, and backwaters.  Mindless construction spree, land filling and encroachment of ecologically fragile areas continue unabated. Many view the latest calamities as the aftermath of these aggressions.  However, the poor, as everywhere, are the worst victims of floods, and landslips.  What they have garnered through hard work over the years has been wiped clean in a flash - stark realities for authorities to note and act.