EPW Editorial


The humanitarian response to Kerala’s calamity has risen above blame games.


The recent tragedy in Kerala seems to have evoked public responses at three levels. At the first and basic level, it evoked a spontaneous humanitarian response from several segments of society, which transcended regional and national boundaries. Responses at this level seem to have been unmediated by any prior calculations or instrumental factors. The humanitarian aid that continues to flow into Kerala both from within the country and abroad, particularly from the non-governmental organisations, has been quite phenomenal. These acts have transcended all the defined boundaries, and demonstrated how our common humanity mattered more, leading to the mobilisation of resources from different corners of the country and the world, evoked by human emotions. This first level of response has acquired a form that is morally pure on three counts. First, it is devoid of any blame-gaming. Second, it encapsulated a moral narrative of individuals and groups who had volunteered to donate their personal assets in solidarity, to mitigate, to even some extent, the devastating consequences of the ravaging floods. Finally, the moral initiative does not wait for any particular direction or guidance as it happens quite instinctively, without any delay.


But, this is not the case with the response which occurs at the second level and begins with relentless criticism of the handling of the situation, this time targeting the Kerala government that is caught in the vortex of the disaster. As the case of Kerala shows, this response was led predominantly by two kinds of critics: environmentalists, and stakeholders in Kerala’s polity and economy. The environmentalists have sought to criticise the successive governments for failing to heed the warning that was given to the former from time to time. But, the politics of the Kerala model of development and the remittances-fuelled development of a large consumer and housing market along with the “growth” fetish led to the dismissal of the timely cautions by these experts, both from within Kerala and outside. Similar warnings had been given to different governments that, in the recent times, have faced calamities of flood, but these have almost been reduced to a development ritual, inasmuch as they are noted and kept aside, if not thrown into the dustbin. Thus, the politics of development which is driven by instrumental reasons tends to overrule the warnings and cautions, only at the cost of inviting devastating consequences for humanity. Thus, the second-level response, unlike the first, is not emotionally spontaneous and involves the force of scientific truth, and hence morally empowers the experts to fix the responsibility not on nature, but on human self-interests and the public institutions that protect those interests.


But, the stakeholders in Kerala’s economy have concerns about the devastating impact of the calamity on the economy, its productive sectors, and the demand for goods and services. It has been voiced by the economists that the calamity has implications for the banking and insurance sectors with exposure to Kerala, the tourism and housing sectors, and, of course, the agriculture and primary producing sectors, apart from traditional industries. While the preliminary estimates of damage are put at ?20,000 crore, the Kerala government expects it to go well beyond these initial estimates as the damage is yet to be systematically assessed. The tourism sector, estimated at ?30,000 crore, which accounts for 10% of Kerala’s gross state value added and employs around 1.4 million people, has been severely affected. The consumption demand for both durables as well as non-durables is expected to drastically fall in the short term, especially during the current Onam season. It has adversely affected the demand for automotive sales during the festival season as well. Thus, these set of responses are also related to instrumental reasons wherein costs and livelihood losses are involved and needed to be ascertained.


At the third level, the response understandably was a bit delayed, but was articulated neither on scientific nor instrumental grounds, but through causes mediated by a supernatural force. This was evident in the responses by right-wing politicians and their supporters who were eager but unable to attack the Kerala government, and who seem to have chosen to attack it by making a cunning move of offering a problematic response that sought to put the blame squarely on the government for the latter’s efforts to make the entry of women in Sabarimala temple possible. But, this mediation of reason is different from the one that was offered by M K Gandhi in the tragic context of the Nepal–Bihar earthquake in 1934. Gandhi did attribute the earthquake to the god who punished Bihar’s upper castes, who committed the sin of practising untouchability against a vast number of fellow human beings. Unlike the right-wing reading of Kerala’s disaster, Gandhi, through god, sought to fix social responsibility on human beings who, according to him, failed to treat a large number of people as fellow human beings. In the present case of the right-wing reading of Kerala floods, god is invoked rather deviously, as a mediator, not for holding human beings responsible for the latter’s failure to practise equality, but to perpetuate gender inequality in the practice of worship.


However, going beyond, over and above these three levels of responses and reactions, the post-disaster relief and rescue operations by the administrative machinery and the state officials, along with the valiant rescue efforts carried out by army, navy, air force, national defence and rescue forces, and the teams of medical doctors both from the state and other parts of the country, has been commendable. The expertise of the fishing community and their noble-minded attempts to rescue the affected people was quite admirable, if not inspirational. In the event of the devastating tragedy that gripped most parts of rural and urban Kerala, the people of Kerala have risen over superficial boundaries, and have demonstrated their tenacity, grit and, unity in spirit to tide over a common tragedy that has engulfed them.

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