Kera nirakalaadum oru haritha charu theeram puzhayoram kalamelam kavitha padum theeram… These famous lyrics capture the beauty of Kerala, of its green shores where the coconut trees sway on the river banks teeming with birds, and mouth the poetry in the cool moist breeze, sung by its backwater waves.
However, for nearly a week in August, neither were the shores of Kerala rendering poems nor were the backwaters singing songs. As the God’s Own Country, ravaged with torrential rains and floods unseen in the last 100 years, counts its losses—over 350 precious lives, a million people displaced and an initial estimated damage of $3 billion—Keralites remain shocked at how its waters unleashed its full fury on them.
As the floods recede, stories of sacrifice, courage and humanity continue to ring loud—of the state administration, of our army, navy and air force and of our central agencies, of hospital staff and engineers and firemen, of the volunteer groups and of individuals—working round the clock to support the state at its most pressing hour of need. And Keralites found God’s own army in the form of its fisherfolk—over 1,500 of them with 500 boats, ferrying thousands to safety from inaccessible terrains. For many Keralites like myself, cut off from dear and near ones as the state’s electricity and cellular network went down, nothing but gratitude fills our minds and hearts, for these selfless sacrifices. A big thank you!
The road to recovery will be long and arduous. But, as they say, never waste a crisis. Some of the best developments the world has seen have been in the aftermath of a disaster—London after the plague and fire in 1665-66, Chicago after the fire of 1871, Tokyo after the War and earthquake in 1945, and Bhuj after the earthquake in 2001.
This is the state’s opportunity to reimagine a new Keralam. There is a fine balancing act between moving quickly and rebuilding, versus stepping back and holistically planning for a sustainable future that incorporates the voices of all sections of society. Often, reconstruction successes after large disasters are evaluated in terms of the number of houses built and kilometres of roads reconstructed. Kerala’s yardstick for reconstruction should encompass long-term sustainability measures rather than merely tracking the pace at which it can rebuild its damaged hard infrastructure. Experiences from the past have shown that public sentiment will back a big ticket response to a natural disaster. Crisis situations create windows of opportunity to make tough decisions, particularly around long-term systemic problems that, in ‘normal’ times, would be politically infeasible.
Three big areas stand out—planning, development models, and financing and risk management.
There are interesting lessons to learn from how others have planned their reconstruction efforts. The 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia saw wide-scale community participation in the reconstruction process. For Kerala, which has deeply entrenched democratic systems down to the lowest tier of the government, this is a golden opportunity to drive greater community participation in deciding what to build, where and how, especially in the more vulnerable areas of the Western Ghats. Aligning recovery management around community engagement will, no doubt, be slower than top-down reconstruction, but could augur better for its long-term sustainability goals. In doing so, Keralites must redefine how the state plans to ‘live with water’ especially through better land use planning, much like the Dutch did after the devastating floods that hit the Netherlands in 1953. From deliberately designing public spaces to flood and growing potatoes in areas affected by seawater incursion, the Dutch have mastered the art of living with water.
When it comes to development, this is the state that put India on the global map for its education and healthcare programmes beating many of the most developed nations in the world in literacy and health indicators. But what got Kerala here may not be good enough to get it to the next stage of its development trajectory.
Kerala’s nearly 600-km coastline may well hold the key to what a new development paradigm for the state could look like. The last few decades have seen a reliance on a remittance-based model. While there is every reason to build on it and further bolster economic bridges especially with the Gulf countries, a maritime-based model where the coastal areas serve as economic hotspots driving the tourism industry with best-in-class maritime transportation network needs to be considered. This, in conjunction with widely acknowledged but historically difficult to implement recommendations on safeguarding the Western Ghats, may well be the gateway to Kerala’s future. Grenada, an island nation in the Caribbean also known as ‘Spice Isle’ for its spice exports, became the first country to outline a vision for a ‘blue economy’ with plans to build infrastructure focused on fisheries, aquaculture, blue tech and tourism. Grenada’s blue economy vision took shape after it was devastated by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
And with it, comes the task of developing an economic model that looks beyond GDP numbers and one that factors in overall well-being indicators. For a state with one of the highest suicide rates at 22 for every 100,000 population, some of the Scandinavian examples of growth with well-being need to be studied for its applicability to Kerala.
As Kerala outlines a new path, finding the finances to back a new vision will be one of Kerala’s biggest challenges. Ensuring the timely recovery of the private sector, especially the small and medium enterprises, and bringing back investor confidence will be key. When businesses have been slow to recover, people have struggled to recoup. Also worth considering is the need for a catastrophe insurance programme to better manage the risk of a similar calamity in the future.
With Onam celebrations cancelled for the first time in Kerala’s recorded history, keeping the morale of people high and building confidence about their future will be crucial. Having a voice in shaping their own destiny may be a good start—a quick win could be to set up a platform to solicit public feedback, especially from people who directly contributed to the relief operations who would have insight into what could be done in future relief operations as well as in reconstruction. Dedicating August 16-17 for annual remembrance of the tragedy and a rallying cry to the people of the state to continue to stay united in joy and sorrow may be looked into. Also worth considering would be to play host to global mega events. A global tourism event or trade show in Chengannur or a film festival or a sporting event in Chalakudy will do much to lift the spirit of the people, boost the local economy, bring back investor confidence, and drive the inflow of tourists from across the globe.
If the experiences and stories from the relief operations are anything to go by, Keralites will quickly rise and find their version of learning to live better with water. We are God’s Own Country and will always be.
By Ranesh R Nair, Management and public policy consultant E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal