- The people of Kerala missed an opportunity to introspect about the floods of August 2018, when the Sabarimala temple controversy erupted a month after the extreme weather event.
- The controversy was expected to help the Bharatiya Janata Party to strengthen their vote base for the national elections, but the National Democratic Alliance could not win a parliamentary seat from the state.
- With climate change, events such as the August 2018 floods could become more frequent, and thus learning lessons from past events can help in dealing with future ones.
The city of Chennai and the surrounding areas went through major floods in November-December 2015. The entire state of Kerala went through a similar event in August 2018. Both the events were almost like a once in a 100 years event. In Kerala, the last such severe floods was in 1924. Chennai had had many severe floods, but this was the worst in terms of intensity and damage to lives and property.
The Chennai event was a milestone, not just for the city and its surroundings, but even for other parts of the country. It was the first time when people innovated and developed impromptu methods of communication and mutual support. It was perhaps the earliest event where social media and digital communication was improvised and used effectively to deal with the situation.
For instance, from the time of Chennai floods more and more people have been turning to an amateur meteorologist Pradeep John’s social media posts, who goes by the name Tamil Nadu Weatherman, to know what their weather will be in the next days and even hours. John has a day job in a Tamil Nadu Government institution, and specialises in giving micro-level forecasts which are of more practical value to his readers than the week-long and generic forecasts from the India Meteorological Department.
Similarly, digital map maker Arun Ganesh teamed with a colleague and developed a street-level map of Chennai that incorporated crowd-sourced information about what roads are inundated, by how much, and where to find relief camps. The map went live on December 1, 2015. Not only were residents able to avoid the most dangerous flood zones, the city learned which areas were the first to flood and to what depth. Crowd-sourced flooding information was reported from 15,000 road segments, and in the two weeks of its launch, it had registered 1.2 million views.
There were many other such initiatives. Social media was used extensively to link those who needed to be rescued to official rescuers. Food was reached to who needed it the most. An IAS officer from Tamil Nadu, turned a governmental call centre in Bengaluru to coordinate relief calls. Young volunteers from Tamil Nadu working in Bengaluru’s information technology industry manned the call centre, so that they could communicate seamlessly in Tamil.
It was the Chennai model that Kerala adopted when it faced equally devastating floods in August 2018. Social media teams worked with district authorities and others to rescue and to reach relief material. Working together, Kerala overcame the crisis in as effective a manner it was possible under the circumstances.
However, the similarities between Chennai and Kerala ended with the crisis. While Chennai discussed the floods continuously for months in the public mind space, Kerala’s discussions were hijacked to a polarising discussion on whether women of menstruating age should enter the Sabarimala temple or not.
The Supreme Court judgement changed it all
Coming close on the heels of the floods, on September 28, 2018, the Supreme Court struck down the rule in the Sabarimala temple that disallowed women in the menstruating age between 10 and 50 years from entering the temple premises. The judgement created a social media controversy and conflict in Kerala that continued for months. It is only in February 2019 that the controversy eased out and the space was taken over by other discussions.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led the protests against the judgement and its feared implementation from the front. P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, the state leader of the BJP was reported to have called it a “golden opportunity” for the party. The aim was to use the issue to consolidate the vote base of the party in Kerala. The BJP had not yet sent a parliamentarian from the state, and it was only in the 2016 state assembly elections that it had got one seat.
However, the BJP’s campaigning did not result in a parliamentary seat this year. The increase in vote share of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) made in Kerala was 4.35 percent. It increased from 10.85 percent in 2014 to 15.20 percent in 2019 (12.9 percent for the BJP). Its highest vote share was in Thiruvananthapuram (31.3 percent), Pathanamthitta (28.97 percent) and Thrissur (28.2 percent). The NDA came second in only one of the 20 constituencies of the state.
For nearly five months, the Sabarimala issue dominated the public, media, policy and administrative mindscape in Kerala, and the NDA did not benefit enough in votes to show for it. On the other hand, the cost that state had to pay is that it missed the opportunity to discuss threadbare the lessons from the August 2018 floods and how to plan for a similar eventuality in the future. With protests and confrontation ever so often in the open, the administrative machinery spent time, money and energy that could have been used to reconstruct the state after the floods.
Why is truth and reconciliation necessary for building climate resilience?
There were two reasons that Kerala was badly hit during the floods. The last time that such an excessive rain happened was in 1924, nearly a century ago. There was no collective memory about the event. Two, Kerala had taken its ability to deal with high rainfall for granted. With an annual average of above 2,800 mm the state was used to rain falling copiously and the water flowing into the streams and rivers without an incident.
The once-in-a-century event found the state unprepared, and the cumulative flow of water from the rains and the opening of dams was more than what the natural drainage could handle. The prognosis from climate change analysis, like that from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Extreme Events (IPCC-SREX) and Assessment Report 5 (IPCC-AR5) is that the return time of such events will become lesser than 100 years. So the once in a century events like that of 2018 and 1924 may happen once in 30 or even 25 years.
To deal with future events, it is necessary to understand, analyse and introspect on the past events. Time is needed for that. In the immediate aftermath of an event, it is a blame game, with everybody accusing the other of omissions and commissions – “you did this” or “you didn’t do this on time” dominating the discussions.
It takes a few months for these discussions to mature into collective consensus and action plans. That is when the deeper questions get asked. What have we been doing to our environment so that it alternates between floods and drought frequently? Despite such heavy rains why did all the water bodies dry immediately after the floods? Was there a dam management process in place in August 2018? If no, what can be done to make it happen? Is there a crisis management plan, and how can lessons from 2018 make it more effective? Does the state know where it is going in terms of climate change? How effective is the state’s action plan on climate change?
The opportunity to discuss these questions was lost due to the Sabarimala dispute. Ironically, the temple itself is a hill shrine set inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Pathanamthitta district. With the Pampa river flowing close by the area was affected badly during the floods. The Pampa also flooded the midlands and coastal plains as it flowed towards the Arabian Sea.
The Sabarimala temple is located inside the ecologically-sensitive environment of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. The Pampa river downhill had flooded and caused problems during the floods. Map from Google.
Truth and reconciliation is not only a political process that helps a society clear out its hurt as it recovers from a history of turmoil, but it can also help a society to deal with the trauma of an extreme weather event. Lessons learnt with one event can be used to prevent some of the disastrous consequences in future events.
If Odisha could restrict the loss of lives during Cyclone Fani it was because of the lessons the state had learnt over repeated cyclonic events of the past. And this collective knowledge becomes an important component in developing climate resilience in a community. The non-formal information networks that the people of Chennai innovated during the floods were used again when two oil-tanker ships collided off the coast of Ennore in January 2017, and the civil society joined in to clean the oil that spilled on to the city coast.
Even as the election results were coming out on May 23, overcast skies over Kerala indicated that the southwest monsoon was not far away. As the final numbers came in by the evening, the “golden opportunity” was a non-starter politically, but it also signified a missed opportunity to have developed a framework for climate resilience in Kerala.
Banner image: A picture of the Peringalkuthu dam on Chalakudy river before the August 2018 floods. During the floods trees uprooted from the upstream forest flowed into the reservoir and jammed the shutters of the dam. It took months to be repaired exposing a critical vulnerability in the state’s disaster management readiness. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.