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Kerala slowly picks up pieces after devastating floods

One way to understand the scale of devastation that Kerala has faced is to look at the numbers.

india Updated: Sep 30, 2018 07:35 IST
Dhamini Ratnam
Dhamini Ratnam
Hindustan Times, Pathanamthitta
kerala floods,kerala disaster relief,sabarimala
Pathanamthitta, India – September 05, 2018: Thankamma, a 68-year-old cancer patient at Attathodu village in Ranni Block of Pathanamthitta District of Kerala, India on Wednesday, September 05, 2018. (HT Photo)

Thankamma needs to get to Kottayam. Since the floods hit in August, the 68-year-old who lives in Pathanamthitta district’s Sabarimala forest reserve area has not been able to visit the Kottayam Medical College, where she has been receiving esophageal cancer treatment for the past few years. Thankamma, who is from a scheduled caste community, has lived all her life by the Pampa river. None of Thankamma’s children—four sons and a daughter—scattered across Pallakad, Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram, were able to send her the bus fare, as their daily wage work came to a standstill.

One way to understand the scale of devastation that Kerala has faced is to look at the numbers. Around 10,000 km of highways have been destroyed because of the floods and landslides that affected the state in August. Over 45,000 hectare of farmland have been damaged. As per the revenue ministry, 11,000 houses have been wrecked, and 111,000 houses partially damaged. The state announced monetary rehabilitation: Rs 10 lakh loan to re-launch small and medium scale businesses; a Rs 1 lakh interest-free loan to buy household items. More than a million people were displaced by the floods; over 400 died and the state announced Rs 4 lakh ex-gratia compensation to their families.

The Kerala State Electricity Board estimates the loss to its infrastructure to be Rs 350 crore, and its revenue loss to be Rs 470 crore. The Public Works Department estimates a loss of Rs 5,000 crore based on the damage caused to roads and bridges. The tourism ministry, whose revenue in 2017 was 10% of the state’s GDP, estimates a loss of Rs 1,000 crore worth of business till December due to cancellations. An initial assessment by the state pegs the damage at Rs 19,512 crore, said chief secretary Tom Jose. The state has asked the centre for Rs 6,000 crore, needed just for repair work. However, the centre has only extended Rs 600 crore. On September 15, state finance minister Thomas Isaac tweeted that the centre “would hardly foot the bill.”

“One is revenue expenditure, which includes repair and maintenance of houses, roads, support for livelihood, various types of compensation to be made to people and relief work. There is no way we can raise much revenue because GST has taken (away) our right to tax. The central government is not giving money. So how do we meet this? We’re telling central government, give us National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), so that takes care of livelihood. Still we will require Rs 6,000 crore. (Part of this) we are trying to raise from people. That’s why we are asking employees to give one month’s salary. We are also appealing to Malyalees outside (the country),” the minister told HT. The Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) hopes to raise Rs 50,000 crore, which will go into infrastructure projects such as industrial parks and coastal roads. The state also plans to borrow from the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank—the amount will be determined after the two institutions complete their rapid damage need assessment.

In the aftermath of the floods, a ‘Rebuild Kerala’ vision has found centerstage as experts, politicians and Malayalees around the world weigh in on what this should entail. Everyone HT met—ministers, bureaucrats, residents alike—spoke of three main things this entails: sustainable construction, such as rainwater harvesting; a serious re-look at management of the state’s 35 big dams whose untimely opening worsened the flood situation (according to a 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General of India report, disaster management plans had not been made for any of the state’s 61 dams till 2016); and a greater consciousness regarding land use, especially as Kerala has moved to being a cash crop-rich state. Concerns were also raised regarding the decreasing water levels in rivers after the floods, and the need to rehabilitate river basins that have been encroached by construction, or sand-mined.

“We have to look at areas which are flood prone and landslide prone and ensure that legal measures are put in place so that no building or construction activity takes place. We need to identify land in a safe zone for the landless. This is being done by the local self-government agencies,” said Jose.

First things first, though

The supply of drinking water and electricity is mostly restored. As of 11 September, only 120 camps with 4,778 persons were still in operation (at the height of the floods, over 1.4 million people were living in over 3,000 camps); in most affected districts like Alappuzha, Ernakulum and Pathanamthitta, cleaning work entailed removing slush from homes as well as medicating water in wells, which is where 70% of the state gets its drinking water from. As a short-term measure, Rs 10,000 was given to all families residing in camps—a total of 450,000 families.

One of them was Shailaja, a 50-year-old tea stall owner on the Mannarkulanji Pampa road, which runs alongside the meandering Pampa in Pathanamthitta district. The need of the hour, she says, is a toilet. The roof over her mother’s house, which shares a wall with the tea stall, caved in when the Pampa was in spate. Her mother, a 96-year-old cancer patient, is too frail to walk to the neighbour’s house, a short distance away on the snaking mountain road, to use their toilet. As a result, her health is worsening, and Shailaja is trying to do all she can to maintain hygiene inspite of limited resources—the only cleaning liquid in her shop is a fast depleting bottle of dettol—and even less money. Shailaja says that she has spoken to the Perunad village officer who came for inspection to assess damage in the area. “He said they will do their best to get this done. But he didn’t give me any timeline of when this will happen.”

Meanwhile, multiple assessments are underway: The local self government bodies have begun to use an application, to which taluk engineers are adding photographs of flood damaged areas. Once these are geo-tagged, a database of more accurate information will be available. The water resources ministry is undertaking a flood mapping project with the help of the Kerala Water Authority.

The Indian Institute of Architects is assessing the damage caused to and by the Pampa river, particularly in Aranmula area of Pathanamthitta district. The United Nations Development Project is also in the process of conducting a study.

The Centre for Water Resources Development and Management has been assigned the task of studying fall in water levels, changes in groundwater and land cracks. Preliminary research shows that river bed erosion due to the floods—1.1m in some places such as in Poonoor Puzha river in Kozhikode—deepening of river beds due to mining, and accumulation of debris and clay, has resulted in a worrying decrease of water levels in the rivers said VP Dinesan, senior principal scientist and head of the geomatics division of the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management .

As the state returns to normal, healthcare is an important concern. Kerala has had one of the best health indices in the country because of a higher standard of living, and affordable healthcare. For instance, all government hospitals, including the Kottayam Medical College that Thanknamma visits, offer free cancer treatment under the state’s Sukrutham scheme. This year’s budget allocated Rs 1,685.70 crore for the Plan for Public Health Services. However, the floods have placed additional demand on the state.

In some areas, hospitals were either submerged, or had fallen down. For instance, the 125-year-old Chalakudy Taluk Hospital in Thrissur district, which caters to over 300,000 people in the area, suffered a loss of over ?10 crore. Several hospitals in the worst affected districts of Pathanamthitta, Ernakulam, Thrissur and Alappuzha, had to evacuate their patients, and cancel critical surgeries. In August, the Union health ministry approved a grant of ?18.71 crore under the National Health Mission to be disbursed across villages.

While the state established temporary hospitals and took the help of private clinics and non-government organisations to stock up on medicine, equipment like CT Scans or X-Ray machines, and offer free medical aid in relief camps, their work is far from over.

Soon after the flood waters began to recede, cases of Leptospirosis were reported, particularly from Alappuzha and Ernakulam districts. Between 3 and 13 September—according to the National Centre for Disease Control’s district-wise daily report—there was a 344% rise in confirmed cases. Seventy eight suspected cases have emerged and 22 people have died in this period. Till 18 September, over 30,000 new cases of acute diahorreal diseases and 194,000 cases of fever have also been reported. Then there’s the concern of livelihood: Thankamma’s bus fare to receive chemotherapy depends on her sons receiving daily wage work.

According to the state finance minister, NREGS will benefit rehabilitation efforts as much as it will help the poor get back on their feet. But for those working in the diary and agricultural sectors, such as in Alappuzha district, which is a rice-growing region, or even the migrant workers who were working in the plantations in Wayanad and Idduki, the loss of livelihood demands an ecologically sound response, and fast—the Northeast monsoon begins next month.

First Published: Sep 30, 2018 07:10 IST