The Indian Monsoons are infamous for their unpredictability — while sometimes they bring destructive downpour, other times they disappoint with their absence and/or intermittent appearance. It goes without saying that the agricultural landscape of the country heavily relies on the monsoons, to irrigate specific seasonal crops. Further, ground water tables are replenished, rivers are recharged, and the sweltering summer recedes to provide relief.
Flooding is another phenomenon that has plagued the inadequate municipal facilities of the nation. The image of people wading through several feet of water is familiar in the rhetoric of the Indian media, and adds to the chaotic spectacle of the Monsoon. However, the catastrophic floods in Kerala during the past week have far surpassed the expected stock of mishaps concerning the onslaught of rain.
The reasons behind the Kerala floods have been attributed to three major factors. First, Kerala has been at the receiving end of the deterioration of its wetlands due to the undue pressure put on the Western Ghats. Second, the urbanisation of several areas has resulted in heightened construction of buildings, increased use of chemical fertilisers, excessive building of roads — all without a corresponding and adequate drainage system. Third, the rains were almost three times the average precipitation received in the coastal areas, and warnings about filling of reservoirs were not responded to. Finally, not enough time was given by the state’s disaster management authorities before intimating the residents of the dam openings, even though 35 out of the 39 dams opened after the water level breached maximum capacity, thereby wreaking havoc in the downstream areas. That said, flooding also occurred in areas that didn’t have dams, a result of the excessive rainfall unseen the great floods of 1924.
Centre to blame for the Mullaperiyar dam glitch
Among the barrage of issues that have surfaced due to the floods, the Chief Ministers of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, were found to exchange aggressive letters regarding the appropriate water levels that need to be maintained for the operation of the common Mullaperiyar dam. The dam was one among the 35 dams that were opened for the first time in the state, and consequently created an unmanageable situation owing to the monumental release of water.
The Supreme Court addressed the issue of the dam by ordering the limit to be at a 142 feet. However, water management experts have urged that Kerala’s requisite 139 feet is advisable in the backdrop of the high-level rainfall. Senior Advocate Harish Salve has criticised the judgment for its being categorised as being an “inter-state water dispute”, arguing that the dam’s location in Kerala grants only the state to enact laws dealing with the dam. Salve claimed, “merely because the State of Tamil Nadu is a lessee of a land and the owner of the dam, a dispute relating to the implications of a Kerala law in relation to the dam does not become a dispute between the States.” A case like this reveals not only the Court’s ineptness in the way it dealt with the matter, but also the Centre’s convenient distance from the same as an additive to the current crises in Kerala.
This perhaps begs the need for Parliament to create an institution to assess water-sharing, riverine and connected conflicts, and facilitate the establishment of tribunals to address the same. In a study addressing the need for fiscal federalism, economist Nirvikar Singh has asserted that matters concerning inter-state river waters involve both Central and State responsibilities. Reports have indicated that further, the Centre’s proposed Dam Safety Bill, 2018, aimed to mitigate the surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of dams would have majorly helped in the mitigation of the disaster in Kerala.
Centre’s inadequate cooperation
As the waters overwhelmed the coastal state of Kerala, pictures and round-the-clock updates on social media plugged somewhat the gaping hole in the coverage by the so-called “national media”, which looked the other way until #KeralaFloods became international headline, and landed on the front pages of Euro-American and West Asian newspapers. Contributions to the Chief Minister Distress Relief Fund, created by Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan with accessible account details, have been pouring in from citizens across the country, private NGOs and bodies involved in relief work are holding collection drives all across the country for essential items, medicines, toiletries, and non-perishable foods among other things. In addition to the contribution being made by individuals and members of civil society organisations, several States too have made financial contributions out of their own good will towards the CM’s Fund.
With regards to the primary demands for relief, CM Vijayan had stated the estimated loss to amount to approximately Rs. 20,000 crore in a communication to the Centre, and asked for a federal assistance of roughly Rs 2500 crores, barely ten per cent of the loss to the State economy. So far, Union has Home Minister Rajnath Singh declared a relief of Rs 100 crore, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an additional grant of Rs 500 crore — both grossly inadequate in the wake of the tremendous loss of life, livelihoods, damage to property and business, etc.
In addition, Centre has not yet categorised the Kerala floods as a “national disaster”, but has called it a “calamity of a severe nature”, although there are no particular rules to designate a calamity as one. Moreover, Centre has also displayed a lack of interest in accepting generous aids from Gulf countries with a substantial émigré Malayali population, such as the United Arab Emirates which pledged Rs 700 crore in aid, or Thailand, etc., thereby displaying a terrible shirking of federal responsibility towards an Indian state, and Indian citizens.
The instance of Kerala is one among a series of grievances pent up with the southern and non-BJP ruled states, which the BJP-led Centre has consistently neglected. The Prime Minister has built a reputation of either selectively addressing the occurrences of events, or veiling the same in ambiguous terms to essentially bypass or dilute the magnitude of a natural calamity and/or high-voltage crimes against women, marginalised communities, religious minorities, among others. PM Modi was severely criticised his delayed statement on the gruesome rapes of an 8-year-old in Kathua, and a 17-year-old in Unnao, when he said “the daughters of the nation will get justice”. His conflation of the issue as a national concern for women’s safety completely ignored the immediate politics of the case, i.e. the captivity of the Muslim girl in a Hindu temple, the place of incident as Kashmir, and the immoral defence of the accused by BJP MLAs.
Legal academic Mahendra Pal Singh, among several others, have noted that the nature of the Indian Constitution tilts in favour of centralisation, i.e. in the favour of the Union. The case of S R Bommai v. Union of India too has been relied upon to reach the conclusion that the federal principle favours a strong Centre. Efforts by the Sarkaria Commission in 1983, and the Punchhi Commission in 2010 did not recommend any drastic changes to the federal scheme — but the former, in fact does suggest adjustments in the administrative and functional relations between the Union and the States for maximum efficiency and effectiveness in the working of the two levels of government.
The real national disaster: Apathy, neglect and selectivity
It must be noted the Chennai floods of 2015 bear an uncanny resemblance to the current state of affairs in Kerala. In 2018, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India categorised the flooding as being a man-made disaster rather than a natural one, and held the Government of Tamil Nadu as responsible for the losses, i.e. the displacement of 18 lakh people, the death of 500, and the financial burdens amounted up to an estimate of Rs. 100,000 crores. The Prime Minister’s contribution to the same was again a fractional sum of Rs. 1000 crores.
Whereas the Union may truly be financially strained to provide the required remuneration in moments of crises, the Centre’s financial and administrative contribution has failed at multiple levels to adequately support the States that require the Union’s timely help not as a matter of obligation but as a right. Economic mismanagement notwithstanding, catastrophes like the one in Kerala are both the result of the inexorable forces of climate change at play, compounded by a raging incapacity to climate-proof the vast swathes reeling from the wrath of unchecked, and ultimately ecologically unsustainable development.