I VOLUNTEER, THEREFORE I AM
The devastating floods are over and the areas affected are crawling back to life though normalcy is still far off for those traumatized by the shocking suddenness of the way their lives and livelihood transformed overnight. The silver lining was the exemplary display of concern showed by millions of ordinary Keralites for those affected by the flood which translated into an extraordinarily well-orchestrated relief and rescue operation.
The striking and remarkable feature was that there was nobody really coordinating the efforts but a virtual command and control center appeared to be held in position by the completely voluntary efforts of the ordinary citizen —students, voluntary organisations, NGOs, entrepreneurs, housewives, and just about every man on the street. The spontaneity of the voluntary efforts of the common man aided by the widespread use of the internet and social media perhaps holds clues to how to harness the power of the citizenry.
Having said that, it’s equally intriguing that as soon as the immediate and large-scale need for relief was over, the virtual command and control mechanism disappeared as quickly as it was created. The ongoing relief initiatives follow the traditional path with the Government and a few NGOsplaying central roles and the ordinary citizen, who did extraordinary things, going back to doing ordinary things, which is not, however, to belittle the anonymity of civic action or consciousness.
Unfortunately, it’s also back to the government who must do this or that with blame games playing out thick and fast between political parties on whether the floods were a result of poor management or simply nature’s fury. The extraordinary citizens’ movement which lasted ten days or so has faded away though the individuals who participated still carry with them the feeling of having done something very noble and feel better as human beings.
I, like many, who were part of several self-organised groups can’t rationalist how so many who hardly knew each other came together to form an efficient logistics chain that took care of buying food materials, distributed cooking, packing, coordinating between demand and supply, and delivering food and other materials by trucks, boats, and helicopters.
All resources used were voluntarily contributed by ordinary citizens while cooks, packers, drivers, and delivery staff took over transport and logistics. And the power of the internet and social media made the network of individuals and groups totally interconnected in real time. When I asked some of those involved what made them work up to 20 hours a day with just a few hours of sleep, they would say that they would not be able to sleep peacefully for the rest of their lives if they didn’t do what they did!
THE KERALA PROJECT
Rebuilding Kerala is a slogan which has found wide resonance in India and abroad. We hear of the large contributions from businessmen, fraternal state governments, and even from foreign governments and citizens to the Chief Minister’s fund even as various bilateral and multilateral agencies have promised funds to rebuild Kerala’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and electrical supply lines which were destroyed or damaged in the flood.
There is growing realisation that we should not just restore mechanically whatever was destroyed or damaged. Does this destruction provide an opportunity to plan more scientifically?
ENERGY & POWER MANAGEMENT
Is there a case for distributed energy systems not linked to the grid for those locations which were earlier connected by physical lines?
The lines have been destroyed or severely damaged; many transformers and substations have been damaged beyond repair. Should we make a quick estimate of the costs involved and see if instead of repair and restoration many of the locations could be provided with distributed energy systems, especially in remote locations. If there is need for extra funds to bridge the gap between the repair and replacement costs of the existing infrastructure, the government can find funds as either grants or loans with little or no interest to fund the installation of distributed generation systems, which could be a combination of solar with batteries or hybrid versions in combination with wind and biomass/bio-gas/bio-oils. Before the memory of the floods and landslides disappears from memory, the Government must find a way to engage with its citizens and sell the concept of distributed energy that can survive any such future calamity and ensure people have control over their own energy needs.
Garbage collection is one area where voluntary participation is the key to efficient and cost-effective collection and a disposal system co-owned by the citizens who produce the garbage. Can the disposal system be a power plant conforming to all pollution norms? It’s more likely that pollution norms will be adhered to if the citizens who produce the garbage are also the same ones who breathe the gases produced in the power plant. Can the energy produced be used by the citizens who produced the garbage, own the power plant? Then the virtuous cycle is closed and we would have done least damage to society.
Energy optimisation to commuting within the city would ultimately require the citizens to participate voluntarily in helping themselves to lead a safe and healthy life in the city. Perhaps the Government can consider an EV (Electrical Vehicle) policy with a pilot roll-out in Cochin City, for example, where vehicular pollution is the highest. This can be combined with a heavy tax on large vehicles, especially those which run on diesel. All public transport can run on gas as in Delhi since there is an LNG terminal with a large unused capacity in Cochin.
Keralites would like to walk but barely have safe pavements to start with. Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL) has shown the way by using robust techniques to prepare better curate pavements. Can this be raised to the next level? Can we have elevated walkways with escalators to reach busy junctions? Many cities in Europe have people completing up to 60 percent of their intra-city journey by foot! Meanwhile, KMRL also built roads of high standards along its rail route, an example worthy of emulation for civic agencies and contractors.
It’s clear that such initiatives require a strong and sustainable sense of voluntarism of the type that was displayed during the flood. For example, the Cochin Smart City Project, if executed to near-global standards, can be a model for the country to adopt if voluntary participation is fostered in a scientific manner.