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October 01, 2018 Monday 06:37:47 PM IST


Rajagiri Round Table

In the wake of the cataclysmic floods and rains in Kerala, the state is now looking to help rebuild the thousands of homes that were devastated and rehabilitate close to a million people who were displaced in the process. Initial estimates say the state might require anywhere between Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 50,000 crores to rebuild itself in a meaningful and substantive manner.

 In the five days beginning August 15, close to 200,000 people were evacuated from their homes. By the evening of August 20, there were 10,28,073 people staying in 32,734 camps across the state, out of which were more than 100,000 children under the age of 12. Officially, close to 400 people died in the catastrophe.

 Tens of thousands of homes were either swept away, partially destroyed, or rendered uninhabitable. Some reports say close to 35,000 kms of roads were damaged while over 40,000 hectares of farmland, including those growing tea, rubber, and other commodities, were submerged.

 What, however, gets overlooked is the psychological trauma that people experience during such cataclysmic events. This calls for special focus and attention. Children, in particular, who have lost their homes, books, and a sense of security will need special care.

 At the 40th Rajagiri Round Table, on 12 September 2018 at the Board Room of the Rajagiri School of Engineering & Technology, Rajagiri, Kochi, discussants looked at the Way Forward in rebuilding and rehabilitating a state that was devastated in such an unprecedented manner.

 Dr. Anil Joseph, Managing Director, Geo Structurals Pvt Ltd, Kochi: Disaster management need to begin with prevention although it must be noted that the rescue efforts carried out by the state, the armed forces, and civil society were nothing short of miraculously brilliant. The disaster was, however, a man-made blunder, despite grave warnings from experts. So, preparedness was one of the key issues at stake here. Few really know what to do under such circumstances. As a matter of fact, we do not have a mechanism to put in place a course of action to prevent such calamities, such as assessing the safety of buildings and structures, mock drills, and an evacuation plan. This disaster was the story of a generation.

 Dr. Sanju George, Senior Consultant, Psychiatry, Rajagiri Hospital, Kochi: Broadly speaking, what was observed was a set of normal reactions to an abnormal situation. We are a resilient community. What was, however, worrying was a lack of awareness of the psychological impact of the acute trauma in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. As a coherent structure, we were found wanting. In fact, very few admit that there was a psychological issue in the first place. There was in a sense a resigned acceptance. This is, therefore, an opportunity for us to think about the question of mental health in all its ramifications, especially given the fact that it’s the old and the young who are particularly vulnerable.

Dr. D. Dhanuraj, Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi: The key issue, the challenge here is that we are not scientific in temperament, a direct consequence of how our education is structured. From the public policy perspective, the government, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, managed itself fairly well for the first two weeks. As we speak, it now seems to be drifting. Politically and culturally, now is the time for us to rethink radically every aspect of civil society and its management. When we talk about rebuilding Kerala, we have an immediate problem at hand: the state has a debt of Rs. 2,00,000 crore debt! It is a tipping point in the welfare statist idea. We have had a revenue loss of nearly Rs. 20,000 crores whereas the loss of livelihoods is beyond calculation. On the other hand, we are not prepared to give up obsolete policies. We should also give up the paternalistic state philosophy and allow for market forces to facilitate development.

 Dr. J.T. Verghese, Chairman, STEAG Energy Services India: Rebuilding Kerala is an opportune moment to look at risks and opportunities. What is the opportunity? It is one of rebuilding afresh, anew in the light of a new perspective, balancing development and conservation, designing an anticipatory disaster management plan, and putting in place a highly organised and efficient infrastructure development plan. During the crisis, people lost access to power that vital lifeline. So, we should have a sustainable off-grid power management system. What, however, came to the fore during the crisis was Kerala’s spontaneity quotient, a decidedly strong sense of interconnectedness, aided and abetted by technology.

 Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran, Professor of Engineering and Director Rajagiri Media: The recent crisis also threw into relief the dramatic progression in climate change. In fact, it has become all-pervasive. Any mode of re-development and rebuilding needs to necessarily consider the question of climate change. Although the extraordinary rains may have been a one-off phenomenon in a long cycle of climatic cycle, we need to be aware that the periodicities of such unusual activities could become far shorter. Any mode of development, therefore, ought to be responsive to the fundamental impulses of nature.

 Sruti Lakshmee, Playback Singer: The disaster threw up heart-wrenching challenges that no policymaker could have anticipated. When I was called to relief camps in Paravoor and Varappuzha (north of Ernakulam), which were among the worst hit by the floods, little did I know what was in store for me. Women had had no undergarments and were, in fact, sharing them! Such was the starkness of truth. I was called to a camp at around 12 midnight to sing so that the hapless women and men could have some relief, I also witnessed the tremendous resilience that people showed under such terrible circumstances. We need more art in our schools and colleges, where today there is hardly any. The next generation could even be deprived of art!

 Dhanya Bhaskaran, Consultant & Teacher Trainer: From the perspective of education, we realised that we had no evacuation plan for schools whatsoever. It comes down to that most fundamental want: scientific temper. Paradoxically, our science teachers practise the opposite. We barely teach our students and teachers what to do during a disaster. So, we are completely at sea where it matters most — in the crucible of education. We also need in place a social audit without bias to ensure the right thing go to the right people, especially in times of such extreme disasters.

 Ajay Kumar C, Final Year Student, Computer Sciences, Rajagiri School of Engineering & Technology: Ironically, after the first few days into the disaster, matters of faith came into play at some of the relief camps. As I went about organising relief work along with my fellow students I was faced with an existential question: Why did I step out to help? I had no answer. At one of the camps, a lady demanded a particular brand of biscuit for her child; a teacher, of all people, asked me if I had brushed my teeth because I wasn’t smelling good; another person asked for the caste of an Army man who had come to help! That was the underside of that great humanitarian crisis, of course, the exception rather than the rule. But we must be warned: once the event is past, people think it’s all over and done with. We need to be connected to our community, to our history, to our past experiences. Disaster management is never taught in school as it should be. Today, more than ever, more than charity, what we need to do is to rebuild our souls! Little else matters.