Kerala pulls off a near impossible task, but work is only half- done

This is one crisis that tested the quality of the State’s political leadership and the government

August 20, 2018 12:09 am | Updated 03:18 pm IST - THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

Not everything went right. There were huge slips. There were also those hours of despair and helplessness. But Kerala stood firm, braving the swirling waters and the heavy odds germane to an unprecedented catastrophe, to pull off a near-impossible rescue and relief operation spread over almost its entire stretch.

This was one crisis that tested the quality of the State's political leadership and the government, particularly Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, proved that it and he were up to the challenge, mobilising the entire State administrative machinery, commandeering the might of the Indian armed forces and welding that into the largely volunteer-driven rescue and relief effort, saving over 22,000 persons from the jaws of peril and moving 7.24 lakh flood-ravaged people, a large number of them the young and the aged, to safety within five days.

The full magnitude of the crisis took a while to register in the public mind as is evident from the videos now in circulation about families that refused to move out of their double-storeyed homes, confident that the waters would not catch up with them at that height. With the waters of Periyar, Pamba, Chalakkudy, and many others rising by the minute, their confidence gave way to anxiety and soon to desperation.

Soon, all social media platform began to be jammed by distress calls from the kin of those caught in the worst flood in Kerala's history and one that dredged up memories of the great flood of 1924.

Single-minded effort

One striking feature of the nerve-wracking exercise for everyone involved was the absence of mud-slinging, particularly between the political leaderships at the Centre and in the State.

The Chief Minister was in daily communication with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitaraman, and all three showed that politics could wait in the face of a calamity of gargantuan dimensions. At a time when Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala was speaking critically of the State government's refusal to hand over the entire operation to the Army, the Prime Minister and Home Minister were openly appreciative of the work being done in the State, and liberal with their release of resources to meet the immediate needs.

This was the biggest rescue operation carried out by the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). The mobilisation by the Army, Navy and Air Force were equally massive and appropriate to the situation.

The Army mobilised as many as 15 columns of its personnel, 36 Engineering Technical Force (ETF) groups, 12 medical teams and one Special Forces team; the Navy moved in with 223 rescue and four medical teams; the Air Force deployed 11 Mi-17, eight ALH and six Chetak helicopters, four C-17, three IL-76, six C-130 and 10 AN 32 aircraft with men and material; and the Coast Guard chipped in with 36 DRTs, 36 boats, 11 non-motorised boats, 21 hired boats and one Dornier and two Chetak helicopters. But for the presence of the armed forces personnel and their collaterals, the rescue operations would not have been so quick.

However, the ones who stole the hearts of the marooned people and everybody else were the fishers, particularly those from Kollam, who donated themselves to the cause of rescuing their fellow beings from the rising waters. Taking the cue, fishers from Thiruvananthapuram and other parts of the State too rushed to Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta, Ernakulam and Thrissur to save precious lives.

The distressing events of the last seven days also saw volunteerism at its inspiring best with young and old, men and women, and those in the media, plunging into the rescue and relief work and many from outside the State, and abroad, sending in money and material to help the flood-hit thousands.

But the work is only half done. What awaits Kerala is a humongous task of rebuilding lives and infrastructure, both public and private. What awaits the State is a major healthcare challenge, the prevention of disease outbreaks in the flood-hit districts, restoration of water supply and power infrastructure, reconstruction of roads and bridges, the losses on account of which alone has been tentatively estimated at ₹4,441 crore.

The Chief Minister has postponed his visit to the US for treatment to see completion of the still unfinished rescue and relief work and set the reconstruction work in motion. And, then will come the long-term questions about the State's developmental priorities, its habitation patterns and the way it wishes to treat its forests, hills and water courses.

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