THE WEDNESDAY INTERVIEW | Interview

What the Centre has announced as initial aid is a good amount, says Pinarayi Vijayan

 

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was supposed to travel to the United States on August 19 for medical treatment, but he postponed the trip in the wake of the disastrous floods that hit the State in early August. Since then, Mr. Vijayan has been the face of Kerala’s fight back and recovery. In this interview in the State Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram before he eventually left for the U.S. on September 2, he said the government was working towards building a “better Kerala”, there is “no confusion” over the assistance offer from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and that his State has set an example in disaster management to the world. Excerpts:

While the focus in Kerala shifts to rehabilitation and reconstruction, what are the challenges your government faces?

The damage that the floods caused to the State’s infrastructure will set back the development of the whole State. The disaster struck us unexpectedly and caused enormous losses at a time when the government was moving forward with projects to develop the State’s infrastructure capacity. But the government’s aim is to move forward with a twin strategy — while the State must completely recover from the damage, we must adopt policies at the same time that will take it ahead in terms of development. We are humbled by the help that’s flowing in from within and outside the country. This has boosted our confidence and energy to move forward.

There are losses — of houses, appliances, domestic animals, trade and industry units. Public institutions like schools, hospitals and government offices have been damaged; the tourism sector has been impacted. There’s widespread environmental damage. Initial assessments suggest that the total loss would be greater than the size of the State’s annual plan [estimated at ₹29,150 crore]. But the challenge we face is, how do we rebuild Kerala? Every year there are landslips in the State that destroy several houses. But we build houses at the same locations again, which are only washed away in the next landslip. This has to change. Houses should be rebuilt in comparatively safer locations. We have to consider ecological issues, too, while rebuilding Kerala. The slogan we have put forward is not just ‘rehabilitation and reconstruction’, but ‘build a new Kerala’. We will build a better Kerala.

 

But where are you going to raise funds for such a drive?

It’s true that the most pressing problem is to find money. We have to raise funds from various sources. Primarily, those who love Kerala are making generous contributions. The Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund has already crossed ₹1,000 crore, and help keeps coming in. There’s an understanding among Keralites that they all should contribute to help the State recover from this disaster. The response we received for the suggestion that salaried people could give a month’s salary in instalments was encouraging. We are glad that even the Opposition parties welcomed the suggestion. Many individuals and organisations have already started making contributions. The Central government should also play a major role in helping the State. Besides, there are several international agencies that can come with assistance in such circumstances. With the help of all these people, government and agencies, we hope we can raise funds to rebuild Kerala better.

You just mentioned help from international agencies. What about help from foreign governments? The Centre has said that it will meet the requirements for relief and rehabilitation through domestic efforts.

When I said international agencies, I was referring to the United Nations and other institutions such as the World Bank. But in response to your question, when countries, institutions or individuals voluntarily come forward with help in the event of a natural disaster, we think such offers should not be rejected. Nations helping each other is common, and that’s happening around the world. According to the National Disaster Management Plan, brought out by the Central government in 2016, voluntary assistance from other countries can be accepted. So, our position is that the Central government should not say ‘no’ when such offers come.

Do you think the Centre’s initial financial assistance is enough? The State had demanded ₹2,000 crore in immediate relief, to which the Centre responded by releasing ₹600 crore.

Central aid never comes in one disbursal; it comes in phases. What the Centre has announced is only advance assistance, and it’s a good amount. When the Union Home Minister visited the State, he announced ₹100 crore. Later the Prime Minister announced ₹500 crore. That’s different from normal assistance, and it shows how supportive the Centre has been towards Kerala. The Centre had also sent soldiers and equipment which the State had requested during the rescue mission. We expect the government to take the same approach while announcing the final aid, after complete assessment of the losses. Also, as I said earlier, several international financial agencies and institutions have come up with offers of assistance. We are grateful to them. For such offers to materialise, there has to be a favourable approach from the Centre. The other day, a World Bank team visited Kerala. They held talks with officials, including the Chief Secretary. We got exciting responses from them. We also hope the Centre will allow the State to raise its borrowing limit.

There’s some confusion about the assistance offer from the UAE. You said on August 21 that it has offered financial assistance of $100 million (about ₹700 crore) to Kerala. But later, its Ambassador in Delhi, Ahmed Al Banna, said no final announcement had been made on any specific amount. What caused the confusion?

There’s no confusion. What if they offer more than ₹700 crore? When they say the amount is not final, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be giving any aid. So this is an issue between the Government of India and the Government of the UAE. This was discussed between the two leaders — the UAE President and the Indian Prime Minister. I had said earlier that what I had revealed was based on the information that I had got. It’s the NRI industrialist, Yusuff Ali, who informed us that the UAE was ready to give ₹700 crore in relief assistance. He said he was informed about it when he visited the UAE President to greet him on Id. We don’t have to disbelieve his words. So I don’t think there’s any room for controversy in the matter. If that information is wrong, who should say that? Those involved in the discussion should say, right? So, either the Prime Minister or the UAE President should do so. But neither of them has said what I said was wrong. So I still expect that the aid will be formally announced and the Government of India will be willing to accept it.

But the UAE Ambassador has already said that they haven’t taken a final decision on the amount...

In my understanding, he hasn’t denied that the UAE will be offering aid.

He hasn’t denied it, but he said no decision has been taken on the amount...

I have already spoken about it, haven’t I? When you say the amount hasn’t been decided, what if the final offer is more than the amount that I revealed? So you can take it in a positive sense. Why do you assume that it will be less than the said amount?

There is some criticism about dam management by the State government. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has said that poor management of dams caused the floods.

There’s nothing wrong in our dam management and such allegations are baseless. The kind of rains we received was extraordinary. The State government did not get any intimation from the Meteorological Department that there would be extreme precipitation in Kerala in August. We got extreme rains within a short span of time. That’s why there was a sharp rise in the water levels. The dams were opened after issuing all the necessary alerts. And it’s not just dam water that caused the floods. There are no dams in Achankovil, Manimala, and Chaliyar rivers. Water in Achankovil flooded Pandalam, Manimala flooded Thiruvalla, and Chaliyar flooded Nilambur. So, based on what logic is someone saying that the reason for the floods is the opening of reservoirs?

But most major dams in Kerala were almost full in July. Don’t you think the State would have been better equipped to deal with the floods had the reservoirs been opened in phases before the extreme rainfall in August? And given the tragedy, do you think the dam management rules should be changed?

The water flow in Periyar river fell by by 15% because we have dams. It’s a fact that all the dams were opened after issuing necessary warnings. And it’s also a fact that the weather forecasters could not forecast extreme precipitation. Therefore, the situation before August 9 did not demand that dams be opened. Between August 9 and 15, Kerala got 350 mm of rainfall, 255 mm in excess of last year. There are specific norms in managing dams. The government is strictly following them. At the same time, we expect improvement on two fronts. One, we should attain the technological capacity to predict phenomena such as cloudbursts. Two, dam coordination between the States should improve. Our understanding is that both the Central government and the Central Water Commission are of the same view about this.

Being the Chief Minister at a time when the State is facing such a crisis is a tough task. How do you assess the performance of your government in tackling the crisis?

We set an example to the whole world on how to deal with natural disasters. We managed to do it as the people of Kerala stood together, setting aside all differences. The administrative machinery functioned efficiently. And we got timely help from a host of people, from Central forces to the fisherfolk of the State. All this helped Kerala reduce the magnitude of the calamity.

If we move away from the subject, how do you look at the recent arrests of activists in the country? Also, do you see any possibility of a joint Opposition platform emerging ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with the CPI(M) being a part of it?

Didn’t the Supreme Court say that democratic protests are a safety valve in the system?

Anyway, as far as Kerala is concerned, our entire focus is now on rehabilitation and reconstruction activities. We better not step into other topics now.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 5:54:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/what-the-centre-has-announced-as-initial-aid-is-a-good-amount-pinarayi-vijayan/article24866087.ece

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