Disasters as narratives tend to follow a predictable grid. They begin with a moment of scandal or crisis, move to limited period of action, and slowly fade into indifference. People get tired of consuming disasters and move on. Policy echoes the usual clichés and fades away, only the victim continues to struggle fighting to recover her sense of citizenship. But disasters as narrative clichés eluded the Kerala floods of 2018.
Leading from the front
The Kerala flood has been huge in scale and almost unprecedented. One has to go back to 1924 to think of a flood of a similar scale. Yet this is one disaster that has avoided exaggeration. A wise observer, in fact, said, “This is a flood that has avoided sentimentality. The response is realistic and pragmatic. Citizens have moved into action and yet they knew the limits of aid and relief.” Central to this, in style and leadership, is the role of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who has been a hands-on administrator. Interestingly, he has set a style emphasising concern with no self-denial, a clear-cut statement of the scale of the problem and the long-range effort required to address it.
Mr. Vijayan has no time for blame games or electoral politics. His even-tempered handling of the Centre and the southern States reflects a maturing of leadership. By avoiding nitpicking, he has brought a new maturity to the discourse on floods. There are no blame games but he is clear about the chain of responsibility. He has signalled that his concern is with people first, regardless of ideology or religion. He has made sure that relief is not parochialised or seen through a party lens. He might be of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), but he has convincingly acted as the Chief Minister of Kerala. All the malignant rumours spread by the right wing asking people to deny aid to Kerala as it helps missionaries leave him cold. He is clear about focus and priority, clear that this is not the time for electoral bickering or factional politics.
The very style of Mr. Vijayan’s presence has opened up the discourse. The debate now is not a short-run narrative about relief, but a larger discussion on the flood as a metaphor for Kerala’s development. People are listening to each other. One saw it when Madhav Gadgil, our leading ecologist, argued that heroism is not enough. The Kerala flood has to be read also as a man-made disaster. It could not be dismissed as originating in excess rain.
Mr. Gadgil, people realised, was raising a set of long-range questions about the nature of Kerala’s development which both the CPI(M) and the Congress have been party to. The general response was open-ended because the audience realised that he was not arguing for his report. What he was looking at is the mitigation of future suffering. Politics and science met to create this mutual responsibility for the future.
The power of the narrative is that timelines were established, and timelines also defined the nature of responsibility. The quality of the debate, in fact, borrowed from the tenor of the response of the people. Kerala responded with dignity and courage. Over a million people went to temporary camps, realising that their houses had been destroyed or damaged.
A social solidarity
The responses, especially of older people, added to the dignity of the discourse. Kerala did not behave like a victim population. It insisted on agency and created the ground for citizenship. Keralites outside the State responded immediately; and between the style of governance and the spirit of voluntarism, Kerala created a social solidarity which was almost unique. People owned up to each other and voluntarism added a powerful sense of competence and sympathy. It is this exemplary notion of citizenship that set the contours of the debate. The survivor and the victim insisted that they are citizens, and this elaboration of citizenship in disaster situations makes Kerala an exemplar of a democratic imagination. Suffering found a language beyond the political economy, but suffering also found a long-range locus in ecology and development. The flood became not an act of god or nature, but a social event to be analysed sociologically.
Even if the Centre responds locally and parochially, the Government of Kerala realised that in the long run, floods not only challenge the democratic imagination but ask us to reconsider the future of federation. When there were suggestions from West Asia of a grant beyond the Centre’s dreams, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime at the Centre refused. The question was whether old dreams of statist autonomy could be questioned or does foreign aid still carry that touch of stigma. Sadly, the BJP goes ecstatic over NRIs in Silicon Valley but understands little of their role in the political economies of the Gulf states.
But more than state, what was renewed was a sense of the social. There was a recognition that the floods have erased the Kerala of the last phase. A new society has to be invented to replace the old. The standard disaster narrative of rescue, relief, rehabilitation is yielding to rescue, relief, reconstruction. Mr. Vijayan is clear that a new Kerala reflecting on ecology and development has to be invented. The old resilience has to be backed by a new infrastructural sustainability. As Mr. Vijayan himself said, during the 1924 flood there was one dam, “while today there are a total of 82 dams, including 42 major ones”. New forms of control and sustainability have to be invented. Behind it there was a sense that governments must use disasters as moments of paradigmatic change. To build infrastructure of the kind Kerala need will take at least two decades. A flood becomes an initiation to rethink democracy and governance, reconnecting it to issues of environment, culture and livelihood.
Yet there are issues still to be worked out. Mr. Gadgil is right. One needs an ecological insight both as a moral and economic imagination. Nature has to be rethought as an act of trusteeship. Its force and fury have to be understood. A survivor was cited as claiming that the river has reclaimed its lost self. Maybe it is time Kerala, which combines traditional and global in creative ways, rethinks its lost ecological self beyond consumption and the amnesia of development.
Learning to remember
Finally, one has to emphasise the biggest danger, one of the greatest faults of the old model of disasters. For all their scale and the scandals of new ideas they raise, disasters as policy memory are forgotten too easily. Old lessons are never learnt and new ones also forgotten. A disaster as a narrative must possess the quality of storytelling. Like a fable it must be repeated again and again, retold and rethought. The storyteller and the policy-maker must weave a new tapestry where the floods renew and rebuild a new Kerala. Talk of suffering has be translated into new models of justice. One hopes Kerala creates new panchayats of the mind to work on this problem.
Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination