Kerala floods: Shame how we Indians politicised a national calamity and tragedy
But there are also stories that come in of ordinary people doing extraordinary things from all corners of the country.
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As weeks of wild weather smashed into the north-western Australian coast in February 2018, and record summer rains over 91mm left roads and animal parks flooded, it led to the unlikeliest of friendships in the animal kingdom. A photographer found various animals you normally wouldn’t see huddled together on the branches of trees, in the crevices of rocks, and wherever they could find a toehold.
Predators and prey overlooked their cross species differences and shared common space.
But human beings are the most wretched of all species.
Natural calamities know no political boundaries, and one would expect the dirge of collective grief and loss to penetrate deeper into the soul of humankind than the words of any religious tome ever written — and yet we find ways to hold aloft banners of intolerance even in our blackest misery.
As devastating floods inundated Kerala and thousands were stranded desperately waiting for help, fishermen loaded their boats onto trucks and voluntarily set off to the innermost towns and villages which were under more than 10 feet of water. CNN reported that fisherman Marion George (47) happened upon a house in Kollam where 17 members of a family were trapped. When he called out to them to get into his boat, he was asked if he was a Christian. When he said yes, he was, the family refused to get into his boat and asked him to leave. They were Brahmins, and despite the precarious condition they were in they would not go near George.
Brothers in arms: A man rescues a drowning man from a flooded area in the outskirts of Kochi on August 16. (Source: Reuters photo)
Five hours later when George came around to the same neighborhood again he saw the same family calling for help. However, this time they relented enough to say that the family would only come aboard if he didn’t touch them.
"This is how they behave normally. We thought they would have changed in this situation," said George.
This apparently was not an isolated incident. Several other fishermen have also reported that they were insulted by the very people they were trying to rescue.
Perhaps it was “always there” — to quote the favorite phrase of our times to normalise and paper over the worst horrors — but the Kerala floods that have taken a toll of 417 people, with over Rs 20,000 crore loss to the state and over 10 lakh people in rehabilitation camps, at the moment of writing this, has thrown up the worst faces of prejudice, hate, and bigotry, underscored our lack of humanity and shown us in the poorest light imaginable.
From being told that their misfortune is due to eating beef, to women entering Sabarimala temple, to completely unfounded accusations of ruining their own environment, to money being thrown into driblets as if to beggars, never have a people been so callously treated in their direst hour of need, never have victims been thus shamed, as the tiny state of Kerala has been.
Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha chief Swami Chakrapani on August 22 thundered that only those who don't eat beef should be helped as it is a sin to help beef eaters. He said that many innocent people died because a few people kill the “gaumata and exhibit it in shops".
"Before giving any assistance, one should ask the victim whether they have ever eaten cow meat, and then in accordance with their answer, relief should be decided on."
"It is not just because of some untimely monsoon. The state of Kerala has been stuck with nature's fury because of the sins of beef eaters."
Social media has been rife with similar accusations blaming the people of the state for bringing “God’s fury” upon them on Facebook posts and tweets, pointing fingers at Communists, Muslims, Christians and menstruating women in what can only be described as ghoulish satisfaction. S Gurumurthy, who has been recently appointed to the Board of Directors of the Reserve Bank of India by the Centre, speculated on Twitter that the Supreme Court’s decision to allow women entry into the Sabarimala temple had caused the floods, because Lord Ayyappa might have been angered by the judgement.
Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian-American author and public intellectual, tweeted urging people to donate only to Hindu charities and not foreign-funded NGOs that use "disaster to evangelise".
On August 12, Union home minister Rajnath Singh announced Rs 100 crore as immediate central relief after an aerial survey. He said, "I understand the suffering of the people of Kerala from the present crisis. Since assessment of the damage will take time, I hereby announce immediate relief as advance of Rs 100 crore," The state government submitted a memorandum to Singh, seeking urgent sanction of Rs 1,220 crore from the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF) to meet the situation.”
In the memorandum, the chief minister, Pinayari Vijayan said preliminary estimates suggested that Kerala suffered a loss of Rs 8,316 crore in the rains, floods and landslides. Expressing disappointment at the Centre’s stand, state Finance Minister Thomas Isaac took to Twitter to say the “precious” Rs 100 crore was "from the regular disaster management fund due to Kerala". He tweeted, "Total loss of floods to Kerala around ₹8000 crores. Immediate mitigation and rectification expenditure to the state around ₹3000. And the central grant precious ₹100. And that too if it is from regular disaster management fund due to Kerala, I do not know."
The minister added that the “donations from all around the world will be more than Rs 100 crore given by the Centre”.
Reacting to Isaac’s statements, Union minister KJ Alphons said there were clear guidelines on the relief to be given to states in case of natural disasters. He said during the UPA rule, the ministers from Kerala never visited the state in the event of a disaster unlike under the current regime. “We went there; the home minister, I, MoS Kiren Rijiju, we all went. Isaac never visited his constituency Alleppey during these floods. What is he talking about? I have asked for a special package for Kerala.”
After six days, PM Modi taking another aerial survey announced a grant of an additional Rs 500 crore in aid in addition to the Rs 100 crore. The CMO Kerala tweeted, "The Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an assistance of ₹500 crore. CM had requested an immediate assistance of ₹2,000 crore. We express our thanks to Centre for the assistance (sic)".
To put things into perspective, Rs 600 crore, is 30 per cent of what the state asked for. That is less than the cost of one Rafale fighter jet (Rs 670 crore).
This interim sum of Rs 600 crore is less than:
The amount allocated towards the construction of an exhibition cum convention centre (ECC), Dwarka, New Delhi– Rs 700 crore.
The amount spent on the purchase of two new VVIP aircraft for special flights operated by Air India for the President, Vice President and Prime Minister–Rs 4,469.5 crore ($640 million).
The allocation made by the Centre for the revival of 50 airports/airstrips under the Regional Connectivity Scheme — Rs 890 crore.
When Bihar faced widespread floods in August 2017, the Centre gave it financial assistance of Rs 1,853 crore, the largest that year.
We are not going to mention the costs of the Sardar Patel statue or the Shivaji statue off the coast of Mumbai because that is beyond embarrassing.
In the midst of accusations by an indignant Opposition that the BJP government was meting out step motherly treatment to Kerala because it was a Communist state (and something like the plucky little Gaulish village in the Asterix comics holding out against the Romans) came the offer from UAE government of Rs 700 crores. CM Vijayan told a press conference held in state capital of Thiruvananthapuram on August 21 said the Indian government has been informed that the UAE government would be providing $100 million for Kerala.
“We have to build a new Kerala. Malayalis from all corners of the world have offered assistance. Millions of those Malayalis treat the Gulf countries as their second home. Most families in the state also look at the Gulf nations the same way. The governments in the Gulf countries also reciprocate the same feelings towards Malayalis,” Vijayan said.
On the evening of August 22, the MEA spokesperson announced that, while India appreciated the offers of help from different countries, in line with the existing policy the government is committed to meeting the requirements for relief and rehabilitation through "domestic efforts".
The BJP supporters too are claiming that the refusal to accept foreign aid from other governments is based on the policy decision made by Manmohan Singh. This may be factually true, but misleading.
In 2004 after the devastating Tsunami struck the Indian Ocean, Manmohan Singh had refused aid from foreign governments with the indication that India would be able to take care of itself.
No, thank you: In 2004, Manmohan Singh had refused aid from foreign governments with the indication that India would be able to take care of itself. (Credit: PTI file photo)
We have to keep in mind that during the 2004 tsunami there were almost fourteen countries that were impacted the death toll was around 230,000 people.
The death toll in India was around 10,749, with most of the deaths taking place in Tamil Nadu. The center had then given an aid of Rs 2,600 crores and the collective aid received by the Tamil Nadu government was around Rs 5,700 Crores, which included private donations. No help was taken from foreign governments. In fact, India became an international donor by giving aid to other affected countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and the approximate amount donated was $26 million.
During the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, another major disaster, there was an approximate death toll of 5,500 people. Manmohan Singh once again refused the foreign aid offered by US and others. The US had offered an aid of $150,000 (around Rs 90 lakh). Instead of taking foreign aid the Indian government at the Centre-aided the state of Uttarakhad with an amount of Rs 1,000 crore.
The Indian government also requested the US and Japan that instead of giving a direct aid to the Indian central government they should give it to an NGO of their choice which was working in this area. Instead of taking help from the foreign governments, the Manmohan Singh government took aid from the World Bank. The World Bank committed to give a loan of $250 million for the reconstruction of Uttarakhand. This was around Rs 1,747 crore.
But it is erroneous to claim that this current refusal is based on the policy set by Manmohan Singh in 2004, since was no formal policy on foreign funds relief being refused that was made by the then government.
In fact, if one goes through the National Disaster Management Plan as set up by the current BJP govt, page no. 145. Chapter 9 Section 9.2, one will come across the following text:
"As a matter of policy, the Government of India does not issue any appeal for foreign assistance in the wake of a disaster. However, if the national government of another country voluntarily offers assistance as a goodwill gesture in solidarity with the disaster victims, the central government may accept the offer."
Quoting the NDMP, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Finance Minister Thomas Isaac have asked the Centre to accept the offer. If the Centre remains silent or rejects the offer, Vijayan and Isaac have said that Delhi must compensate the state for the missed opportunity to receive funds offered as goodwill.
We asked Union Gov for financial support of ₹2200 Cr ; they grant us a precious ₹600 Cr . We make no request to any foreign gov but UAE gov voluntarily offer ₹700cr. No, says Union gov , it is below our dignity to accept foreign aid. This is a dog in the manger policy.— Thomas Isaac (@drthomasisaac) August 22, 2018
The irony is that it is the 2016 NDMP policy drafted by the current Modi government that formalises the acceptability of aid by foreign governments, and a clear improvement over the earlier one proudly claiming, “This is the first ever national plan prepared in the country.“
This was declared in a press briefing on June 1, 2016.
So, basically before 2016, there was no formalised National Disaster Management Plan. There is no scope of misunderstanding here. If a foreign national government voluntarily offers assistance, the Central Government is free to accept the offer.
If it chooses to refuse the offer, it is for their own reasons best known to them and not because of any policies previously set by Manmohan Singh or anyone else.
Since the refusal by the MEA, and to avoid a diplomatic gaffe the UAE government has stated that they have made no official offer to the GoI for aid. Die-hard supporters of the BJP have triumphantly used this news to claim that the whole story of the UAE offering claim was a hoax cooked up by the Kerala CMO.
This is, however, untrue.
The Facebook page of UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan featured a news report under the headline, "UAE pledges Rs 700 crore Kerala relief and rehabilitation".
The report was not an official announcement by the UAE but the reproduction of a report based on a media briefing by Pinarayi Vijayan on August 21.
The report quoted the chief minister as saying: "The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan informed this to Lulu Group chairman Yusuff Ali." MA Yusuff Ali is a businessman based in the Emirates the multibillion-dollar LuLu Group. Yusuff Ali himself has donated more than Rs 10 crore to the Kerala flood relief and is in the forefront of gathering monies from the GCC to be handed over to NGOs. He is also part of the committee set up by the UAE government to calculate flood losses and build up a corpus.
Friends across borders: Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan with Lulu Group chairman Yusuff Ali. (Credit: File picture/yusuffali.com)
Posted on August 21 at 8.45pm, the news report was on the President's Facebook page till late on Friday night. The page also features a photograph of the powerful Crown Prince, the younger brother of the President. Sources familiar with the UAE said that it would be inconceivable that the official site of the president would post a canard and continue to keep it there for days. Some sources went to the extent of describing the post as "a virtual endorsement".
Modi had thanked Sheikh Al Maktoum via an effusive tweet as early as August 18. Two, the Emirates airline began transporting over 175 tonnes of flood relief to Kerala capital Thiruvananthapuram from Thursday.
Tweeting about it with photographs of the cargo being loaded into an Emirates aircraft, the Dubai Government Media Office said: "The relief goods will be transported to Thiruvananthapuram — the nearest online Emirates station to the areas most affected by the flood. The goods, including lifesaving boats, blankets and dry food items, will be handed over to the local flood relief and aid organisations."
The Emirates airline said in a statement that over a dozen flights would transport the relief goods, which had been donated by various UAE-based businesses and organizations.
Vijayan pointed out that immediately after the help offer from UAE that the PM himself had welcomed it with a tweet. “It’s natural for countries to help each other during a crisis. It happens everywhere. The National Disaster Management Policy announced by the Centre has clearly stated that accepting voluntary contribution from foreign countries during a crisis is permissible.”
When “precedents” are spoken about citing Uttarakhand one should also remember that Uttarakhand had received 540 mm of rain in June 2013. Compare that to Kerala which has received 3100 mm of rain, the highest since the 1930’s and 257 per cent more than normal.
A national calamity and tragedy on this humongous scale has been politicised, treated cavalierly, made yet another channel for the bigotry and hatred sweeping across this country, and last but not the least made a point of “national pride” in not accepting foreign donations.
As help pours in from all corners of the country for this little state, conveniently dubbed “God’s own country in good times" (when it is a tourist cash cow pouring shekels into the central government treasury) there are stories that come in, of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. From fishermen to administrators to entrepreneurs, from an old couple breaking their fixed deposits to a young woman who saved up for her heart surgery and then donated half of it.
They remind us of the resilience that forms the backbone of our people, they give us hope that one day we will self-correct, and that these hateful voices that take delight in the misery of others and yet claim to speak for this great nation, will fade into oblivion.