This Indian state's current struggle sets a good example for the rest of the country, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara
Kerala has hit the headlines because it was flooded in an epic, possibly unprecedented calamity. Large tracts of low-lying areas, villages and houses were underwater for almost a week in many places. The numbers who perished, according to the Kerala government website, are over 370. More than a million people are displaced. More than 3,000 relief camps were opened. Over 42,000 hectares of crops are destroyed. There were 537 landslides and 221 bridges collapsed.
Preliminary estimates cite a loss of more than 3 billion US dollars (about 20,000 crores in Indian Rupees). Rough surveys reckon over 10,000 km of roads are damaged. The states farmers, around 2.6 lakhs of them, have lost crops, cattle, goats and other livestock.
Unbelievably, a number of trolls have been sending messages on WhatsApp asking fellow Indians not to send money or relief supplies to Kerala. They've been messing with the wrong people, because Keralites will always put up a fight. So a few have been exposed and named by an army of IT experts. Presumably, hopefully, they will be punished.
Hate them or love them, the magnificent thing about Kerala is its people. The resilience, the can-do attitude of Keralites is legendary. For readers who don't know this, Keralites have migrated all over the world. They adjust to local cultures, while retaining their roots, traditions and ethnicity. They generally set about immediately, to learn the language of their adopted land. They are known to be exceptionally hardworking and capable. And most keep a wry sense of humour alive at all times.
Social media is buzzing with heartwarming as well as heart-rending stories. People did not want to abandon their homes. Most felt if they moved upstairs, or as a last resort, to their rooftops, the water would begin to recede. They’d hang in there and manage to survive. But the rain wouldn't stop. Only then did the frenzied, desperate calls for help begin. People with dead relatives, forced to tie the corpse to a railing to prevent it being washed away; pregnant women about to deliver – the stories poured in.
The first to respond were Kerala’s fishers, girding their lungis. Made famous by David Beckham, lungis are always folded up to knee length when Kerala men mean business. They embarked on unprecedented rescue mission. They didn’t wait to be asked. They took their boats out, many very simple, single engine ones, and in the pitch dark, pouring rain, they risked life and limb to rescue their people. They worked non-stop without food or money for diesel for their boats. Interestingly, most of the fishing community are Latin Catholics, a minority in a country where politicians of a certain hue now openly bad-mouth minorities. Young people of all faiths and from every social strata responded. It is heartwarming and a sign of hope to India, that temples, mosques and churches were thrown open to people of all castes, creeds and communities. A far cry from what is currently happening in hate-filled communal crimes across the country.
The unity of people and even political parties was phenomenal. In a communist-led state, the opposition and people normally fanatic about their politics joined hands to work together to rescue and provide relief to the flood ravaged people across the state. The Indian army, navy and air force arrived with troops, medical teams, helicopters, boats, engineers and with military precision joined in the mammoth rescue operation. In any other state, the death toll would have reached thousands. IT experts helped coordinate operations and send out vital information, avoiding duplication of efforts, crucial in such events.
Facts, figures, fake news and fights swirled around social media. Also, a never ending supply of humour. A new house design with a life-boat attached prominently to the roof is circulating on WhatsApp. Then there’s an obviously wealthy elderly woman who months ago allegedly ordered the roadwork officials to improve the road to her house so her film-star sons could drive their Lamborghinis to her front door! The picture shows her being rescued, sitting dowager-like, umbrella held aloft imperiously, in an enormous cooking pot reserved for wedding feasts. The pot is called a ‘Chembu’, so her carriage was promptly christened ‘the Chemborghini’.
Kerala will spring back again. Everyone knows that. There’s hope, though, that the unity displayed will be a lesson to keep hate mongers out of the equation. And, most importantly, will stop the politician-corporate mafia nexus who waived all expert environmentalists’ recommendations, threw warnings into the dustbin, to allow sand-mining, mangrove destruction and cutting down forests for the sake of profiteering and greed. This, it has been indisputably proved, is the cause of the calamity. Keralan society, since the mass exodus to the Gulf in search of jobs and security, has descended into a pathetically consumerist, money-grabbing, vulgar display of ostentatious wealth as a way of life. It is India’s most educated state. But has the highest rate of suicide along with high levels of alcoholism.
While the whole world lauds its heroic battle against an utterly shattering calamity, when the waters recede and Kerala limps back to normalcy, it will probably be wise to take a long hard introspective look into what caused the tragic flooding. So Kerala can lead the march against profiteering that devastates people. Kerala is described as God’s own country in every tourist brochure. It is the one Indian state that has the necessary knowledge and awareness. All it needs is political will. Kerala’s people, in memory of the 370 who died so tragically and unnecessarily, must fight the desecration of its sacred land.