Kerala Calamity

Flood, it's Genesis and Political Economy

T G Jacob

The flood that ravaged the coastal State of Kerala and the adjoining part of Karnataka in the Western Ghats is a revealing episode. Though the flood has waned in its direct impact, the price will continue to be extracted over a much longer period which as such stands indeterminate now. It is also to be noted that the impact was not at all unanticipated. In fact, a comprehensive report on the Western Ghats prepared under the leadership of Prof Gadgil sometime back raised a lot of noise for the wrong reasons and the report was rubbished by those in power. Conscious attempts to dilute the gravity of the impending crisis in the Western Ghats was manipulated by the then government by appointing another commission to re-study the issues and that report, prepared by Dr Kasturirangan, was also pigeonholed, though it had considerably diluted the recommendations of Madhav Gadgil in the interests of the economic mafia operating in the Ghats, especially the mining mafia. It is under conditions of such mindless indifference to the preservation of the sensitive Western Ghats that Nature gave a solid hit, unambiguously declaring that she is not to be fiddled with. For sensitised minds this is a dire warning which should be taken in a humble manner acknowledging the justice of the warning.

Though many States share the Western Ghats only Kerala and possibly Goa are so entirely determined by the Ghats. In Kerala the foot of the Ghats start right from the coast and strictly speaking there is no plain or level land in the State. All the rivers originate in the Ghats and for such a small State the number of rivers and their tributaries and estuaries are quite large. The paddy fields are valleys cum water storage areas that play a crucial role in maintaining the water table levels. The top soil is wonderfully fertile but thin. The entire land is green where evergreen forests were once a highly significant component. It is the greenery, unevenness and large number of water bodies and rivers that makes the whole place rich resource-wise and scenically. In fact, it is the latter that is currently the most marketable asset of the place. It is this richness that has enabled the whole place to become an international and all-India touristic commodity. Since the last many decades there has been consistent hyperbolic propaganda that the best possible model for development of the State is the tourism model of parasitic development. And it is on that track that things moved, especially in the hills and on beaches. Calamitous natural developments were certainly not on the agenda of these apologists of parasitic accumulation/development. Policy-makers and the economic interests behind them fondly believe that Nature is something that has to be conquered and used as dead matter. The devastating flood and all round destruction has emphatically shown that this approach is unreal, foolish, and self-destructive.

A couple of weeks of downpour saw enormous destruction of agriculture, livestock, houses, towns, entire villages and the shutters of every dam [their number is disproportionately large] had to be opened resulting in flash floods in lower areas including cities. The entire State was affected with nine of the 14 districts falling in the intensely affected bracket. Thousands of wells collapsed into themselves and thousands of kilometres of roads were washed out. Incidents of concrete buildings sinking into the earth were not uncommon. Hundreds of thousands were rendered homeless when their homes either collapsed or filled with muck. Snakes invaded the flooded areas giving it a surreal Biblical look.

Even at this stage estimates of direct losses can only be estimates. Actual losses are bound to be much higher than the present Rs 40,000 crore. They could easily be many times that. Well, this pertains to only the short term losses; for estimating the long term losses different methodological tools are required. The negative impact on the human psyche is another matter altogether. The number of human casualties is relatively low in the vicinity of 500. This is because the public response was swift in evacuating people from risky and risk-prone areas. Rescue activities, particularly by the toilers of the sea, who went with hundreds of their boats, were spectacular. The enormity of the calamity cannot be gauged by the relatively small human death toll. A calamity of similar magnitude in Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh would have accounted for tens of thousands of human lives while in Kerala it was confined to three digits. This is a consolation of sorts. However, the fact that deaths caused by the calamity are also a long-drawn affair with secondary level deaths often becoming much more vicious and massive. There is the example of Bhopal where deaths have relentlessly continued through generations. There is no reason to believe that post-flood Kerala is going to be any different.

To understand the dimensions of this calamity one has to look into the pattern of development over the past few decades. Earlier too similar floods have occurred. The last major flood occurred in 1924 and is known locally as the Great Flood of 99. That too was a furious flood but it was not an all-Kerala phenomenon. It was confined mainly to the central region of Travancore, which itself constituted less than half of present-day Kerala. Even in the region badly affected the destruction was not much because at that time there was not much to be destroyed when compared to Kerala today. Also the population density, which is now double that of the Indian average, was low though it was higher than the rest of the country. But ninety odd years later the entire State has been hit which makes the predicament qualitatively and quantitatively different. Entire hillsides came down with tremendous force and rocks and mud covered cultivated land and houses. The same areas saw repeated landslides. The solidity of earth became seriously suspect all over the State. This is no doubt an immensely frightful situation for the whole land. A very revealing phenomenon was that the rock mining areas/hills were the most vulnerable to this instability.

Since the last many decades it is a clearly observable phenomenon in the State that investments were going mainly into the construction sector of the economy. This is especially so in the tourism areas and cash crops and petro dollar areas. The money flow into the State through Gulf migrants amounts to several thousands of crores per month, and this had been going on for many decades. The incredible rise in the price of land is the most telltale illustration of this influx of liquid cash. Consumer tastes changed drastically with the most visible consumption being manifested in mindless conspicuous construction for which almost everything except sand and rock has to come from outside the State. Even wood is imported to a significant extent. Though there are many houseless people in Kerala, when you compare the built-up area with the population size it becomes obvious that there is a surfeit of constructed space. It is considered a choice investment though in terms of productivity it can be considered dead investment. Appreciation of real estate values is considered as good returns and this happened most spectacularly in the case of land. Even political parties and their bosses became real estate agents. Underuti-lisation of constructed space is massive. It is a living symbol of gross irrationality rampant in the resource utilisation of the place.

At the same time, Kerala as a market for durables and fast moving consumer goods is very advanced. This market comprises not only the towns and cities but also the villages. High consumption without a production base is what is euphemistically called the "Kerala model" by the social democrats. It is a highly disjointed system with externalities playing the decisive role and hence it is what is called a bubble economy. It is this consumption economy that is badly hit by the flood. Destruction of agriculture is not the reason for pathos; the cash crop sector is in any case in perpetual doldrums since quite a long time now marked by heavy indebtedness of the producers and large-scale suicides in the cash crop hubs like Wayanad. Within the economy the worst hit is real estate which is the prime segment of the consumption bracket. That is why reconstruction essentially means reconstructing houses and other establishments that got inundated and in large number of cases destroyed. Most of the paddy fields were already converted into dry land for construction purposes and whatever remained was remaining uncultivated to a great extent under the logic of the uneconomic character of agriculture. Cash crops like coffee and spices are mainly grown in the hill areas which are all earmarked for tourism development. They are mainly grown by settler cultivators who have come to consider agriculture as a gamble. The large estates and these cash crops growers are historically the dispossessors of the original inhabitants, who are presently the main landless and deprived segment in Kerala society.

The rains, floods and consequent destruction have pinpointed the gross weaknesses of the Kerala economy ensuing from the parasitic nature of the same. There are numerous examples of even a two-acre coffee grower building up a palatial bungalow in the hills expecting windfall returns through hosting tourists. What are called home stay facilities had been growing exponentially for the last many years, and most of these construction activities are funded through loans under the fictitious label of agricultural loans. It is not that the banks and other credit agencies are unaware of the deceit involved but they need not worry as long as there are legal guarantees, which is invariably the land on which the structure is built up. In effect, the structure is bank property. Earlier when there was a prolonged agitation against confiscation of indebted property by banks, triggered by regular suicides by indebted farmers, the banks resorted to this logic only. Now also they will resort to the same logic. The floods and consequent destruction of assets are thus bound to result in a fresh spate of suicides in the cash crops hubs of the State. The development pattern does not offer any space for institutional safeguards to prevent this downslide.

It is not that floods are a loss to everyone. As shown by the example of the last tsunami and the continuing spate of tornadoes, cyclones, storms on the coastal regions of the United States itself, such calamities are of great use for corporate capital. Such shocks, as well as manipulated shocks like the demonetisation in India are now an accepted means to inject dynamism into sluggish accumulation drives. When there is no crisis a crisis can be generated. When there are calamities induced by man-made climate change they are not to be shunned, they are golden opportunities for fresh aggressive doses of accumulation. Reconstruction is a sure fire means of accumulation. When there were wide-ranging famines created by World Bank policies in sub Saharan Africa during the 1990s, the very same agencies that created famines were entrusted with the task of mitigating the famine conditions. Creating famines and mitigating the same were both means of accumulation. Whether flood or drought, the story is the same.

The flood in Kerala created by an overdrive in construction activities, which gave enormous profits to corporate capital, now demands reconstruction work on a giant scale, which again creates an expansion of the market for corporates. Now several thousands of crores are needed to reconstruct. More granite is required, more sand, steel and cement. If the granite and sand is going to be generated from inside the State the same reasons that precipitated the destruction will be given another significant boost so that the next flood will be even worse. Flow of resources to outside interests will also get another shot in the arm. The end result will be a worsening of the conditions on all round level. It is obvious that this is not what is required. The requirement is an alternative model of construction and reconstruction.

Such a construction and reconstruction should make steering clear of corporate involvement a mandatory condition and this is very much possible provided there is financial autonomy for the State. Centre-State financial relations had always been a bone of contention and the clamour for greater and equitable share of financial resources had been ever present in post-1947 India. But what has actually happened and is happening is the trend of ever increasing centralisation of financial resources. The recent flood in Kerala has once again thrown financial relations between Centre and States into focus and this issue is liable to snowball. The relief granted by the central government is even less than the amount spent by the prime minister from the public treasury on his foreign jaunts.

The amount calculated as damages by the State government is a gross underestimation. It leaves out important losses like the loss to the forests, loss of trees and erosion of top soil and silting of dams. The promised help by the Centre comes only to a small fraction of the estimated loss which itself is very unrealistic. Moreover, petty politicking has made the Hindutva government put spokes against foreign contributions. The prime minister goes to every part of the globe to canvass for investment but when it comes to humanitarian aid from abroad for the flood affected it is against the pride of the country, which is apparently in a position to help others rather than receive help. This country is on the lowest matrix of the human development index which means that as far as the vast masses are concerned it is an obnoxiously poor country. Kerala actually does not need any charity from the Centre, if it has the right to manage its own resources. But it does not have this basic economic right.

Kerala generates thousands of crores of foreign exchange hard money every month but it has no right to use this as foreign exchange. Its agriculture sector contributes to the country's foreign exchange kitty in a significant manner but again it does not have any rights over it. All this foreign cash is used for imports by the plutocrats for conspicuous high-end consumption or by the corporates to buy technology and equipment and even for investments abroad or for paying interest on foreign debts. The Reserve Bank allocates the foreign exchange earned by the whole country and no State has any say in it. The federal character of the polity is very weak but in financial matters it is the weakest. That is why the States are perennial debtors and Kerala is in the worst debt trap among all States for a long time and it is in the position of a compulsive borrower to pay interest on earlier debts. Moreover, there is no possibility of turning the tide in the near future. There are severe limitations on the revenue raising capacity of the State government, which makes the dependency syndrome vicious. And unfortunately the vision of the local ruling political parties, whatever the colour of the flags, is severely curtailed due to long ingrained doublespeak and rampant opportunism. Corporates are able to derail any sustainable development through corruption alone. There are enough glaring examples like the story of a planned instant coffee plant easily smashed by a global corporate through outright purchase of the local political leaders concerned. The liquor policy is another case in point.

Kerala is well known for high per capita consumption of liquor. The State government is crucially dependent on excise revenue for its bare functioning. And every government keeps on jacking up the tax on liquor because it is a State subject. More or less the entire adult male population drinks, though many of them take great pains to try to conceal it. This is irrespective of whether they are Khadi-clad or not. But strangely enough all of them are for prohibition. This is clearly a case of a collective split personality. Also, Kerala has more than enough raw materials to manufacture quality drinks, which can compete in any international market and the technology also is nobody's monopoly. In fact, Kerala has the tradition of one of the most prominent castes specialising in liquor production and marketing. Consumption is very high with almost fifty percent of the daily earnings of an average worker going for liquor. There are different grades of liquor shops too. Trade is a state monopoly and under the specious argument of curtailing liquor consumption the number of shops is few. This has created a parallel trade of liquor in the whole State and thousands of people are employed in standing in the long lines and purchasing in bulk and retailing back home at a nice margin. This is quite a new employment in the State entirely created by a sickeningly hypocritical liquor policy. Also more than 90% of the liquor sold in the State comes from outside and acts as a significant drain. Though everyone knows the real state of affairs there are no efforts at all to evolve a sane policy. The same is true of many other commodities of mass consumption. Is it a question of collective irresponsibility?

In the geographical division of labour in which Kerala is embedded, it is a supplier of high-value cash crops from which corporate capital reaps enormous super profits; it is a supplier of literate/skilled, semi skilled labour power to oil rich countries; a significant consumer of value-added products coming from external sources; a significant foreign exchange earner, which serves the hard cash requirements of corporates and high-end consumers of luxury goods and services; provider of services to Indian and international tourists without having managing rights to the foreign exchange thus earned; provider of lollipop culture with a synthetic smile to the same clientele, offering the land itself for consumption of outsiders and taking pride in it. The picture is not at all optimistic. When such a place is hit hard by a calamity - itself the product of muscle-headed policies which grossly discounted environmental and ecological problems, which over a period of time have got ingrained in the place - it should serve as a serious warning. Development policies have to change drastically. But it does not look like such a rethinking is about to happen.

Medha Patkar's evaluation about the flood is that it is a dam created one. The State government waited up to the last minute to open the dams, but when they were opened it was a panic reaction. Several big dams of the State are built in seismically vulnerable spots, and instead of thinking about decommissioning them the government is determined to go ahead with the construction of more dams. It is astounding to note how mechanical materialist the social democrats can be. It is simply suicidal.

Prof Gadgil's statement that any reconstruction should be strictly based on environment-friendly understanding of the place also seems to falling on deaf ears. Environment-friendly means no rock mining, no dam construction, no shaving of hills, and no filling up of wet lands among other things. But such a course of reconstruction will not yield profits to contractors, middle men and other parasites including politicians. It is considered going backward, not "development." This is the reigning ideology of the political class. When there is a calamity, it should be used to create more surplus. So more rocks are to be mined, more hills are to be levelled, more wet lands are to be filled up, so that more concrete structures can come up. The people and the land have lost tremendously but one cannot conclude everyone has lost. There are a few gainers too. Among the gainers the contractors are an obvious category.

Two gainers are strange bedfellows. They are the Catholic Church and the ruling party who are supposed to be at variance with each other. The immediate period before the flood saw the credibility of the rich Catholic Church sinking to very low levels when church leaders like bishops and other clergy were getting bogged in sleaze. Nuns and housewives came out in the open against the clergy for sexual predation and the police and courts were forced to take up cases. Influential members of the clergy were accused of compelling nuns and ordinary housewives to satisfy their carnal desires over a long period of time. The flood has managed to sink the impending crisis of the church at least for the present because the entire State was caught in the grip of horrendous human sufferings. Attention could be diverted. Thus the flood has given a breathing space to the church bureaucracy.

The ruling party could mobilise its entire youth power for relief work thus standing out as top-rate humanitarians. This image was consciously cultivated through the media but, unfortunately, many of the visual images projected young people in a holiday mood. The attempt was clearly to project the party, and not the government, as the prime mover of relief work. Ministers were shown as active participants in relief work, but on the whole the exercise looked more frivolous than serious. At the same time the director of health services went for a seminar abroad and some ministers also made foreign jaunts. Subsequently, the chief minister himself went to the United States for a two-week health trip.

The student and youth wings of the party were mobilised to cook and serve food in the relief camps, but those in the relief camps were impatient to go back home. Still the feeling was created that the party is wholeheartedly involved in relief work, which gains it plus points in any future election. Projecting dedicated relief work also served to get it out of the bungling that the government did in the matter of the opening of the dams. A serious enquiry is bound to bring out the role of the Electricity department in this bungling. The Electricity minister also sought hasty construction of new dams saying that energy is the prime requirement for progress, which indicates that basic positions of the ruling cliques remain as anti-people as ever. Notwithstanding massive human suffering "progress" is mandatory. This is despite the glaring fact that at one stroke the dams have beaten back progress at least by half a century. Another flood in the next rainy season can easily beat back the progress of Kerala by a century, if development of real estate is taken as progress, because Kerala's progress is precisely on that front only.

Vol. 51, No.11, Sep 16 - 22, 2018