202 people have died in the past ten days. Lakhs are still marooned and thousands unaccounted await rescue.
As the sky opened up late July, everyone in Kerala thought they were in for another extended, heavy monsoon, ahead of Onam, the festival of God’s own country. No one thought it would turn out to be a deluge, the magnitude of which the people of this rain-loving southern state never had witnessed, some say dating back to 1924 when the mighty Periyar flooded central Kerala in yet another July month. And yet again it is the Periyar, along with the Pampa, which is overflowing, practically submerging the entire south and central Kerala districts of Pathanamthitta, Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Thrissur. Thirteen of the 14 districts are under threat. At least 202 people have died in the past ten days, taking the toll to 324 since 29 July. There are over 3.14 lakh people belonging to 70,000 families sheltered in 2,100 relief camps. Out in the open, lakhs are still marooned, thousands unaccounted awaiting rescue operations. State Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said on Friday that as many as 82,442 were rescued from the worst-affected Aluva region of Ernakulam district, Chalakudy in Thrissur and Chengannur in Alappuzha. There are over 71,000 people in camps in Ernakulam district alone. “Unmatched rescue operations are being conducted by Central forces, Kerala police, fire force, fishermen and volunteers,” the CM said. He said the situation in Chalakudy and Chengannur is the worst. “More boats and helicopters of the Army and Navy will be rushed to these areas. Due to strong currents, rescue operations in these two places were difficult. Big boats have to be procured,” he said. The state has demanded more choppers and defence personnel from the Centre.
So far the Army has deployed 18 teams, Navy 46, Air Force 13, Coast Guard 18 and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) 21. The Air Force is operating 18 choppers with promise to press in more, NDRF 79 boats and the state fisheries department 403 boats. The fishermen of the state, who were at the receiving end exactly a year ago when Cyclone Ockhi played havoc, have chipped in with over 150 of their boats. Over 40,000 state police personnel have joined rescue operations. But with no let up in rains, the situation in most of the affected areas is unlikely to improve in the next few days. With 40 of the 41 major rivers in spate and the shutters of 80 dams, including that of irrigation ones, opened, the task at hand is beyond the capacity of the state government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was supposed to conduct an aerial survey of the affected areas on Saturday morning, was forced to cancel it initially due to incessant rain. Since the international airport at Kochi is under water and so closed till the end of this month, the PM had to make use of the old naval base airport from where he was supposed to take off with the CM and other officials. The PM, who flew into Thiruvananthapuram Friday night after the former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s funeral in Delhi, chaired a meeting to take stock of the situation before returning to Delhi. The PM undertook a short aerial survey of nearby areas of Kochi before returning to the national capital. The Centre on Friday had asked domestic airlines to operate more flights to Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram to compensate for the suspension of services in Cochin International Airport.
More than asking for armed forces’ personnel and equipment for rescue operations, the state is sure to demand the Centre declare the disaster as national calamity. The Centre has so far been not very inclined to such a move. A week back when Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited the state, ha had announced an interim relief of Rs 100crore, considered a pittance by the state, which was demanding at least Rs 12,000cr in aid immediately. Earlier the Centre had sanctioned Rs80 crore relief. According to latest reports, PM Modi announced Rs 500cr as interim flood relief assistance to the state. The PMO has clarified that this would be in addition to what Rajnath Singh had promised. However, at the meeting the state has reportedly put the loss at Rs 20,000cr. This excludes financial assistance needed for post-disaster operations which will last for months given the gravity of the floods. Even at a rough estimate, lakhs of families have lost all their possessions, including land and houses. Obviously the Centre’s reluctance to declare Kerala floods as one of national calamity and the inadequate financial assistance will dominate the political discourse in the state in coming days. There is already a certain amount of distrust between the state and the Centre. The Prime Minister’s meeting with an all-party delegation which called on him a month back has, according to both the Congress and the Communist parties, only helped to widen the divide. While the ruling Left Front is supported by the main opposition Congress in condemning the Centre, the BJP in the state is accusing the CPM of politicising the issue.
But it will be advisable for both the Centre and the ruling front in Kerala to realise that the time is not to bargain over people’s misery. It is time to act fast and win over the trust of the suffering masses. The Prime Minister has shown the initiative, but the state needs all help from the Centre, both financial and human kind, in these times of deluge.