• Kerala Flood Disaster: The Continuing Saga of Coastal States’ Insecurity

    K M Seethi

    August 23, 2018

    The flood disaster that struck the entire state of Kerala following the unprecedented monsoon has raised many questions of survival-in-crisis transcending the traditional paradigm of security. For many years, the coastal States of India—from Gujarat to West Bengal covering more than 7500 kilometers of coastline—have been facing several threats from the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. The general feeling has been that these States are vulnerable to non state actors’ (NSAs) attacks and operations. But we did not have too many episodes of such real-time threats from such NSAs such as terrorists and pirates. Rather many of these States have faced several problems from cyclones, floods, landslides, earthquakes, tsunami etc.

    What Kerala faced is a disaster of severe unimaginable proportions. More than a million people in Kerala have taken shelter in relief camps, as well as in the houses/buildings of others in just five days – surely the largest in the history of Kerala. Not less than another million people would have to bear the consequences at the secondary level. As much as 46000 hectares of agricultural land perished in the flood and landslides. More than 10,000 houses and nearly a thousand kilometers of National and State High Way roads got damaged. Hundreds of shops and related establishments were completely gutted. An early estimate says that the State will have to generate not less than $ 500 million immediately for a full recovery programme. The amount may go higher even as the final estimates are being tabulated.

    Many would agree that the 1924 flood did not cause this much damage and displacement, though the death toll was high, perhaps more than a thousand in that year. The population of Kerala at that time was approximately less than 8 million, while it is above 34 million today. In absolute terms, if we take the real-time as well as long-term impacts on the bio-eco system, the present disaster is a long-lasting one. One wonders, if a situation like this is repeated in another five years’ time, the State of Kerala will be torn to pieces. Given the unpredictable climate change scenario, one cannot be sure of anything. Long-cycle theories don’t work on climate and environment. Surely, it’s a grim reminder that the time has come to revisit our ‘development’ activities in the Western Ghats, and our strategies of engaging Nature. Madhav Gadgil, who headed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, reminded this to Kerala, Goa and Maharashtra.

    National Disaster or Not/International Assistance or Not?

    The Union Government, after its initial hesitation, acknowledged the disaster in Kerala as a “calamity of severe nature” categorizing it under L3. This in itself is important from the point of view of “burden sharing” – in terms of meeting the immediate as well as long-term requirements for recovery and rebuilding. L3 implies situations arising from large-scale disasters, wherein districts and the state may not have the capacity to respond adequately and need assistance from the Centre.

    Meanwhile, many countries and agencies have expressed their willingness to help Kerala rebuild. Perhaps the largest of such offers came from UAE with its readiness to offer $100 million. Other countries like Qatar, Oman, Thailand etc also expressed their desire to offer assistance. Even the UN Representative in India also indicated the possibility of the world body’s help if India would request for it. Even as such reports of such help get underway, there are reports that India had indicated to the foreign governments the ‘problem’ of accepting such aid. The ‘problem’ put in place was the policy adopted since 2004 that India would not accept such aid. However, this ‘regulation’ of not accepting foreign aid would not apply to individuals and organisations and they can continue to contribute.   Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami was reported to have said: “We feel that we can cope with the situation on our own and we will take their help if needed.” The  Tsunami had hit South India and devastated the coast of Tamil Nadu, Kerala as well as Andaman and Nicobar Islands, killing more than 12,000 people and displacing more than half a million people.  Manmohan Singh’s statement was a sequel to his refusing foreign disaster aid. The UPA had formulated the disaster aid policy in 2004. Besides turning down offers, India even returned the money given by Sri Lanka, Indonesia Thailand etc for relief and rehabilitation. On the other side, India emerged as a donor.

    When floods caused widespread devastation in Uttarakhand in 2013, the US had announced a $150,000 aid to India. But the UPA Government had turned down the offer and also aid from other foreign countries. A report in Telegraph noted: “India has made it clear to both the US and Japan, which offered $200,000 towards Uttarakhand relief, that it will not accept the aid and that any funding must be given to NGOs of the foreign governments’ choice.” An MEA official said:  “As a general policy in case of rescue and relief operations, we have followed the practice that we have adequate ability to respond to emergency requirements.” On the other hand, the UPA Government had made it clear that there would not be any problem in taking credits and loans from international lending agencies. For example, the then Finance minister P. Chidambaram had indicated that India would approach multilateral agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank for loans to rebuild the disaster-hit areas.

    Even as the news of Modi’s Government’s reluctance to accept international assistance and help for disaster-hit Kerala got headlines, we have strong evidence of the provisions for accepting such help for disaster relief. The National Disaster Management Plan 2016 itself is a well defined document. The provision 9.1 under the heading “Participation in International Efforts” talks about India’s commitment to the global regime of disaster management. It acknowledges that,

    “India plays an active role in global initiatives on disaster management. India is a signatory to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and is committed to achieve the priorities and the objectives through systematic and institutional efforts. With multi-dimensional initiatives and expertise, India is taking a leading role in strengthening regional cooperation among South Asian countries for reducing disasters. India is one of the participating countries and works closely with the UNISDR. The United Nation Disaster Management Team in India comprises of UN agencies such as Food and Agriculture Organization, International Labour Organization, United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United Nations Population Fund, United Nations High Commission for Refugees, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Food Programme, and World Health Organization. India is participating in the Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction programme. India is one of the founder members of Asian Disaster Reduction Centre. India has agreements with the several countries for cooperation in the field of disaster management. India has been working closely with many countries for the exchange of ideas and expertise in disaster management.”

    The Provision 9.2 speaks about  “Accepting Foreign Assistance.” It says:

    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. The Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India is required to coordinate with the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, which is primarily responsible for reviewing foreign offers of assistance and channelizing the same. In consultation with the concerned State Government, the MHA will assess the response requirements that the foreign teams can provide.”

    The Provision 9.3 under the headline “Accepting Multilateral Assistance” says:

    In the case of an offer of assistance from UN Agencies, the India will accept the offer only if the government considers it necessary, based on various factors. If accepted, GoI will issue directions to the respective Ministry or State Government to coordinate with the concerned UN agency. Any financial assistance offered by UN financial institutions involving foreign exchange will require the approval of the Department of Economic Affairs, GoI. India will allow UN agencies and international NGOs already operating in the country at the time of the disaster event to continue their humanitarian assistance to people in the affected area in coordination with the relevant Central Ministries/Departments and the State Government as per applicable norms and protocols (Government of India, National Disaster Management Authority 2016).

    It is very clear that India can accept the offer of help or assistance from any country or international institution. While the National Disaster Management Plan 2016 is very specific about such provisions, the coastal States like Kerala have a legitimate right to mobilize help from external sources. If they are denied this for political reasons, let all coastal states come together and put pressure on the Union Government to change the policy regulation of international assistance put in place by the UPA government or crudely formulated by NDA government before 2004. Even a joint litigation by the coastal states might help clarify the issue. We have a strong case that all coastal states have been extremely vulnerable to natural calamities for several years and even decades. Whatever an inherited draconian ‘regulation’ that is used by the Modi Government blatantly violates its own creation of the National Disaster Management Plan which only facilities external assistance.

    There are also concerns that this denial could be a conscious attempt to keep the ‘credit track’ open for disaster relief. The so called ‘prestige’ factor is ruthlessly used to hide behind a ‘lending regime.’ Credits and loans from international financial institutions and commercial lending agencies means ‘business as usual.’  Interestingly, even the Sendai Framework allows for “International financial institutions, such as the World Bank and regional development banks, to consider the priorities of the present Framework for providing financial support and loans for integrated disaster risk reduction to developing countries.” Meanwhile, if Modi continues the UPA policies, he must explain why Gujarat didn’t have any problem in accepting international assistance when he was the Chief Minister during the earthquakes that had torn the state.

    On several occasions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had argued in favour of greater participation by state governments in foreign policy – in the background of strengthening trade ties and seeking foreign direct investment. The 2014 BJP manifesto also referred to the State Governments’ involvement in the promotion of foreign trade and commerce. It was in that context that the concept of ‘cooperative federalism’ was put in place in the conduct of foreign policy. The Ministry of External Affairs also started a new division—the States Division—in October 2014, with a view to ensuring that there is synergy and harmony between the Union and the States in such matters. In a statement in the Lok Sabha, the Minister of State VK Singh had said that the States Division was set up “to coordinate with States and Union Territories for further facilitation of their efforts to promote their exports and tourism and attract more overseas investments and expertise.”

    Now that the coastal states are increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters, as Kerala and Tamil Nadu have recently experienced, there is a much greater case for extending the facilities of ‘cooperative federalism’ by allowing the states to accept the international assistance and help to meet contingency situations. This is especially relevant and important when the National Disaster Management Plan itself allows for it. If the Union Government is still insensitive to the emergency situations as faced by coastal states like Kerala, ‘cooperative federalism’ would have no meaning at all. Such a situation would eventually undermine the very fabric of India’s democratic polity and governance.


    The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. The details of his profile are available @ http://kmseethi.com/ Prof Seethi can be reached at [email protected]

    First published in Countercurrents.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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