The lesson of Kerala’s floods: empower local people before it’s too late

The devastation unleashed on the southern Indian state of Kerala could have been avoided. 

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A fisherman called K P Jaisal kneels down on all fours in the murky water, in the middle of what appears to have once been a road. The water comes up to his armpits and barely clears his chin – but he remains steady as a line of women and children use his back as a stepping-stone to the safety of an inflatable orange boat. 

This scene, caught on camera and shared widely on social media, is one many moving images to have emerged over the last week from the flood-hit state of Kerala, in southern India. 

As the worst rains in almost a century poured down on the region’s Western Ghats mountain ranges, inundating villages and claiming the lives of more than 350 people, local fishermen came to the aid of those in flooded homes. Over 2,800 are said to have volunteered their boats and services.

Their help has been hailed as invaluable, and as their images have been shared, they’ve also offered a kind of psychological balm; a reassuring sense of control in the face of the uncontrollable. 

“He’s #Jaisal – a fisherman – truly an Angel – Humanity is still alive,” tweeted a filmmaker in Mumbai about the above gesture.

The government has thus promised 3,000 rupees ($40) compensation to each involved (though some have refused the money, with one man telling CNN that he “didn’t do it expecting benefits”). 

But such inspiring examples of human agency also stand in stark contrast to some of the wider lessons coming out of the disaster. In particular, the failure of the authorities to have acted before it was too late.

Over recent days, a number of poor planning decisions have come under scrutiny for their role in exacerbating the impact of the historic levels of rain.

The mismanagement of hydro-dams, the spread of controversial sand mining operations, and poorly-planned construction on flood-plains and hillsides, are all thought to have contributed. As has more than 40 years of deforestation within the state, which allowed flood waters to rip down the hillsides with gathering speed.

One man at the heart of this unfolding debate is the internationally renowned ecologist, Professor Madhav Gadgil. His long-standing battle to alert the authorities to these issues is reaching new audiences in the wake of the floods, and carries an important warning for the wider world.

“Yes, there is an intense rainfall event which has caused this,” he told the Indian Express, “But I am quite convinced that the last several years’ developments in the state have materially comprised its ability to deal with events like this and greatly increased the magnitude of the suffering that we are seeing today.”

In 2010-2011, Gadgil chaired a team known as the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP). It was tasked by the government with balancing development pressures and conservation in the mountainous region that runs through Kerala and Goa, and is home to the source of more than 50 rivers.

The WGEEP report recommended that the Western Ghats be graded into three different ecologically sensitive zones, with varying limits placed on new industrial development, mining and quarrying. The Idukki dam, where dangerous amounts of silt had accumulated as a result of deforestation and development, was also cited as a particular flood risk.

Yet protests from the sand-mining and quarrying lobbies stirred up a backlash against intervention. Opposition groups began to frame the report as a threat to workers’ jobs, and Gadgil subsequently became “possibly the first Indian scientist to have his effigy burnt”, according a 2013 article in the Telegraph India.

In the years since, Gadgil has repeatedly defended the panel's thinking and pointed out the emphasis on creating a “people’s movement”, with all final development decisions based on extensive inputs from the local communities (gram sabhas). But a follow-up report, authored by a different committee, removed this element of local decision making and helped to confuse its message.

This tussle over the distribution of power between local people, corporations and centralised government in the production of the report, cannot be separated from Gadgil’s wider diagnosis of the problems with environmental management.

“We seem headed today towards elaborating an economy of violence that is promoting not just jobless, but job-destroying growth abusive of our natural resources,” he said in a lecture given in 2016, and citing the example of the violation of local safety-related directions by quarrying companies.

A better alternative going forward, Gadgil argues, lies in putting control over natural resources into the hands of local people and co-operatives – such as is already being done with women’s collectives in Kerala, and new nature and people-friendly mining co-operatives in Goa, he suggests.

But will this wider message be heard? Certainly the discourse surrounding a “natural” disaster needs to be interrogated more deeply, says Dr Nayanika Mathur, associate professor of anthropology at Oxford University.

Her research into the disastrous 2013 floods in the state of Uttarakhand reveals a similar connection to “long-standing neglect of the environment with poor planning, absence of an ecological consciousness, and rampant construction of structures such as dams”.

And like Gadgil, she agrees that an answer lies in much greater decentralisation and devolution of power to local communities: “One of the big problems is this 'one size fits all' approach in centralised planning which often comes alongside an absence of ecological consciousness.”

Thus while climate change may well be an example of an "economy of violence" played out on a vast scale, Kerala's experiences are a reminder of the local scale on which its impacts are felt - and on which they can also, to some extent, be mitigated.

If the region's fishermen are being hailed as heroes for their response to the flood, perhaps they should also be given greater say in regulating some of the local environmental conditions that could help stave off its worst effects in future.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.