The people of Kerala are in distress. Rains here are usually bountiful but floods of the kind seen this season are unprecedented. They have brought untold misery and devastation. This is a time when the nation should have come together under the leadership of the Centre to respond with unity, togetherness and a sense of stretch to help mitigate the suffering of the people. Instead, the hallmark of the response has been the dispute over whether or not the India should accept the foreign aid on offer and the miniscule relief first of Rs100 crore, increased later by Rs 500 crore, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as more voices spoke out. In many ways, it is a tribute to the arrogance of the government that the Centre stands out singularly as an entity that is perceived and might as well be ranged against the State of Kerala.
The Prime Minister has sought to correct this with his message that the entire nation stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Kerala. But the Centre’s response still remains short of what is required to rehabilitate and rebuild given the extent of the damage. With more than 370 people dead, one million displaced, 300,000 farmers affected and crops destroyed across 54,000 hectares destroyed, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has placed the losses at over Rs 20,000 crore. It has been a bleak Onam for the State and the many anxious and worried Keralites who work and live elsewhere but have their eyes and minds fixed on the devastation in their home State.
The practice of not accepting bilateral financial assistance for relief operations in cases of natural disasters is not new. The policy dates back to the tsunami of December 2004, when the government of Dr Manmohan Singh said India could cope with the disaster and would seek help only if required. There is merit in the policy and case by case exemptions can be made. Moreover, foundations and organisations can route funds through the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund or similar heads that may be set up. It would therefore not be fair to attack the BJP government for upholding what has by now become unwritten Indian policy. But the offer of help by UAE (along with some other nations like Maldives, Qatar and Thailand), has been swifter than the aid on offer form the Centre. These nations opened up channels to explore giving aid, the UAE set up a committee and reached out to the Chief Minister through a Kerala business leader in Dubai.
No one would question the rejection of foreign aid or demand a relook at the policy if the Centre was upfront in recognising the intensity of the disaster and showed generosity and speed in responding to the situation. For a government invested in overly clever communication skills, which have also earned it the recognition of an event management force, the poor response here can only show the distance, physical and political, playing out in the way the Centre has responded. In effect, the rejection of foreign aid is not the issue. What stands out is that a foreign government (which has many Keralites fueling its economy) feels so much more connected to the people of Kerala that the aid on offer is (reportedly) not only swifter but also in amounts higher than what the Centre has released. Of course, the government has clarified that Rs 600 crore released by the Centre is “advance assistance”. The home ministry has said that “additional funds would be released from the NDRF (National Disaster Relief Fund) on assessment of the damages as per laid down procedure.” More aid will certainly follow from New Delhi but that is not going to fix the angst and the perception that the response has been tardy. Everything the Centre does now in terms of its relief response will be seen by that lens alone.
Another unnecessary controversy has been stirred by supply of almost 90,000 metric tonnes of food grain by the ministry of Food and Public Distribution with reports that Kerala will be billed for it or will have to adjust it against its entitlement under the National Disaster Response Fund (which is yet unknown) or the Food Security Act, which would mean it is getting what it is entitled to anyway and there is no quarter given to food relief. This was entirely insensitive and while inter-government adjustments and transfers are routine, flagging them at this time, allowing for all sorts of controversies and fueling of hurt is another sign of the insensitivity of the government.
This is not the first time that the establishment under Modi has appeared misaligned with the people and issues in Kerala. It was about two years back that Modi spoke of the health of infants in Kerala and compared it to conditions in Somalia, inviting ridicule from people within and outside Kerala. A year ago, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who incidentally has stepped up and announced relief contributions to Kerala on behalf of his State, also ventured into unseemly controversy when he asked Kerala to learn the management of public hospitals from Uttar Pradesh. Those controversies have died down but they showed a shocking lack of knowledge and understanding of the pride of place that Kerala occupies in India when it comes to areas like public health. Kerala’s experience is rich and over a long period. It leads the country and presents a picture of advanced levels of development when it comes to numbers for maternal mortality, infant mortality, and the Under Five Mortality Rate (U5MR) – all of which is delivered under a system that works, not because of the initiative or calling cry of a particular leader of any political party. One data point puts it succinctly. Kerala was the first Indian state to achieve below replacement level fertility in 1987, while India is yet to achieve this demographic milestone even during 2015-16, when Kerala’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has further dipped to 1.6. This means Kerala achieved without any coercion what China could not and had to have a law to force couples to have no more than two children.
That is the power of development and the significance of Kerala. Its models can teach the rest of India. Kerala has similarly made huge strides in delivering public services online. The donations made to the Kerala Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund can be seen live as of today. The same cannot be said for the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. It’s time the Centre steps up, puts aside all controversy and unhesitatingly takes up leadership of the relief effort in Kerala.
Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR.
(Syndicate: The Billion Press)