Brackish Reflections on the Great Deluge of 2018: Roby Rajan

This is a guest post by ROBY RAJAN

Epic. Biblical. Apocalyptic. These are some of the words that have been used to describe the floods and landslides that have wreaked havoc in Kerala over the last few weeks. Entire towns and cities were submerged, and entire rivers altered their courses overnight.

Over the years Malayalis have learnt to see the principal threat from nature as emanating from the churning ocean that lies to their west. Few imagined that an equally serious threat lies to the east: the Sahyadri mountains and the 44 rivers that flow down its slopes to irrigate the plains before emptying out into the Arabian Sea.

In the immediate aftermath of the floods, there is a widespread feeling that the narrow strip of land that is Kerala is under assault from both its flanks. The collective dread verges on the existential now.And if there is any silver lining to be discerned in the catastrophe, it is that there has been an unprecedented surge of solidarity and cooperation across the length and breadth of the land. Relief centers are overflowing with donations, and volunteers of every age and background have come to the aid of their less fortunate brothers and sisters.

A much cherished truism holds that the Malayali can live without his daily bread but not without his daily fish, and it is the fisher men and women from the coast who have always ensured that this non-negotiable part of his diet flows uninterrupted to his kitchen every morning. These fishing communities have traditionally borne the brunt of nature’s fury in Kerala as the ocean has steadily encroached into their lands and homes. Last year’s Ockhi cyclone was only the most spectacular in a steadily worsening series of weather-related threats this community has had to contend with in recent years. Those who dwell further inland have often watched the fishermen’s travails from a distance, considering themselves to be immune from the precariousness that is a daily feature of fishermen’s lives.

This time around however, the fisher-people were among the few who were spared, but it is they who have emerged as the unlikely heroes of these floods. As streets in the towns and cities were transformed into flowing rivers, the fishermen hauled their boats onto lorries and set out to faraway places to rescue the stranded. Many traveled 200 km from southern districts like Trivandrum and Kollam to flooded central towns like Alleppey and Thrissur with gaily painted boats named “Mary Mata” and “Kadalamma” jutting out from behind trucks ploughing through the flood waters. One widely circulated video has a fisherman named Jaisal bending down in the water to offer his horizontal back for stranded women to step on so that they could get into the rescue boat. Countless more would have died had fishermen like Jaisal not navigated their boats skillfully into areas where the official rescue agencies had neither the expertise nor the means to reach.

While the fishermen’s role in the crisis has been exemplary, many other individuals and agencies also rose to the occasion. It has now become fashionable among the budhhijeevi to blame the state for every possible social failing,but during the Kerala floods both the political leadership and the government bureaucracy spent countless sleepless nights coordinating and executing rescue operations. Young people banded together in neighborhoods to organize rescue and relief missions; IT professionals helped set up systems to communicate between the rescuers and the stranded; housewives brought boxes full of food and medicine to relief centers; merchants emptied out their stores to donate clothing and blankets; health professionals worked round the clock administering to the sick and the elderly.

In the absence of this gargantuan effort and the coming together of people from every arena of life, the death toll would doubtless have been much higher than the current estimate of 300. Everywhere, people queued up in an orderly way for relief supplies, and astoundingly there were no reported cases of theft or looting from any of the abandoned homes and businesses. Mosques, temples, and churches threw open their doors to shelter people regardless of religion or caste, and locals of every faith came together to clean up one another’s places of worship.

There has been much subsequent soul-searching about why the state’s ecosystem proved so brittle, cracking like a dry twig underfoot. The immediate reason proffered is this year’s especially vicious monsoon which the meteorological office attributes to unusually low pressure in the Arabian Sea. In addition, long-term explanations like climate change and warming ocean waters were advanced, but also some crackpot theories that put the blame on recurring solar cycles and bombardment by cosmic rays.

But all in all,everyone appears to realize that matters are not so straightforward, that at least some degree of human culpability has to be owned up. Indeed, the general consensus now appears to be that the state is reaping its just deserts for ignoring the recommendations of a 2010 commission that had warned against the alarming rate of stone quarrying and mushrooming of high-rise tourist resorts in the hills. In the last 50 years or so, Malayalis have become accustomed to seeing themselves as more rational and “developed” than their distant kin in the benighted Indo-Gangetic heartland and even their neighboring brethren from the other peninsular states. Successive self-satisfied governments, regardless of political hue, were driven by a deep-seated conviction that the state had hit upon just the right mix of public education, health provision, non-polluting service industries, monetary remittances from overseas, and tolerably effective governance that would set the course for a level of long term progress, prosperity, and equity that their fellow countrymen could only dream of. The 2010 report was therefore barely given a hearing, and even a subsequent watered-down version that made far fewer conservation demands was rejected out of hand as being detrimental to the state’s interests.Like the hillsides that disappeared in mud avalanches which swept away entire villages in their wake, the Malayali has now had to swallow a considerable amount of his “developmental” pride as he surveys a scene of utter devastation all around him.

There is now a widespread feeling that all the chest-thumping about development was perhaps a bit premature, and there even appears to be some contrition about all the paddy fields that were thoughtlessly filled over to construct oversize houses; all the wetlands and flood plains that were eagerly “reclaimed” to build hotels, malls, and amusement parks; all the mountain slopes on which tourist resorts with outlandish names like “Plum Judy” had sprung up; all the river banks and lakesides on which multi-storied luxury condominiums were built, each promising its own unique “water view”;all the hillsides that the relentless quarrying for building material had turned into gaping craters; all the river beds that were mercilessly mined for the sand that was needed to turn baronial fantasies into concretized reality while transforming the rivers themselves into death-traps; all the dams built upstream to harness the rivers for power and water but which proved too feeble to hold the rain waters and, when forced to open their shutters, proved to be the source of watery graves for so many.

All that reckless promotion of resource-intensive tourism in the state’s mountains, forests, and waterfronts has unexpectedly hit the skids, and the Malayali is now left with no option but to disgorge the thin gruel of development he was nurtured on, and begin rethinking the very basis of his collective existence.There is also a sudden surfeit of scientific soothsayers, all claiming to have been lifelong critics of development (at least of the “Kerala model”), all claiming prescience about the impending disaster, all overflowing with righteousness that their dire warnings went unheeded. The state has also witnessed a sudden influx of finger-waving jeremiahs, dishing out a murky brew of barely concealed schadenfreude and oracular pronouncements, and hoping to seize the day to etch their names in the historical record for the benefit of posterity. Pundits spouting “traditional Indian wisdom”have also crawled out of the receding waters warning of more apocalypses to come if their words are not heeded.

To be sure, some of this reproach is well deserved. It’s not as if we did not have “knowledge” that such a disaster might ensue. The two reports mentioned earlier are evidence enough of this. Yes, we had the “knowledge”– in a manner of speaking — so why was it not acted upon?Why does this kind of “knowledge” inevitably languish on office shelves or stay buried under other sundry reports –until disaster strikes and some superannuated commission chairperson dusts it off the shelves and jogs our memory? Is it enough to trot out the usual suspects of governmental apathy, bureaucratic venality, and corporate greed to account for the lack of socio-symbolic efficacy of this form of (fore-)knowledge?

It’s as if we all know very well that matters are dead serious, that our very survival is at stake, but just the same we don’t really believe it, we push it to the periphery of our consciousness and soldier on with business as usual. And not only that; we keep ramping up the frenetic pace of our activity — as if all our feverish busy-ness will somehow ward off the disaster which we know is imminent. Why this gap between our knowledge and our belief?

Then there are those among us who have unearthed a hitherto unheard-of native deity called “Prakrti Amma”, a Devi whose very name is a directtranslation of the contemporary global eco-goddess “Mother Nature”. This newly minted Amma is held to have her own mysterious rhythm and balance that must never be disturbed, but all indications point to her being more akin to a maternal superego ready to unleash uncontrolled fury on her children for failing to read messages that seem to be issued in deliberately garbled form — as if the very intent of these messages was for them to not be decoded so that a vengeful Amma could then exact retribution from her children for transgressions they did not even know they committed. Furthermore, Prakrti Amma appears indiscriminate in disposing her punishment, her wrath often falling disproportionately on those who harmed her the least and sparing those whose infractions were the most egregious.

While an unprecedented level of inter-communal cooperation and solidarity was witnessed on the ground (or, more accurately, in the water) during the Great Deluge of 2018, various misshapen sea-monsters also raised their heads in social media.Just when one thinks one has hit rock-bottom in the peculiar ethics and morality of this media, the cyber-warriors of Hindutva never fail to remind us that there are yet further depths to be plumbed. It is all the fault of the Christians who settled in the mountains and built their plantations, mansions, and churches on fragile hillsides, these upholders of the perennial faith tell us. Or alternatively, it is the Muslims who have usurped all the state’s timber resources, built ostentatious mosques with counterfeit money smuggled in shipping containers from the Gulf, and whose population is galloping at unsustainable rates who must be held to account. Or then again, it is because Lord Ayyappa is displeased at the prospect of menstruating women polluting his shrine and has unleashed his fury to forestall any possibility of impure women entering his portals. Still others see the floods as an indictment of the state as a whole for populating half its land with mlechhaMuslims and Christians, a land where even the Hindus are not proper Hindus because they love their beef fry and “parotta” more than they love their gods and goddesses, where the communist atheistic government in power may well have deliberately opened the dam shutters to submergeHindu temples…..

But the Malayali is scarcely swayed by these pronouncements. If the floods this year have proven anything beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is that the Malayali is through-and-through a creature of the backwaters where the water is neither like the fresh water of the rivers nor like the salt water of the oceans. The water in these backwaters is “brackish”, a mix of sea and fresh water. Sea water is already water mixed with salt, but it would seem that even this mixture is not mixed enough for the Malayali. A real mixture must be a self-reflexive mixture — a mixture of mixture itself — so that only a mixture of already-mixed sea water and fresh water can yield the waters she calls “brackish”.

No wonder her favorite delicacy is the karimeen (Etroplussuratensis) — the fish she has declared as the “official state fish” — and which thrives only in the doubly-mixed brackishness of the backwaters.In the Malayali’s hierarchy of fish, it is the mixed-mixture of the brackish backwaters which yields the best fish; the second-best fish are to be found in the simple salt-and-water mixture of the ocean; and last of all ranks the fish found in “pure” fresh water. At a time of worldwide search for purity, the Malayali still appears to hold out for the ideal of a doubly-mixed self-reflexive mixture that is embodied in her favorite fish.

One fortuitous by-product of the Great Deluge of 2018 is that it has laid bare the secret of the Malayali political unconscious: “Onwards and Upwards with Brackishness!”. And as long as that remains her motto, the claim contained in her crassly self-promoting blurb “God’s Own Country” will always be something of an understatement.

 

[Roby Rajan is a founder member of the Kochi-based Backwaters Collective, and one of his life-long ambitions has been to crack the code of the Mallu’s political unconscious. Then the Great Deluge happened.]

5 thoughts on “Brackish Reflections on the Great Deluge of 2018: Roby Rajan

  1. Mukul Dube

    “This time around however, the fisher-people were among the few who were spared, but it is they who have emerged as the unlikely heroes of these floods.”

    They are heroes. To call them “unlikely heroes” is most offensive.

    1. robyrajan@hotmail.com

      Agree wholeheartedly, Mukul. “Unlikely” only from the vantage point of mainstream society which rarely ever comes to the fisher-people’s aid when they are the victims — of storms, sea-erosion, collisions with merchant ships, etc. The Malayali middle-class takes it for granted that the fishermen should put out to sea every morning and risk their lives to keep their kitchen-tables well supplied. One possible reason for this attitude is that fisher-people rank quite low in the caste hierarchy, regardless of religion. So, yes, they are unconditionally the heroes of 2018, absolutely no disagreement there. Indeed, by their heroic actions during the floods, they have emerged as the new ethico-political locus of Kerala society as a whole. It is the middle-class that should hang its head in shame for having ignored the precariousness of fisher-people’s everyday lives, and for not coming to their assistance when they most need it.

  2. Hartman de Souza

    Hard-hitting piece, very moving but also very sad…

    “Indeed, the general consensus now appears to be that the state is reaping its just deserts for ignoring the recommendations of a 2010 commission that had warned against the alarming rate of stone quarrying and mushrooming of high-rise tourist resorts in the hills…

    “…driven by a deep-seated conviction that the state had hit upon just the right mix of public education, health provision, non-polluting service industries, monetary remittances from overseas, and tolerably effective governance that would set the course for a level of long term progress, prosperity, and equity that their fellow countrymen could only dream of. The 2010 report was therefore barely given a hearing, and even a subsequent watered-down version that made far fewer conservation demands was rejected out of hand as being detrimental to the state’s interests…

    “…Like the hillsides that disappeared in mud avalanches which swept away entire villages in their wake, the Malayali has now had to swallow a considerable amount of his “developmental” pride as he surveys a scene of utter devastation all around him…”

    I’ve just come back from Goa, which was spared a similar fate due to a trick of the wind. The words above resonate with the same sad chord.

    Do you think Goa cares? Right now they are busy working overtime to complete a six-lane highway along the coast, from south to north, and two major bridges: one across the Mandovi bang in between two others (one which lost a span in the middle not so long ago) and one across the Zuari…

  3. Ajit Haridas

    ‘…ignoring the recommendations of a 2010 commission’ ….I think you are referring to the Gadgil Panel Report of 31 August 2011. Some panel members have come out publicly with ‘I told you so’. This has been amplified in the old and new media, and creates your impression of ‘general consensus’. The Report does not have one word on flood events, 100y or otherwise, flood velocities and inundation maps. There is no even a list of rivers and hydrographs. The report divides the whole of Western Ghats into arbitrary 9km x 9 km squares and classifies it as eco-sensistive zone 1, 2, 3. There is no ground level data and the exercise is done with satellite images. The committee was asked ‘to demarcate areas within the Western Ghats Region which need to be notified as ecologically sensitive’. This is the business of a permanent commission, not the part time job of a committee of academics. The honest approach would have been to return the brief or else get the terms of reference changed. At most, the committee of ecologists was competent to set a methodology for assessing the ecological diversity of a physically meaningful area. As example, it could have taken a small watershed and shown how to assign a ‘eco-value’. Birdwatchers can have their say, but cannot be the final authority on everything from geology to agriculture to power to mining.
    The idea that the paddy field is the natural ecology of Kerala, threatened by ‘development’ is unduly sentimental. Paddy fields represent geo-engineering on a scale that dwarfs present ‘development’. The damage paddy fields caused to existing ecology (may be 300years ago) to must have been devastating. Now that paddy cultivation or any other agriculture is non-viable in Kerala, because of fragmentation caused by land reforms and politically untouchable inheritance laws, it is natural to reclaim the lands. If there is a lesson to be learnt from the flood, it is that, It is time to engineer river courses, straighten out channels and plan the reclamation of flood plains. The ‘contrition about all the paddy fields that were thoughtlessly filled over to construct oversize houses’ is more in the eye of the beholder. Technology will fail and will be replaced with new, more powerful technology. It is inevitable, whatever the sentiment.

    1. robyrajan@hotmail.com

      Ajit, Thank you for your response which gets to the heart of just what we mean by “knowledge” in this instance. One thing we can all agree on is that this was a catastrophe that caused untold suffering: hundreds of lives were lost, houses and property worth billions of rupees were destroyed, thousands of families were uprooted and displaced. It will take many years for Kerala to recover from the effects of these floods and landslides. The key question is whether there was some form of fore-knowledge that could have averted this disaster. At least one member of the 2010 Commission has suggested that such an outcome was indeed foretold in their report. Your main beef in the first part of your response appears to be with the quality of the science in that report.

      We have no means of knowing whether a permanent commission could have foretold the disaster better than a part-time committee of academics. Besides, what is at issue here is not the bureaucratic composition of the commission but the quality of knowledge generated. You are quite right that the “the report does not have one word on flood events, flood events, and inundation maps” or even a “list of rivers and hydrographs”, and that the entire exercise used satellite images to designate specific zones as ecologically sensitive. The substance of your objection appears to be that the science was not “hard” enough — that practitioners of what are termed the “ecological sciences” (which was the commission chairperson’s home discipline at IISc Bangalore) are little more than “bird watchers”. Perhaps there should indeed have been hydrologists, soil scientists, climatologists, geologists, civil engineers, and dam specialists also on the committee. Whether the expertise of all these separate disciplines could have been combined to warn us that a certain threshold of sustainability had been crossed and what the consequences of that might be is anybody’s guess. What we witnessed during the Great Deluge was a complex interaction of short-term weather systems, long-term climatic change, deforestation, soil erosion, upstream construction, and a variety of other downstream factors. Do we have a science that is adequate to this complexity? Your suggestion that “ground level data” should have been collected is surely a valuable one; perhaps this “ground level data” should also take into account the experiential knowledge of people who live in or near ecologically vulnerable zones.

      Unlike the first part of your response, the second part where you recommend “the engineering of river courses, straightening out of channels, and reclamation of flood plains” appears reckless and to have no basis other than a blind techno-utopianism. To be sure, paddy fields have not been the perennial natural ecology of Kerala, but we do know that in recent years they have played a valuable role in channeling and holding surface water runoff and preventing flooding. We have now gotten rid of the paddy fields, but have not replaced them with anything else that would perform a similar function. Assuredly, paddy fields are only one piece of a much larger puzzle. The “land fragmentation” you bemoan was part and parcel of the reforms which emerged from the demand for social justice in mid-twentieth century Kerala and cannot be reversed. That does not mean that land reclamation is the only option we are left with now. Perhaps what we truly need is a new socio-political imagination informed by a democratic environmental awareness which can come up with creative new solutions. To trust that technology will inevitably lead us out of this blind alley seems more like religious faith than a proper scientific attitude.

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