I write to you as a citizen, so unlike the many eulogies and appeals you have received recently, this will not be sugar-coated. You have received much praise, which is indeed well-deserved. But most of us have done, and are still doing, our duty well, but there is no need to indulge in any more self-praise.
I write to express my misgivings about how we are now dealing with this crisis collectively. First, let me point out that the disaster has hardly receded, except in a narrow way: the waters have receded, but not wholly everywhere even today. And the terrible deluge of waste — emerging from our clogged drains, from the roadside heaps, household piles, dumping yards, the horrendous pollutants from the factories in Eloor, all carried by the waters and admixed in them, and now from homes that are being cleaned — is upon us now, and we do not know where to go. Much of this waste is not perceptible to the naked eye: they will erode us slowly. Thirdly, the return monsoon will arrive in October and there is no guarantee at all that the Bay of Bengal will be free of cyclonic formations then. So, yes, the disaster is not over.
I read your interview in The Hindu. It displays exactly the same sort of denial, of environmental destruction, that environment psychologists talk about discussing responses to climate change, of people continuing to be in denial even though they agree with its reality in their rational minds. You agree that ecological issues exist and they must be addressed, and also quote the familiar phrase associated with reconstruction, about building back better, not just building back. But then you go back a few paragraphs later to assert that it had to do primarily with the heavy rains! This is not your personal fault, nor is it any individual’s Malayali’s failing. But I fear that however unintentionally, your commitment to ecological wisdom in development is shallow. If we are really committed to ecologically- secure futures, then we must begin by becoming aware, once again, of the rhythms of the natural world we live in and acknowledging that they need to figure in our planning.
Slowness may be a virtue for other reasons too. Is it not more important now to deal with the terrible psychological shock that people have endured? There is a terrible blankness one encounters in the eyes of people whose future — even the immediate future — has all of sudden turned invisible. Should we not pause to heal that? Not for a moment would I say that mobilizing finances is unimportant. Yet can we afford to accord less attention to the task of healing searing psychological wounds that may have the most terrible consequences in the long term? Shouldn’t we slow down now to pay attention to our wounded people and indeed wait for the return monsoon to pass before we start the search for finances full-swing? This is not merely about using the services of counsellors, as many of us tend to think. That is a terribly individualized solution. This is about providing immediate material comforts and facilities in the affected areas — which many are working on, but which is also failing in key respects. Was it necessary to end the relief camps so soon? Was it not possible for us to requisition for the immediate purpose and for a limited time-period the many marriage-halls and grounds that are ubiquitous in Kerala and turn them into relief centres for affected families for the necessary period? Was it not possible to hire MNREGS workers there to deliver basic services? Was it necessary to refuse relief claiming that a surplus was available when even basic relief continues to elude many of the relatively remote areas? Was it necessary to reinstate party control over many camps when civil society was playing a stellar role? Should we not pay attention to re-directing the energies of civil society towards the new deluge, of waste, and not reducing that challenge to the immediate one, of cleaning affected houses? So much of Kerala’s visible ‘prosperity’ rested on credit, and people with loans are now sick with worry about why and how they should pay back loans for now-non-existent things. About how they can never get back to normal life without becoming a debtor of some sort or the other. There are youngsters planning to get out of school because they cannot see their secure futures anymore, with parents — often single mothers — losing everything they had. We need our anganwadis restored and functioning again, immediately so that our children can have normal lives again. So that women’s burdens do not triple. We need comfort and assurance for our men who may plunge deeper into alcoholism unable to deal with the psychological trauma.
Slowness is not tardiness. It is the willingness to accept that it takes time and patience for planning anything long-term.
Among your colleagues, especially among bureaucrats, one cannot help noticing the exact opposite: a terrible hurry to get back to the road we were travelling on earlier. So much so that we refuse to be circumspect about accepting an invitation from an organization like KPMG. Please do see that right now, slowness is a virtue. Such hurry, Comrade, that it appears that you really don’t care anymore even for that mere fig-leaf of the claim of being on the global political left! Your deputy here the other day proclaimed that the KPMG was ‘quite alright’ as though childish insistence on being right all the time was important, and not his leftist credentials.
I agree that many figures in the Opposition are quite unsavoury, but the manner in which your deputy proceeds, as though the Opposition can be summarily ignored seems to be a huge deviation from the maturity you displayed when the waters were still pounding us. Please do remind him that the days of the disaster are not yet gone — and anyway, democracy needs an Opposition. Please also remember the Constitutional obligation to start the new planning processes from the Grama Sabhas. Let us not be blinded by our speed, so that we end up sacrificing our well-embedded institutions of local democracy to the most tedious labours and denying them the centrality they deserve in our planning. Please call for mobilizing our panchayats, renew our collectivities. In times of danger, only collectivity works, and we have seen it.
And there is no harm in admitting one’s mistakes. It is very hard to believe that dam management was not flawed at all (while clearly it is not the only reason) and it is really now time for us to introspect truthfully — taking time — if we are not to be wiped off by the waters again. Even if we think it was flawless, there is no harm in introspection, and thinking how it could be bettered. Indeed, we can no longer treat truthfulness as an avoidable quality — self-deception, we all have been warned, is the road to self-destruction. It is not enough to oppose the BJP and Modi; you have to show that you are different from them.
Money is important, I agree. But if we think of that as primary, too much will be lost. In sum, I beg you, please make the future visible again to people who grope in the dark, between the terrible sea of loss and the gaping abyss of debt. Please light it with hope and not with increasingly-hollow paeans to human triumph.