After Kavalappara: Is the Future that of Ecological Patriotism?

I guess bad habits in development take a very long time to unlearn. Even in the face of the direst of warnings.

I know that last year, when taken completely by surprise, Kerala rose to the occasion. It appeared that a new civil society had come to being around the flood rescue and relief work, and that promised a new lease of life for our flagging-if-still-working project of people’s planning and political decentralization. It appeared that there was a real chance to stop the bureaucratic-technocratic coterie from shoving this ecologically-fragile area down the path of utterly destructive infrastructure-obsessed growth. It seemed that we could now seriously expose the depredations of the predatory capitalists, especially in the construction sector.

But nothing happened. The new civil society was put to bed till the next disaster – imagined to be in some dim, distant future. The circling vultures were shooed away (KPMG!), but many of them were patient; they waited. When the neo-savarna elites of Kerala began their attack on Kerala in the wake of the SC’s judgment on the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple, they got their chance. The Post-disaster Needs Assessment Report prepared by the UN team along with local researchers, which highlighted the urgency of adopting an ecological vision in development, was quietly pushed aside, and instead, the absurdly-infrastructure-obsessed Rebuilding Kerala programme was proposed. Helmed by socialist leaders who seem, sadly, to have forgotten socialism itself – the leadership of the ruling CPM – the authorities were poised to relaunch Kerala on the same destructive path. Predatory capitalists got away by making hefty donations to the Chief Minister’s relief fund. Construction and all other destructive ‘growth’ activities resumed. At the ground level, barring some significant exceptions (all of which have withstood the test of this year’s alarming floods), people utilized the relief money not to build back better, but to restore a sense of their – ecologically unsustainable- normal. Not surprisingly, many of them suffer equal or worse losses this time.

And then this year, the horror, again. More people had to take refuge in camps.  More worryingly, the grim reality that the Western Ghats have finally started to cave in after unrelenting exploitation, manifest in devastating landslides that have buried whole communities. There were eighty landslides in just two days of destructive rain.  Kavalappara at Nilambur and Puthumala in Wayanad will remain in Malayali memory as names that make people shudder, for a long time. Not just because of the loss of life but also because of the memory of green, verdant hills done to death by merciless quarrying –  there were twenty-nine rock quarries digging out the belly of the hills in a radius of five kilometers around Kavalappara. The dead are often the poorest — folk forced to be content with less-than-ideal land to live on. But many of them were upwardly-mobile — with children working in middle-class jobs and on their way up. All of it crushed under and swallowed by the helplessly-falling body of the dead hill.

I tell myself: when will we stop lying to the world?

It is true that that the post-disaster needs assessment report was ignored. But even in that report, we were clearly lying to ourselves. The report does not mention the venality of much of our scientific personnel and our bureaucracy at all levels; it does not mention the dangerous way in which politics has been evacuated from our public, such that even socialists do not know what is socialism anymore, and so are utterly mesmerized by infrastructure-obsessed growth and tolerant of predatory capital; it does not mention how the bulwark of local democracy has been recklessly weakened by both the right- and left-governments, so much so that the panchayats are almost powerless now to intervene effectively in environmentally-destructive activities; it does not reflect on the fact that civil society in ‘normal’ times here is mostly dominated by caste,religion, and community interests, which are in turn part of or aligned with predatory capital. Without a consideration of these serious impediments, the post-disaster needs assessment report ended up as a well-intentioned document useful as a compilation of what needs to be done assuming the best political and social conditions, but ultimately doomed to remain ineffectual. We must stop lying about how wonderful Kerala is if we are to confront the germs that infect our body and prevent us from healing.

I also told myself: we must avoid false consolation.

In the past few days, the media has been replete with stories of incredible generosity, almost all such acts by people of limited means. On social media, such stories are highlighted with messages that console us : as long as there are people like them, there is nothing to fear. I beg to disagree. With full respect for the astonishing goodness of heart that these kind souls have displayed, I would say: such a response was called for when we were totally unprepared, last year, but not now.  It is simply not fair to take so much from people who clearly have little; indeed, why are we not able to make construction-sector giants, and massive retail capitalists like Yusuf Ali, and the mammoth hospitals which have committed huge environmental crimes through their encroachments, pay the full price of the damage that they have done collectively? The Chief Minister let us know well in advance that the government has the necessary resources for relief and rescue and is fully ready – why is it that our political movements are so reluctant to force the leaden-footed government machinery to deliver well? There was a time in which Malayalis were adept at the art of keeping government officials on their toes in matters pertaining to welfare – the communist movement was well-known for its successes on that front. How come all that skill has been either lost or deliberately unused? Given that the economy is downbeat and that the scenario abroad is not felicitous either, it is likely that in the event of yet another flood, people cannot manage through self-help of this sort.

Yes, in the view of the fact that the civil society that rose up in August 2018 was not allowed to grow, it is time to acknowledge that this discourse on ‘people’s resilience’ serves only capital and neoliberalism. I know that I am going to become highly unpopular for saying this – but too often, we seem to be seeing a new self-help regime under which the resources and energies of the people are drawn out and channelised by IAS officers who are projected in the media like rock stars. I am sorry if this sounds harsh – not for a moment would I belittle the individual commitment and sincerity many of these officers have shown. But it is a sad reality of the times that what they manage is a self-help regime. In the long run, we cannot afford this. With falling incomes and even more enormous losses this time, people cannot afford to contribute infinitely. We have to move towards a more ecologically-sustainable way of life, and politics should wake up to that reality and take lead. Let us remember that in the disaster risk-reduction discourse, the word ‘resilience’ has always been tricky: it is interpreted to mean both the ability of a community to return to normalcy after a disaster, and the ability of the community to rebuild itself post-disaster without government support. The latter is very advantageous to the neoliberal elite and useless to people.

In the end, however, there is the question who this ‘we’ that I am referring to is, and honest truth, I cannot help feeling that it lies in the future, if we indeed have one left. All around me I see only lethargy, reluctance, and bad faith in the looming shadow of predatory capital. But perhaps, just like the horrendous famines of the late nineteenth century forced an economic nationalism from the modern-educated Indians, maybe the devastating ecological events of the early twenty-first century will evoke a great wave of ecological patriotism among young Malayalis growing up in the pall of the death of the Sahya mountains. One may not live to see this generation, but it will come.

Maybe that is what we all need, the peoples of Kerala, of Tamil Nad, Andhra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Assam, Bihar – peoples of everywhere colonised by environmental predators — ecological patriotism. And for that, we probably need to ask first, like my friend the gifted poet Ra Sh:

Why is this damn river
In tearing hurry to reach the sea?
Why is that giant teak tree
Uprooting its roots one by one
To leap into that river?
Why are the birds roosting on the tree
Leaving their nests
To fly with the storm?

Why is everything everyone bound for the sea?
Why the planes trains cars ships
Why the cattle lions camels rats
Why the men women kids bodies
Why the bridges houses malls toilets
Why the temples mosques churches graves
Why the ploughs tractors threshers sickles
Why the channels panels studios news
Why the parliaments forts moats sewers
Why the rifles guns cannons tanks
Why the roads parks theatres slums
Why is everything everyone bound for the sea?

Why fire air ether earth
Why skin blood semen eggs
Why is everything drowning in the sea?

Why the sea is swallowing the sea?
Why the sea sea sea sea?
Why the sea frothing sea?
Why the sea?

[‘Sea, frothing Sea’, 2018]

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