Everywhere the talk is still about rebuilding Kerala: I say, we need to talk about healing Kerala. The change in phrasing is not trivial. When we admit that we need to heal, rather than rebuild, we are admitting much that we did not care to own up till now. That is, we would be agreeing that the problem at hand is a human one and not just one that can be resolved through technical intervention; that, as a complex process, it will take its time and quick-fixes will not suffice. Thankfully, there is a widespread discussion on the recommendations of the Gadgil Committee Report and the Post-disaster needs assessment report of last year; quarrying has been stopped all over the state. Maybe we will heal, indeed. What do we need to do to heal, and not just rebuild?
First of all, I think, make sure that every construction from now, including the homes and other buildings that are being restored now, happens only under close scrutiny for sustainability. Wherever such construction happened last year, the new structures withstood the fury of the waters. However, maybe we also need to take a longer view of limiting construction itself? More than 12 lakhs of houses were vacant in Kerala in 2011 – a fact brought to our attention by Kerala’s People’s Science Movement, the KSSP. Many of these homes are built by non-resident Malayalis who visit occasionally. Maybe the government should take measures to ensure that these houses are all utilized? That they are all rented out – maybe through imposing a punitive tax on those who keep them unutilized? That should bring down the artificially-inflated rents in Kerala, which make a monthly EMI on a house or apartment more attractive than a monthly rent payment? Or, in the case of NRI who do not intend to return, maybe the government should fix a price, buy them up, and redistribute them, on controlled rents, to people who have either lost their homes or lead a precarious existence on ecologically fragile areas? When rents come down, the rush to own housing may indeed come down. Why is it that our response to the destruction of housing is inevitably of the sort that reinforces property ownership and individualizing solutions?
Secondly, can’t we make better use of available built space in flood relief? Why only public buildings and those of civil society? Anyone travelling on Kerala’s highways would notice the astonishing numbers of marriage halls that have popped up on both sides of the road. These are mainly spaces for ostentatious weddings – conspicuous consumption by Kerala’s elites, and so usually on better land and equipped with good facilities. Why cannot those whose homes are seriously damaged by moved there until their homes have been properly and sustainably restored under government supervision? The marriage industry now provides employment to many people – why cannot the same workers be hired to help the occupants? Maybe the government should requisition these huge marriage – or convention-centres in safe areas and accommodate the victims, and spare government schools and community spaces. Why not Yusuf Ali’s malls? Ravi Pillai’s fancy hotel? The monstrous-looking super speciality hospitals? After all, many of those buildings are one reason for these recurring calamities? I mean, why cannot we utilize spaces created by the market, for consumption and pleasure?
Thirdly, is it not time to revamp Kerala’s Panchayati raj? It is true that the local government network works much better in Kerala than elsewhere, but it is a mistake (that both Gadgil and the PDNA report make) to assume that it is in the best of health and capable of launching the healing process. On the contrary, the past years have seen a steady depletion of the powers of elected councils and the erosion of key democratic forums like the grama sabha. Indeed, we need to first heal local democracy before we heal Kerala. The powers of the elected council that were taken away need to be restored – especially to do with quarrying and industrial licensing. The grama sabhas need to be transformed into forums in which marginalized groups present themselves not as passive beneficiaries, but as citizens able to advance their collective interests. The whole orientation of local government welfarism needs to turn away from the satisfaction of individual interests towards long term collective welfare. In other words, in order to heal we need to revive socialist social ethics.
The flaws of the system were quite real though largely unnoticed: after all, communities that practised sustainable use of natural resources were at the very margins of the post-1990s ‘responsibilized’ welfare dispensation in Kerala. Now it is time to refurbish local democracy by making it more inclusive of ecosystem peoples whose knowledges have been sadly devalued hitherto. Hence the transformation of Kerala’s high-land panchayats in ways that make them facilitators, and not obstructors, of the implementation of the Forest Rights Act becomes necessary not just for the tribal people but equally for the long-term well-being, indeed, the very future, of all other people here. It is time that we start translating the increasing consensus in social science on jettisoning the nature-culture dichotomy into policy terms – like, for instance, granting nature a ‘voice’ in our deliberations – especially in the grama sabhas – through people who have relied on it for livelihood over centuries.