Two Reports and Many Strategic Agents: Post-Disaster Thinking in Kerala

Two massive calamities, tremendous losses, continuing signs of serious ecological destruction impending — yet all we Malayalis seem to have produced in response: two reports, and even more frenzied strategic calculation. There is little doubt that the disasters happened in the first place at least partially because of the latter, but there seems to be no rethinking. Instead, we have strategic agents refurbishing their strategies to the new circumstances.

What else explains the Kerala government’s  Rebuilding Kerala Development Programme Report (RKDPR)? It popped up all of a sudden around the end of last year, after the UN-led Post-Disaster Needs Assessment Report (PDNAR), and even members of the Chief Minister’s Advisory Council were caught unawares.  The economist K P Kannan, whose life’s work has been focused on Kerala’s economy, a member of the Council, remarked in a recent interview in the Sastragathy that they did not know of it until the third meeting of the council. None knew who put it together, and there is no mention of this in the report itself. It draws heavily but selectively on the PDNAR, but also perhaps on the projects that were prepared for World Bank funding – and Kannan reaffirms this impression. The draft report was made available online for comments but there is no clear idea about these experts or the public consultations.

This came as a shock to many of us who had believed that the PDNAR would be the guiding document. The PDNAR employs a standard post-disaster needs assessment methodology that is sensitive to the local context and which clearly goes beyond the immediate recovery and “addresses the root causes of vulnerability” (p.44). In other words, the aim is to make Kerala the first green state in India and it highlights the need to balance sustainability and equity (p. 44). And, right from the outset, the PDNAR seeks to combine technical expertise with local democracy and stress environmental recovery as central to material recovery. True,  the PDNAR suffers often from the lack of a brutally frank assessment of the laggard, corrupt, and irresponsible bureaucracy that runs Kerala, especially the sectors relevant to our ecological safety, the conspicuous lack of commitment to democracy and long-term well-being evident among our politicians, and the ignorance and narrow self-interest cultivated as a matter of pride among Kerala’s elites. Also, there is a certain blindness to the weakness of the manner in which the inclusion of women, dalits, and tribals as governmental categories of welfare, and not really as political interest-groups, in the framework of Kerala’s decentralized governance poses serious limitations in their agency. Thus the recommendations regarding strengthening the grama sabha and social audit for monitoring, otherwise constructive, ring hollow. The erosion of the grama sabha as a democratic forum in Kerala’s local governance is by now widely accepted in the academic and non-academic literature but does not appear as a serious hurdle to be tackled in the PDNAR.

But precisely because the PDNAR has been shaped by firm commitment to development as a democratic process, parts of the report do bring to light that which has escaped the PDNAR’s fieldwork: particularly the chapter on Human Impact, in which many observations go against the sanitized vision of governance and democracy presented in some of the earlier chapters. The application of the Accountability to Affected Population survey conducted in Alappuzha brought to light several limitations and failings in relief (p. 358). This chapter, therefore, notes the need to make the recovery process citizen-friendly, and importantly, recasts marginalized groups as possessors of knowledge valuable in the building back better process: identifying women, adivasis, and inland fishers as most-affected vulnerable groups as people who may be empowered as change-agents, the report says: ‘…They possess traditional know-how and skills for managing natural resources, particularly, water management, agriculture, fisheries, and conserving biodiversity. In the process of building back better, it will be imperative to involve them in building a green and resilient Kerala.’ (p.361). The identification of these groups as knowledge-groups, and not as political interest-groups is perhaps interesting.

While this characterization certainly endows these groups with fresh value, it may not necessarily lead to their empowerment – because utilizing the knowledge of a group that is significantly disadvantaged need not necessarily require or involve their elevation to a position of power, or an undoing of the existing hierarchy. However, the PDNAR goes beyond merely mouthing pieties about the knowledge of indigenous communities by explicitly recommending the transfer of resources to them. Thus discussing the restoration of livelihoods, it recommends thus: ‘The Forest Rights Act and Protected Forest Land should be used to implement the land distribution programme (buy land) to provide land to every landless member of STs and SCs within the next two years.’ (p.325)

Unfortunately, the PDNAR was quietly pushed aside for the RKDPR. Probably the creation of senior bureaucrats eyeing post-retirement assignments in the World Bank or other such agencies, it attempts a clumsy, shameful double-speak that tries to cover rank strategic decision-making with a very superficial commitment to the PDNAR. If the PDNAR does not acknowledge sufficiently the weaknesses of our governance in both the realm of bureaucracy and that of democracy, the RKDPR report does the opposite: it highlights only the weaknesses of the governance structure, reducing it to the inefficient bureaucracy while largely ignoring democracy, treating the LSGIs as largely service-delivery institutions. There is, of course, no review at all of the specific history of development interventions in the state which surely saw several important holistic experiments, no matter how limited they may have been, in the state – during the late 1990s. So the impression that the RKDPR is ‘unique’ is based on an erasure of the past. The ‘new’ interest in holistic approaches and respect for complexity is defended in terms of gains in efficiency. For instance, the claim about the RKDPR being ‘unique’ highlights this in a prominent way. It is claimed that the RKDPR will:

… adopt a multi-hazard, multi-sectoral programmatic approach, recognizing the interdependencies between sectors and aim to enhance institutional and regulatory capacity for resilient recovery. This holistic approach will allow the programme to maximize the programme’s goals, as it will be able to incrementally take advantage of the gains in one sector to support the opportunity of progress in other sectors. In addition to the ability to capitalize on potential mutual gain between sectoral interventions, such a programmatic approach will respond more holistically, minimize redundancies and increase opportunities to ingrain resilience across the system. (p.32)

The RKDPR’s faith in technoscience and neoliberalism is definitely supreme: the words ‘smart’ and ‘resilient’ recur many times in the chapters. Its obsession with ‘smart’ seems to me to be the official endorsement of what some theorists have called ‘smartmentality’ – by which they refer to the management of individual citizens through systems of technology that direct, discipline, and control them by modulating their behaviour. Each chapter contains elaborate proposals for the development of such systems – management systems controlling various resources and human behaviour (say, transport), grids, smart monitoring, control rooms. This is presided over by a technocratic elite which the report calls forth in its recommendations for numerous working groups, committees, multi-sectoral committees and so on. It purports to be committed to local democracy in the post-disaster rebuilding process, but clearly, the logic of efficiency and individual choice that drives it works in the opposite direction. The heavy emphasis on IT-enabled communications may seem to rest on the concern with extending consumer/citizen choice across space and time, but it also makes such choice rest heavily on private network providers – indeed there is no discussion on such substantial matters that surely arise when such recommendations are made. The stress on ‘e-polling’ and online platforms for gauging stakeholder acceptance and collecting ideas for rebuilding assumes that all people in Kerala are likely to have access to such technology. So, on p. 40, where stakeholder acceptance is mentioned, we find this statement:

A system of e-polling will be introduced to ascertain user acceptance of tested solutions as part of this online platform. All the project profiles of RKI will be uploaded in the online portal for a week to a fortnight for gathering views of stakeholders, prior to placing before the Advisory Council and the Council of Ministers for approval.

While internet penetration is certainly high in Kerala, the skill levels for serious intervention may not be as high; besides, the poorest and the most vulnerable are excluded from such spaces here too.

In contrast, promoting knowledge innovations and technology figures as an important, though, strikingly as neither the only nor the most important ‘pillar’ of the recovery and reconstruction process. The PDNAR’s insistence that knowledge-generation on disaster geography must necessarily enhance ‘the local government’s knowledge base with such maps, to be made available at appropriate scales, enabling them to understand inter-linkages between various risk factors and through cumulative impact’ (p. 48). Grama sabhas are also reimagined as forums to disseminate such knowledge, to produce disaster-informed citizens. In other words, there is a strong stress on crossing the barriers between insular, academic technoscientific institutions and knowledge, and local institutions of democracy, and so grama sabhas are forums for both democratic deliberation and knowledge dissemination. This is to actually further expand the vision of the 1990s. Moreover, the PDNAR also envisages forging a new civil society by linking the young student volunteers who emerged into public life during the flood relief and rescue phases with local democracy and so it explicitly recommends that ‘The student community and the youth, who proved their ability to respond to the crisis, need to be roped in as agents for such a process of knowledge generation and dissemination’ (p.49). And though not explicitly mentioned, this ‘pillar’ also seems to recommend the harnessing of digital publics and the expertise to leverage them to recovery and reconstruction efforts – thus expanding the publics for the effort.

The RKDPR makes constant reference to vulnerable groups such as women and the SC population, but no dedicated chapters are found that discuss the needs of these groups. Interestingly, while the PDNAR recommended the implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the grant of lands to tribal people through it as a way of mitigating the livelihood crisis faced by the tribal people, the RKDPR recommends that they be removed from the forests voluntarily and be given alternate sustainable livelihoods – a measure that tribal communities in Kerala have vociferously opposed and one which is directly in contradiction with the provisions of the Forest Rights Act. Even more seriously, the difficulty in evacuating tribal people from disaster-affected areas is cited as a reason justifying this measure:

In order to enhance the resilience of the forests, the dependence of the tribals on forests should be reduced. Building their capability for alternative and sustainable livelihoods shall be adopted. Further, voluntary relocation of forest dependent communities from deep inside forest areas requires funds and technical assistance. This would enable these communities to relocate to safer terrains. As the experience from the recent floods suggests, the evacuation of forest dwellers was one of the most difficult tasks during the relief and post-flood operations and, further, many of the forest dwellers in relief camps were reluctant to go back to their original habitations and preferred to stay in safer zones. (p.212)

The difficulties in evacuating many city- and town-dwellers in central Kerala during the 2018 floods were clearly caused by the fragmentation of properties protected by unreasonably high boundary walls protecting houses. No call was made to remove or at least reduce the height of these by authorities or post-disaster reports.  The argument that people must be removed from their habitations because authorities find it difficult to shift them out in the wake of disaster sounds plausible only when made with reference to the powerless.

The ecological insensitivity of the RKDPR is too much to be concealed by constant references to terms like ‘sustainability’, ‘ecological assessment’, ‘climate-change awareness’ or ‘agroecology’. Thus the chapter on agriculture speaks of agriculture and the urgent necessity of making institutional arrangements to foster an ‘ecosystem’ in which agribusinesses and external investors thrive in the same breath as if the former will necessarily be furthered by the latter.  In the parts of the RKDPR that are less mendacious, the expansion of infrastructure, up-gradation of technology and data collection and analysis seems to hold the key to ecological sustainability. Primarily, the concern is with building climate-resilient infrastructure and setting up systems of data collection and distribution that will enable its smooth flow between different sectors and institutions.

Really, my dear senior civil servants of Kerala who probably dream of Singapore every night, have you no shame at all? Why do you grant us no intelligence whatsoever? Why do you imagine that no one will see through your pathetic strategies and games? But the truth is that I am not surprised by you, only disgusted. What really pains me is that this offensive document was shoved in our faces by none other than our elected government and that too, by leaders who claim the legacy of the left in Kerala.

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