Water vs. Fire in Kerala

If 2018 was a trial by water in Kerala, 2023 seems to be a trial by fire, judging by the horrendous waste-dump fires in the State’s commercial capital, Kochi which have been polluting the air this with the most dangerous mix of toxins (so say the scientific community which has been warning this bunch of callous, stupid, greedy, irresponsible bunch who we have elected to power).

On 2 March a massive fire broke out in the huge waste dump at Brahmapuram, on the banks of the Periyar that was set up in 2007 in the teeth of the stiff opposition offered to it by the village panchayat. This is the place to which all the city waste collected, unsegregated, arrives and is dumped, layer or layer. The incidence of fire is not new, but this time, within a week the smoke from the fire covered a radius of thirty kilometres. The authorities claimed to have extinguished the fire after around a week, but the toxic fumes still torment the densely-populated area. Worse, local residents claim that the city Corporation had resumed dumping there at the dead of night. They have videos and photos of some 65 lorry-loads being taken there at night accompanied by the police and special forces (apparently RAF personnel). Yesterday, in the meeting at the District Collectorate, the Ministers P Rajeev and M B Rajesh claimed that no waste will be taken there, and the media’s questions regarding the claims of local residents were apparently ignored. The soaring unprecedented summer heat only makes the chances of new fires worse — in other words, air in and around Kochi are likely to become toxic at frequent intervals. The public health connotations of this are mind-boggling. Time to stop the preening and posing with the feathers acquired by an earlier generation from the past centrury.

Meanwhile, allegations of corruption regarding the award of contracts to companies to undertake bio-mining there re-surfaced with fury and it involved — no prizes for guessing — nepotism on the part of the CPM-led government at all levels. The near-total breakdown of institutions in Kerala could not be more apparent. Indeed, that is likely to go down in history as the sole, single achievement of this period of rule by the CPM, which I have called elsewhere as the reign of post-socialist oligarchs. Environmental activists who have tried to intervene in waste management here since long point out the obsession of both bureaucrats and politicians with the waste-to-energy framework and their abhorrence of the more successful zero-waste models such as the one developed in the town of Alappuzha under the leadership of Dr Thomas Isaac, former Finance Minister. But beyond this obvious orientation towards technocracy and development elitism, there is the question why the minimum efficiency that many other countries who embrace such technocratic solutions is so conspicuously absent here, despite the way Singapore or Dubai are constantly evoked by this generation of politicians, left and otherwise, and bureaucrats. One can only conclude that the breakdown of institutions since the 1990s simply will not allow it, caught as our authorities are in the many webs of corruption, nepotism, and rank, shameless ignorance. I can also hardly help thinking that this is the price that we are paying for becoming such a migration-oriented society — in which a very large share of young people simply wish to migrate and never return, and where a very large share of the privileged aging population hopes to spend their senior lives with children abroad or at least be cushioned by them against the dying natural enviroment here. In other words, all of Kerala is a potential waste-dump for those who have no lasting committments to the place. Meanwhile, blaming citizens for being irresponsible is rife, so typical of neoliberal regimes of waste-management that ignore structural inequality, the ‘unintended consequences’ of accelerated urbanization promoted precisely by neoliberal dreams of growth, and seek to limit services, above everything.

The contrasts between the fury of the waters of 2018 and the present could not be more stark, and they are indeed very educating. In 2018, the floods engulfed a much larger area, and the flooding waters swept through the land which people had converted into their habitations, often encroaching on what used to be occupied by water. In other words, the waters pushed out people and destroyed much of their possessions — assessable economic value — that they had acquired often through lifetimes of labour. Moreoever, the threat to life was direct, immediate, and amply visible.

No wonder the rest of Kerala which was relatively unaffected was able to empathize deeply and rallied together to contribute a massive amount of food, clothing, and other necessities. The nature of the threat was such that it lent itself to politicians in power reaping huge dividends through gestures of sympathy and support. These figures, led by the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his ministerial colleagues, were actually able to gain a kind of optics in which the relentless labours of a great number of people on the ground, from student volunteers to panchayat members to the women of the Kudumbasree appeared as somehow happening at their command. Most importantly, Kerala possess a people who have centuries of accumulated experience in rescuing those threatened by rough water — the fisher community on the coast, who volunteered to save those who were at high risk of drowning. However after the floods, everything went back more or less to square one. Much noise was produced over ‘room for rivers’ and politicians had a good time with European tours in its name, but serious committment to ecological restoration continued to be in short supply.

I remember trying to approach several of Kerala’s leading intellectuals and social researchers asking if we could initiate a new conversation about strengthening local self-government in the wake of the new undeniably serious challenges that the floods raised through a joint statement addressed to the government. From 2017 itself, the present government had shown the eagerness to reduce the powers of rural local governments, nor was it eager at all to strengthen those of urban governments which were actually quite weak when it came to powers, decision-making, and governance infrastructure. The floods seemed to be warning us against this state of affairs; it seemed most opportune to create a new, strong push for renewing and expanding participation in local government as well as refurbishing its governance structures.

While many thought this was a good idea, the cloying need to please the government was disgustingly conspicous in an equally large numbers, who feared that such a move would be perceived as ‘anti-government’. How, I asked, because after all People’s Planning was still the CPM’s official line on development, and the floods had shown us without an iota of doubt that it was the local government network that proved to be the most reliable bulwark in this moment of danger. They had not answer; the lesson I learned was that the discourse of People’s Planning had been thoroughly hollowed out by then by the vested interests soon to form the core of the post-socialist oligarchy in Kerala. Predatory capital in Kerala was to be encouraged not through a frank embrace of neoliberal growth but allowed to creep all over surreptiously through letting institutions of both governance and democracy die a slow death — by setting up poor disincentives, by slowly eroding the monitoring powers of local bodies, by simply looking away and remaining unresponsive to public pressure.

But after the pandemic which provided yet another opportunity for the post-socialist oligarchs to take credit of what was achieved by exploited governmental labour at the local level, this passive encouragement seemed to transform menacingly into outright support for natural-resource predators. The outbreak of toxic fires at Kochi reveals to us further aspects of this transformation. Unlike the flood waters of 2018, this calamity does not seem to affect all of Kerala — and the damage is not to economic value in the short run, but to precisely what produces value — the human body — and this will surface more visibly probably after a time-lag. Precisely for this reason, there is no opportunity for pseudo-heroism that politicians (including the CM) can reap, no chance to mobilize governmental labour on the ground or citizen volunteers into an ‘army’ led by the CM. While there was much effort to portray the floods as a freak incident, a ‘natural disaster’, it is much more difficult to dismiss the dumpyard blaze in such terms. The naked nepotism of both fronts is revealed without a shred to cover it, as is both the incompetence as well as the institutional powerlessness of local government in Kerala. No wonder, then, that neither the CM nor the Health Minister has jumped into the limelight to harvest the credit for the hard work of ordinary people — for the labours of the fire force and the policemen there simply do not guarantee that the fires will be doused for a reasonable length of time given the sweltering summer. And it certainly has not enabled, like during the floods or the pandemic, another reiteration of the robustness and near-flawlessness of Kerala’s local governments — for the failings of the Kochi Corporation are too evident to miss.

And perhaps most significantly, at the centre of the present crisis is waste, not water. The waters had brought the question of waste to the fore precisely in the environs of Kochi during the floods, when all the waste dumped around communities had found its way into homes, contributing to their destruction. Cleaning of these houses was a major task undertaken with much citizen participation, but the matter rested there. Those who tries to raise the question were shushed and scolded for indulging in schadenfreude; waste was perceived as peripheral to the crisis. However, that may not happen this time. Fire, once a key instrument of public health authorities (in Travancore at least, used to the loss of poor, crowded communities accused of being dirty and breeding plague), today poses a massive threat, and waste is at the very heart of it. Yes, some CPM supporters have been indulging in logical fallacies about the smoke produced by the open hearths of the Attukal Pongala festival in Thiruvananthapuram this week; there is no comparison at all because we do know that this smoke is from firewood, while we really don’t what all toxic inorganic substances are still smouldering in the Brahmapuram dumpyard.

Will this, at least, persuade the government to rethink its follies? I struggle against pessimism, but hope is getting more and more scarce. Unless the blaze covers all of Kerala, they are unlikely to budge, though Ministers and others are most probably checking flights to make study tours to Europe and elsewhere in search of efficient waste management solutions. Heaven help us if that happens, is all one can say. But maybe if the predatory capitalists so dear to our post-socialist oligarchs are affected, things may change.

Maybe that gives us a clue on what kind of protests we need, but then, our post-socialist oligarchs are shrewd and they learn from their experiences. That is why the lorry loads of waste that were recently dumped at Brahmapuram were escorted there by police and RAF. If the government could deploy the forces and discourses of security so that land could be violently seized from the coastal communities for the profit of Adani, they will not blink before sending the same to shut up people in Kochi. The least one must learn from this awful experience is that neither the CPM leadership nor the government in Kerala cares a fig-leaf for either the Kerala Model or indeed, its achievements in public health.

Nb : but there is something more that Malayalis must discuss before we are taken either by the waters or the fire and smoke or the mud. This is about caste. The single most important reason why Malayalis do not want to think of a solution collectively is caste — the way in which collection and disposal of waste since modern spaces began to emerge was foisted on the abjected oppressed caste poor. We Malayalis will not insist that our children be taught public hygiene in preschool while any society with a modicum of respect for human dignity would. We insist that the ayahs in preschool should wash them, pick up their shit. From early childhood, upwardly mobile Malayalis think that someone else, either their mothers or the lower caste poor, will pick up their waste. It is something that happens after we leave the scene, so we don’t care. And so we have not cared to find out even about how the state does it. Maybe we will wake up now, since the shit has not only hit the fan but has most probably also got into our lungs…

3 thoughts on “Water vs. Fire in Kerala”

  1. Thanks, Devika, for drawing out the connections between the Great Flood of 2018 and the Great Fire of 2023. Just when we thought we knew how it was all going to end in Kerala — the choice was between drowning in rising sea waters along the coast or being swallowed by rivers of mud from collapsing hillsides on its East — along comes an inferno that springs spontaneously to life in the heart of its biggest city, gifting its people a thick soupy cocktail of rare carcinogenic gases. True to its multi-religious spirit, Kerala now presents us with a neutral choice: either get ready to burn in the Judeo-Christian fires of hell or prepare to go down in our very own indigenous pralayam….


  2. Yes, Devika, we are facing huge problem. Air polluted. Water polluted. People suffering. Nobody is bothered. The casual approach of authorities realky saddens me🙏


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