‘We will overcome.” These words kept cropping up everywhere — in conversations, on social media and on mainstream media — when monster floods swamped Kerala. Such was the confidence of Keralites that it bordered on arrogance.
Keralites (Malayalis) are an arrogant bunch. An arrogance that stems from their literacy, literature, intellect and their capacity to work hard. It requires arrogance to call the sliver of a state southwest of India, ‘Gods Own Country’. But nobody would grudge the sobriquet given its abundant natural beauty.
The confidence in the people and its systems is not misplaced. That manifested in the manner in which Kerala reined in the dreaded and deadly Nipah epidemic when the virus outbreak hit two districts in May, killing 17 people. So, when the state reeled from the worst floods in nearly a century, Keralites were confident of tiding over the calamity.
Rain in Kerala is romantic. The monsoon has a charm. The rain has a compelling, percussive rhythm. It is flatter when it pounds the roofs; the tone is softer when it dribbles down treetops; mellifluous when the water gurgles into streams.
Once monsoon arrives the rains never stop; only the pace changes. Sheets of rain can come down for hours and then taper off into a pitter-patter for a while, only to pick up the intensity and lash again. It can rain for days together, but for Kerala this is expected. Par for the course. However, the rains this August were different.
The southwest monsoon dumped 42 per cent more rain in Kerala this year. What made a bad situation worse was the excessive rain in 20 days — four of them were very severe. The excess rainfall of 160 per cent this month inundated low-lying areas and filled up the dams to dangerous levels. With 41 rivers in spate, there was no choice but to open the sluice gates of 44 of the 61 dams in the state — a move that put hundreds of thousands of lives in danger in the state that is home to 34 million people.
Water levels surged, but the confidence of Keralites never ebbed. They swung into action, forming spontaneous rescue groups. Caste, creed, religion, political affiliations and social status didn’t matter. Everyone had to be saved.
People from all walks of life waded through muddy waters risking their lives to rescue the stranded people in their neighbourhoods. They didn’t wait for the government machinery to respond. They didn’t need orders; they didn’t need direction. They just wanted to save their people.
More than 2,800 fishermen loaded their boats on to trucks and sped to join the rescue operations. They turned out to be superheroes, evacuating people from inaccessible areas and through turbulent waters. The toll would have been much higher had they not responded swiftly. Kerala owes them a massive debt of gratitude.
When everybody pitched in, software engineers in the state realised that they could put their skills and technology to help. Web portals identified stricken people and ensured that boats, helicopters, food and relief material reached them.
Spearheading rescue operations
The young and enthusiastic bureaucrats from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) too rose to the challenge. They led from the front, spearheading rescue operations, organising relief camps, managing the collection and distribution of food, water and other relief material. They were with the rescuers every step of the way.
The state leadership also responded with urgency. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan held frequent press conferences to keep the media abreast of the developments. Party rivalries faded when Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala joined Vijayan on an aerial survey of the affected areas. Ministers and legislators too joined IAS officers in bringing help to the flood-affected.
As Kerala was fighting for survival, Keralites everywhere felt the pain. Social media was abuzz with messages of support. The positive power of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp was harnessed to identify the stranded, deliver food and relief to the victims. It also helped overcome the raw deal at the hands of the national media.
When social media platforms became online disaster coordination centres, it also opened the doors for the Malayali diaspora to participate in rescue and relief actively. Funds and aid materials poured in from around the world. The federal government’s paltry allowance didn’t matter. Keralites around the world opened the purse strings to help the state.
More than a million were evacuated from their homes and provided shelter in around 5,500 relief camps across Kerala, which is three times more densely populated than the rest of the country. Floods wreaked havoc mostly around the central and southern parts of the state although the capital Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam emerged unscathed.
The most devastating floods in the state since 1924 killed more than 400 people and left a million homeless. Bridges, roads and homes have been washed away. Farmlands have been laid waste. Losses run into billions. The lingering risk of disease remains.
Not all is lost. The humanity of Keralites shone through the tragedy. Their unity in the face of adversity is admirable. Their defiance remains unbridled, their confidence unbroken. The indomitable Malayali spirit is still intact. That bodes well for reconstruction. These are a resilient people. All the qualities that make a Malayali helped surmount the biggest challenge of their lives.
“We will overcome.” The Keralites knew that all along!