The Marxist-ruled Kerala government is not cowed down by the cynicism and hostility of government at the Centre in the wake of the most severe rains and floods in a century affecting 5.4 million people in the State directly, leaving 483 people dead and 14 missing.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who was scheduled to leave for the USA for medical treatment at Mayo Clinic, Minnesota, postponed his visit to lead the rescue and relief mission from the front and never uttered a harsh word against Prime Minister Narendra Modi for rejecting the Rs 700-crore financial assistance from the United Arab Emirates. He tweeted, “A big thanks to His Highness for his gracious offer to support people of Kerala during this difficult time. His concern reflects the special ties between governments and people of India and UAE.”
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai, tweeted, “UAE and the Indian community will unite to offer relief to those affected. We have formed a committee to start immediately. We urge everyone to contribute generously towards this initiative.”
Of the three million Indians in Dubai, 80 per cent are from Kerala. Prime Minister Modi’s sanction of Rs 600 crore as immediate flood relief was grossly inadequate. The Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund was able to mobilise Rs 1,026 crore with 417,000 donations made online in a short span of time.
Against the State’s request for 5,000 soldiers, 100 helicopters and 650 motor boats for rescue operations, the Centre allotted 400 soldiers, 20 helicopters and 30 boats. Vijayan did not lose his calm when the Centre discouraged foreign aid reaching Kerala. But for the Kerala fishermen mobilising 800 boats, hundreds more would have perished in the floods. One brave fisherman went on all fours in knee-deep waters offering his back as a stepping stone for women and children to climb into rescue boats. More than a million people are still staying in about 3,000 relief camps.
The Kerala government has launched a resource mobilisation drive across the world to fund post-flood relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction programme. The large Malayali diaspora worldwide has been given a key role in raising funds for the programme. Ministers and senior officials are scheduled to visit countries like the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the Gulf, besides Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, Germany, the USA and Canada to raise funds for relief and rehabilitation. Considering the extensive losses suffered by the floods, the State government has asked people all over the world to contribute generously to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund.
The antagonism of the Modi government towards Kerala is understandable. The 2014 Modi wave completely bypassed the state and the Kerala Legislative Assembly continues to remain out of bounds for the BJP. It is most unfortunate that elements in the RSS have been actively spreading fake news to undermine the efforts of the State government and the people of Kerala. In an audio clip circulated widely by the RSS, Suresh Kochattil, a member of the BJP’s IT cell, claiming the flood-affected people of Kerala are rich and do not need any relief, sought donation to an RSS-affiliated organisation called Sewa Bharati.
Meanwhile, the External Affairs Ministry has made it clear that the Centre will not allow any financial assistance from foreign governments for Kerala in keeping with existing policy. The Modi government has no qualms about accepting foreign funds by political parties. It amended the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.2010, through the Finance Bill, 2018, which exempts political parties from scrutiny of funds received from foreign countries.
The existing policy referred to by the External Affairs Ministry was superseded by the Modi government when it formulated the National Disaster Management Plan, 2016, unveiled by none other than Prime Minister Modi.
Section 9.2 of the plan says, “As a matter of policy, the government of India does not issue any appeal for foreign assistance in the wake of a disaster.
However, if the national government of another country voluntarily offers assistance as a goodwill gesture in solidarity with the disaster victims, the Central government may accept the offer. The Ministry of Home Affairs is required to coordinate with the Ministry of External Affairs, which is primarily responsible for reviewing foreign offers of assistance and channelising the same in consultation with the State government concerned.
In the case of an offer of assistance from UN agencies, India will accept the offer only if the government considers it necessary, based on various factors. If accepted, the GoI will issue directions to the respective ministry or State government to coordinate with the concerned UN agency. Any financial assistance offered by UN financial institutions involving foreign exchange will require the approval of the Department of Economic Affairs.
India will allow UN agencies and international NGOs already operating in the country at the time of the disaster to continue their humanitarian assistance to people in the affected area in coordination with the relevant Central ministries/departments and the State government as per applicable norms and protocols, according to Section 9.3 of the National Disaster Management Plan, 2016.
Judging by its own formula, the Centre is wrong in denying foreign assistance to Kerala facing an unprecedented calamity. India is a signatory to the Sendai Framework, a UN initiative for disaster risk reduction. Adopted in 2015 by all member-nations, the framework envisages efforts to cope with disasters in any part of the world.
Amidst the serious calamity, there has been an active campaign to discourage people from contributing to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund. One video circulated by the RSS’s social media depicts a man in army uniform claiming the Chief Minister was not allowing the Army to take part in flood relief operations.
The Army came out with a clarification that the man in the video was an imposter spreading disinformation about the relief efforts. Sreedharan Pillai, head of the BJP’s Kerala unit, referring to the offer of Rs 700 crore by the UAE, said, “This is the biggest lie of the century, spread by the CPI-M)and the ruling Left Front government.”
The UAE has announced only 10 million dirhams for relief works, he said. The editor-in-chief of an English television channel, in a discussion on the UAE aid, called Keralites “the most shameless bunch of Indians he had ever seen” and asked, “Do they get paid for abusing their own country?”
According to Madhav Gadgil, head of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, at least part of deluge in Kerala is man-made and has warned that Goa may also be in line of nature’s fury. His report, submitted in 2011, has classified 142 taluks in the Western Ghats into Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1, 2 and 3 and recommended restriction of all developmental activities like mining and power plants in ESZ~1.
Also, no new dams based on large-scale storage should be permitted in ESZ ~ 1. The report specified that the present system of governance of the environment should be changed and recommended a bottom-to-top approach right from gram sabhas rather than a top-to-bottom approach.
Above all, the Gadgil committee recommended the constitution of a statutory body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, with powers under Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Needless to say, none of the recommendations has been implemented.
The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School.