Floods: When 'spirit' disguises state apathy

Last Updated: Tue, Aug 28, 2018 16:17 hrs
Kerala flood

It seems bizarre that in a country supposedly so self-sufficient that it can all but do away with the need for imports and manufacture its own infrastructure, we have had disastrous annual floods in practically every corner over the last five years.

And all we have to show for it are, not emergency evacuation plans, not overhauled systems of floodwater drainage, not a crackdown on illegal or dangerous construction that could compromise the safety of vulnerable land, but a glut of laudatory media pieces, saluting the “spirit” of the places that have been devastated by flooding.

Kashmir in 2014; Madras in 2015; Bombay in 2017; the northeast and now Kerala this year.

The reasons are the same: excessive rainfall; an ill-prepared state government that did not heed the weatherman’s warnings; confusion over how water was to be released from dams, lakes, and reservoirs; soil erosion caused by idiocy, greed, and overconfidence.

The solution is the same: citizens working overtime to do the job the government is supposed to; people whose lives were in no danger rushing to save others whose lives are; the media feasting on images of animals being rescued, and people being fed.

It is as if the worst of times has been turned into the best of times. Let us not despair for humanity, the media urges us, when children are willing to donate their savings to flood relief. Let us not despair for peace, when Muslims are allowed to do namaz at a temple and supply headlines like “Floods break down religious barriers”.

The problem is: we must despair both for humanity and religion when such incidents become newsworthy.

The problem also is: we must despair for development when, despite warnings of impending rainfall, despite similar ordeals undergone elsewhere in the country, no lesson is learnt and a flood occurs anyway.

“Development”, in the heads of most people – particularly those who run for office – is synonymous with high-rise buildings and energy consumption.

With scant regard for the resources we are depleting from the land, we have drawn – and then overdrawn – on all that it has to offer.

We build castles in the air, and dig their foundations deep into the ground.

We cut down forests to create “biodiversity parks”.

We live from election to election, digging up roads and laying them again without improving the drainage systems.

Our countermeasures against natural disasters are simply stopgap arrangements. It appears we can never foresee excessive rainfall, despite encountering it every year. We can never build roads that will withstand the slightest disturbance over the expected limit. We can never chalk out emergency plans that can be executed at short notice.

And, best of all, there is no need, because the “spirit” of a place will endure.

Exhausted volunteers smile for the cameras at a job well done, and we forget that there should have been no need for their services in the first place.

If the governments did their job, if people and industries were not allowed to consistently skirt rules in order to satisfy their greed for land and money, if politicians thought about genuinely improving the place of which they have charge for the term instead of channelling its resources for their personal gain for as long as they have control of those resources, there would be no need for us to celebrate the “spirit” of a place in the aftermath of excessive rainfall.

By definition, a “natural disaster” refers to something that is entirely unforeseen, fury unleashed on people caught unaware.

An annual ritual cannot be a natural disaster.

Terms such as “untimely monsoon” have become so commonplace that we are immune to the nonsensical nature of their semantics.

Perhaps we have regressed to such a state of selfishness that we find something remarkable about people carrying on their shoulders the animals they have raised as they leave their destroyed homes; that we find something newsworthy in religions accommodating each other; that we draw comfort from people helping each other with time, money, food, clothing, and shelter; that kindness is celebrated.

Every year, we circulate viral images that we consider evidence of heroism – the photograph of soldiers from the Indian Army improvising a bridge by lying across the skeleton of a broken bridge so that pilgrims could be rescued during the Kedarnath floods of 2013 comes to mind – but these are, in fact, evidence of ineptitude.

When our governments at the state and centre have to shrug their shoulders at “acts of God” every year, there is little to be proud of, other than our propensity for creating hashtags and headlines that can spin state apathy into self-governance.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.