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Kerala floods: Need for policy shift on damming rivers, coping illegal or legalised occupation of floodplains

Counterview Desk
A team of senior social activists, including Medha Patkar, leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and convener, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), CR Neelakandan, Vilayodi Venugopal, Kusumam Joseph, Vijayaraghavan Cheliya, Arul Das (NAPM, Tamil Nadu), and Inamul Hasan of the Khudai Khidmatgar, following its visit to Kerala, has said that while a shift from relief to the rehabilitation phase is a challenge following worst-ever floods, there is need to work out concrete policy shift.
According to them, damming rivers has created problems for regulation and floodplain control.

Text of the statement:

The unprecedented floods in Kerala, affecting almost all the 14 districts partially but 12 districts, including Alappuzha, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Idukki, Wayanad with much more spread and intensity than others has caused devastation of life and livelihood of thousands of families, displacing not less than 20 lakh people. The small yet bountiful state that is Kerala, had to face not only high rainfall, compared only to 1924 but also the impact of water stored and released from at least 35 dams. The flood, therefore was, no doubt, dam-induced.
The story of dams, especially large, not controlling, causing and intensifying floods, is not new to India. It is repeated from Ukai dam in Gujarat to Uttarakhand dams, Narmada projects and many others. Dams that stop the natural river flows and accumulate waters especially for power generation till monsoon, have to release the same suddenly, to prevent dam breaks, are thus known to cause havoc.
In Kerala, this is what led to flood from 110-years-old dam Mullaperiyar after water got filled up to 142 feet against the people's demand to limit it to 136 feet and from Idukki in the downstream to the four rivers Meenachillar, Manimalayar, Pamba and Achankovil draining into the creek waters/backwaters of Arabian sea in Kuttanad. 
Adding to this, the other factors such as illegal or legalised occupation of floodplains, weak regulation and monitoring of cascade of dams, avoiding regular release of dam waters to wake the reservoir capacity available for flood waters, to be anticipated as likely any year; and uncontrolled mining of sand to stone, causing landslides in Wayanad, Idukki, Thrissur, Nilambur, Malappuram and death toll is mostly due to that Kerala's hardworking, self-reliant families have faced destruction of their farms, shops, tree gardens, fish ponds to habitation with belongings therein.
We witnessed relief camps caring for hundreds of families each and at least 13 lakh populations with people, men, women, children with food, water and basic arrangements. No doubt the government of Kerala has exhibited its capacity to manage relief therein with MLA to Ministers monitoring their constituencies. We witnessed colleges such as CMS College and Bharat Mata College to social institutions opened up for dam affected engaging their human to physical infrastructure and running the camps on their own.
They need the period for camps to be extended keeping the schools and colleges closed beyond August 29 i.e,. the festival of Onam, and lacks somewhere in some indispensable medicine such as Doxycycline and even gas cylinders, but they are somehow managing it.
The unmatchable selfless service by hundreds of fisher people has, no doubt, saved lives of thousands, not allowing the death toll as in Tsunami. They are remembered and revered by all. NAPM facilitated through Medha Patkar 300 fish workers at the historic place of Arthunkal. The families returning back to houses, collapsed, devastated with no belongings left and flooded with mud left back to be cleaned before their entry are also facing deprivation of food and drinking water. Water, water, everywhere, the still existing poundages apart, there is a serious crisis of potable water which hundreds of women, men and children await for, on the roadsides in every colony in Chegannur and Kuttanad.
Medha Patkar and other team members taking a stock of Kerala floods
They stop the vehicles bringing food packets and water bottles although with limited success. This pathetic scene can only be changed if more quantum of potable water is received. The Water Resource Minister of Kerala explained the effects made with limited success since much of the water received as a gift at the railway station is not potable; hence they could not distribute it.
The families without bank balance, who have no cash at hand and sources of livelihood torn apart, seem to be facing a black hole with future sealed. Detailed family/household-based surveys to a basic cash package is yet to reach the communities, with Adivasis in Wayanad or interior rural families in Kuttanad facing exclusion much more than others. The volunteers' teams from various social organizations with different ideological colours and also others who are outside electoral politics, seem to have played their role yet many households still await help when their water, electricity to farm connections lie broken and houses yet to be made livable.
Much remains to be done even after extensive and intensive selfless service by civil society especially the fisher people having their mettle, as well as the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, in the first to third phase of flood, from rescue to relief works, to attain rehabilitation of thousands. We appeal the volunteers to join the Kerala youths, local people, people's organizations, rising beyond party lines and obviously beyond casteist and communal discrimination. We heard the stories of saffron brigades seeking entry into communities with political motives and the fake news are already blasted, exposing some vested interest who would like to capitalize the situation.
We also would like the Kerala government and LDF, as well as their secular allies, take the initiative to review the paradigm of damming rivers that has resulted, in the intensification of the impact of flood and damned lakhs of people in Kerala. The people's movements should be initiating and participating in the efforts for reviewing the present dams and the future development projects of Kerala, where not only dams but mega projects such as National Highways or Sagarmala or Vizhijam port project itself.
After Tsunami and Ockhi this calamity has devastated riverine population while the other projects may take the toll of people, nature and livelihood of the coastal population of fish workers as well as others.
It is no doubt necessary to give primacy to rehabilitation at this point of time. We would, however, request the bureaucrats and politicians of Kerala not to make a statement which appears to be absurd such as one by Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) chief claiming that Athirappilly project could be saved much of the Chalakudi area from the flood. This is unjustifiable when six dams upstream of Athirappilly, with the storage capacity of 850 million cubic meters could not control flood water.
How could Athirappilly with eight million cubic meter capacity, stop it? Admitting flaws in management of dams, such as assessing the environment impacts including cumulative impacts of all dams in a river basin as well as defining and marking the flood plains and flood levels both; the parties and the representatives should be willing to listen to people's voice, alternatives and warnings such as was conveyed by Chalakudi River Protection Forum just a few days before the disaster.
Where was and are the river management and disaster management authorities, we must ask. How did they forget their own rules and goals apart from that the preventive measures of the National Disaster Management Authority has not stood up to their own vision and goal such as a “safer and disaster resilient India by a proactive sustainable development strategy involving all stakeholders and fostering a culture of prevention and preparedness”?
Instead of guiding and playing a role in state level situations, the central government ministries today are up against the environmental laws and tribunals. It is almost an uncontrolled push to development projects with some ecological solutions projected as a show cause. This creates a funny situation as in the case of Nedumbasery airport receiving a UN award on its solar project while the airport is now totally affected by flood exposing its violation of flood plain regulation.
The team in the above context appeals to the youths all over to come and help the Keralites to recover the damaged houses and give a helping hand in rehabilitation. Central government should atleast give them free railway transport and the state government involve the people's organizations in planning and execution in the next phases.

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