The budget was allocated, officials deputed and invitations cards printed. Just over a month ago, officers from Kerala House were prepping for Onam celebrations — one of two big events they usually manage, the other being visits by the Kerala Chief Minister.
Then came torrential rains, and instead of celebrating Onam, the Kerala House reception area doubled up as a relief centre full of cardboard boxes. Perpetually heaving them into trucks were volunteers, who had set a target of sending more than four tons of relief material every day.
Kerala House officially began relief operations on August 10, when there was just one IAS officer, Resident Commissioner Puneet Kumar, around. That day, staffers from four major departments had to make do with two bottles of water and no food as they tried to accommodate a handful of volunteers, mostly students from Delhi University and Jamia Millia University. By 3 am, they had managed to send two tonnes of relief material after working for 19 hours.
“We did not have infrastructure, manpower or even a plan the first day. People were expecting so much from us. After the first shipment, I wrote to the Kerala Chief Secretary, who then sought a cadre of IAS officers from the National Crises Management Committee. These decisions usually take two days but I got seven IAS officers and a handful of under training assistant secretaries within one hour,” said Kumar.
The team chalked out a plan and devised a coding system to label, package and coordinate delivery of relief materials.
IAS officers started with one WhatsApp group, but soon became part of multiple groups with volunteers and disaster management officials. IAS officers also liaisoned with Railway officials to get two wagons in passenger trains, apart from cooperating with Air Force officials flying sorties over the flood-hit state.
In the coming days, Kerala House was full of volunteers from various colleges, Red Cross members trained in Haryana, and two battalions of BSF to supervise transport.
Managing the counter was the legal department, which worked through the day, while also preparing to appear before the Supreme Court over the issue of maintaining water levels at Mullaperiyar dam. “We have people from all walks of life donating. Even if people donate Re 1, we would graciously accept,” a law officer said, as a representative from a NGO walked in with a cheque of Rs 1 crore.
As packages filled the main hall, tourism department officials got down to work. More than 100 kg of lungis and 250 kg of white checkered shirts were hauled into the conference room, where they were weighed and coded. “These packages won’t make it to the flight. We have two private airlines and the weight per package cannot be more than 45 kg. These will be taken on train,” an official said.
By Friday, the need for perishable food had gone down, replaced by the need for gum boots, sanitary napkins and adult diapers. A former Delhi University professor, Tripta Wahi, came armed with sanitary napkins. “During the Gujarat earthquake, DU teachers donated a day’s salary. But I realised that rather than money, our participation is important.”
At night, volunteers who spent the day hauling rice packets into trucks were treated to dinner, even as some worked on a plan for the next day. A tourism official who skipped his meals broke a packet of Upperi and shared it with others. “My own children are not as motivated as these north Indian students,” he said.
On Onam, art historian Dr Daljeet arrived at Kerala House with 30 new sarees, to add to the 20 she had donated a day earlier. “I don’t know how much is enough. Women in Kerala would need them,” she said.
The Resident Commissioner, meanwhile, supervised travel of 800 carpenters and masons to the state. So far, he and his team have managed to coordinate transfer of 37 metric tonnes of medicines from Rajasthan and 15 metric tonnes from Gujarat. “This is a relief movement we created here. We got food from Punjab and textiles from Haryana. Even Delhi government helped us with cash and kind,” Kumar said.
With water levels receding but the extent of the damage unknown, Kumar prepared for the next set of meetings. “We are in a safe zone not by chance but for a reason. It is our duty to help people in Kerala,” an official said.