Kerala can convert the damage caused by floods into an opportunityhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/kerala-can-convert-the-damage-caused-by-floods-into-an-opportunity/

Kerala can convert the damage caused by floods into an opportunity

Unless it turns things around quickly, Kerala is likely to lose its hard-earned development gains in no time. However, it requires enormous human, financial and material resources, apart from steely resilience.

Man wades through flooded home in Kerala
An elderly man wades through flood waters to reach a boat carrying food supplies for stranded people in Chengannur in Kerala. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

Even as the flood waters recede in most affected areas and people look forward to getting back to their normal lives, Kerala is staring at a much bigger problem: rehabilitation and reconstruction.

If the floods were quick to erupt and reasonably fast in abating, the humongous devastation it has left behind throughout the state will be a drain that can at least temporarily bankrupt the state, and a large number of its people.

Barring Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam, almost all districts have been ravaged by flood waters, landslides, or both. Floods and landslides have destroyed houses, property, public and private infrastructure, farmlands and businesses, apart from killing over 200 people.

Initial estimates by the government suggest that the damage to property caused is about Rs 20,000 crore, which is most likely to be a conservative amount given the high population density, a predominantly urban public and private infrastructure and massive investments by people in houses and household goods. Moreover, shops and trading houses that have gone under water had stocked consumer goods such as cars, clothing, electronics and other durables anticipating bumper sales during Onam.

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Over 200 bridges have been destroyed, and many more damaged. Roads, including parts of major highways, have been washed away. Rivers that changed their course and ran through towns and cities have wiped out public and private properties, and eroded sizeable parcels of land. Although the government cites a ballpark figure of 40,000 hectares of farmland and 20,000 houses being damaged, the value of the property destroyed could be much higher.

Even if one overlooks the natural aftermath of floods that are yet to come – such as epidemics and disruption to education and health – the government doesn’t seem to have the resources to cope with the cost of reconstructing the state. Even under normal circumstances the state has very little money for capital expenditure (Rs 10,333 crore), with most of its income going towards revenue expenditure (Rs 115,661 crore). It’s hard to guess how it will find the resources to rehabilitate and rebuild. The Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund to which people are generously contributing, and the meagre central aid of Rs 600 crore, will be just a drop in the ocean.

Kerala has the third highest population density in India and is the most urbanised; therefore it’s only natural that it has the highest number of buildings per unit land area. It has been about three times the national average since 1961. Although the national numbers have increased since then, the state still had 2.9 times more buildings per unit land compared to the rest of India, according to 2011 census figures. A 2016 analysis by Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies shows that the number of both residential and non-residential buildings have risen at a higher rate than the rest of India.

In flood-affected areas, none of these buildings were spared. Initial reports from the places where the water levels have receded indicate extensive damage to the buildings, and household goods. Some buildings may have to be almost entirely rebuilt, and others refurbished. Almost all of them will require household goods to be refilled, including basic necessities such as clothes and utensils.

Electric connections and water supply – particularly in homes using wells – have also been severely affected. In fact, the state is suddenly at risk of losing its remarkable records towards attaining universal housing and in sectors such as sanitation (houses without a latrine was at 5 per cent as against the national average of 53 per cent) and electrification (95 per cent against 67 per cent for the rest of India). The demands of reconstruction will also strain the severe shortage of environmental resources, such as sand and other natural building materials.

Unless it turns things around quickly, Kerala is likely to lose its hard-earned development gains in no time. However, it requires enormous human, financial and material resources, apart from steely resilience.

How Kerala could turn things around

Although the government has promised all possible support, it will certainly be hard pressed for money to rebuild damaged roads, bridges, utilities such as water and electric supply systems, hospitals, schools and other forms of public infrastructure. People may have to find the funds to restore their lives, just as they finance their health and educational needs. The state’s residents are anyway used to fending for themselves – Kerala has the most privatised health and education sectors, which incidentally, have also recorded among the fastest declines in government investment.

A large number of people (in places like Chengannur, Pandalam, Ranni, Thrissur) may be able to handle it themselves, despite a temporary financial setback. About 35 per cent of their income is from remittances, which on an average adds up to about Rs 100,000 crore every year. Some of the most affected areas do entirely depend on remittances for their survival. Most probably, they will tide over the situation by themselves.

However, there will definitely be large sections of people who will fall between the cracks. They will not be able cope with the tragedy without government support. Many of them will also have suffered a loss of livelihood. Will the government strategically reach out to them with targeted measures?

Also read: Kerala tragedy partly man-made: Expert

Although the damage is disproportionately high compared to the state’s assets and income, the redeeming fact is that Kerala doesn’t have massive industrial establishments like Thailand, which was ravaged by similar floods in 2011. Thailand was almost entirely inundated by flood waters, just like Kerala, but lost around 46.5 billion dollars, which is roughly 20 times what Kerala lost, due to its industries and businesses. Besides the loss, the floods in Thailand had also affected the supply chain of several international automobile and electronics brands that had established their production centres in the country, for more than a year. However, Thailand recovered sooner than many thought. Kerala has a best practice to emulate.

The huge demand for reconstruction is also an opportunity, because 62 per cent of the state’s economy is in the tertiary sector, which is primarily real estate and trade. This is followed by 26 per cent in secondary sector, which is dominated by construction. The economics of reconstruction can be a major incidental gain for the state given it has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Increased labour participation and the resultant rise of per capita income, which is presently about 55 per cent more than the national average, and trade in consumer goods and construction materials could be a stimulus that can accelerate the state’s growth.

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Still, by and large, the reconstruction is most likely to be financed by the people themselves. If the government is at least able to quickly restore its assets and services, and support the less privileged, it will be enabling enough. Self-financing is anyway the story behind Kerala’s glory in recent years.