To recover, Kerala needs to follow the ‘Build Back Better’ policy and become more accountable

The state stands to lose a historical opportunity to rejig its development agenda, and protect is people and assets after the devastating floods.

Written by G Pramod Kumar | New Delhi | Updated: August 28, 2018 8:42:16 pm
A man removes debris from a collapsed house A man removes debris from a collapsed house after floods in Paravur, in Kerala. (Reuters photo)

On its road to recovery from its worst-ever floods, Kerala has rightly realised that it ultimately has to find most of the money for reconstruction on its own. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s evocative call to people to donate a month’s salary – even payable over 10 months – seems to have struck a chord. The initial response has reportedly been extremely positive.

The government’s new estimate of losses due to floods is about Rs 35,000 crore, which looks more realistic than the initial assessment of Rs 20,000 crore given disasters of a similar scale cost countries several billion dollars. By the government’s own admission, this is almost equal to its annual plan outlay, and an unbearable burden. Only the people’s participation, which incidentally is in the DNA of Kerala’s socio-economic success story, can help.

If ordinary South Koreans could queue up across several blocks to donate $2.2 billion to their debt-stricken government through their personal gold savings (an average of about 65 gm per person) to pay back an IMF loan after the 1997 economic crisis, a month’s salary in a state with the highest per capita income in India doesn’t seem an unreasonable demand. The chief minister has clearly been able to evoke a sub-national pride that will tip the balance in the state’s favour.

However, some are raising questions about accountability. They want to know how their money will be spent, if their contributions will be matched by the government’s austerity, and whether it will be open to concurrent social auditing. In a nutshell, their worry is whether it will still be business as usual with political cronyism, and a bloated, not-so-efficient government that many critics feel didn’t set up early warning systems, manage the dams properly or carry out rescue and recovery efficiently during the first phase of the floods.

Supporters of the government and ruling party find this “conditionality” untimely, insensitive and loaded. They say it’s a ploy to distract, which may be partially true.

However, the bigger question of accountability still hasn’t been asked: how is the government planning the post-flood reconstruction? Will it be the mere repair and rebuilding of assets that can be ravaged by another flood, or will it be “disaster-resilient”, in keeping with the new norm post-disasters?

The principle behind disaster-resilient reconstruction is “Build Back Better (BBB)”, which includes “Build Back Faster”, “Build Back Stronger” and “Build Back Inclusively.”

It means the repaired and replaced assets should be able to withstand more intense disasters, the recovery process is faster, it doesn’t leave anybody behind, and the poor and the most vulnerable get extra support so that the disproportionate impact on them is sufficiently compensated.

The importance of ‘Build Back Better’

According to the UNISDR (UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, a joint programme of 13 UN organisations) and GFDRR (Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, a World Bank-led consortium in which UN, EU, India and other nations are partners), there are huge benefits in making things disaster-resilient. Making the reconstructed assets hazard-resistant can reduce the well-being loss (an index developed for calculating the overall loss to people) caused by future disasters by about 40 per cent in poor countries. This means the next time there is a flood, the impact on people’s lives will be reduced by nearly half.

By building back faster, people can get back to their normal lives quickly, and escape being pushed into the cycle of poverty. In the socio-economically poor regions of Kerala like Idukki, where people depend on daily labour, farming or small-scale livestock rearing for their living, this is extremely important. A disaster literally stops their income and robs them of shelter, education and healthcare.

A delay in the restoration of their lives can push them into irreversible poverty, and disruption in education can have an inter-generational impact. Estimates show that India is one of the countries where a delay can be very costly, with a loss of well-being as high as 30 per cent or more, if reconstruction is delayed by five years. It’s not surprising that poor countries tend to suffer more (India is worse off than China) if the recovery and reconstruction is not fast enough because of extremely limited infrastructure and livelihood opportunities.

The third principle is all-encompassing: make the process inclusive, so that the most vulnerable – including the old and the infirm – get extra support. Media reports show that tens of thousands of people have lost both houses and livelihoods, and even their lands to landslides and flooded rivers. They will immediately need temporary shelters, food, extra social protection like monthly cash allowances and medicines, and employment guarantees, till their lives and assets are restored.

These principles are not prescriptive and impractical, but have been converted into feasible frameworks and operational models. Protocols for disaster-resilient recovery and construction techniques have been developed, and tested, in many parts of the world such as typhoon-resistant buildings in vulnerable areas of Philippines, or quake-resistant dwellings in Nepal.

Both UNISDR and GFDRR are active in India, and hence the appropriate state authorities would have been trained in disaster-resilient responses, and in operationalising ‘Build Back Better’. The question is whether the officials took it seriously, or just went through the motions. The state’s level of preparedness before and after the floods doesn’t bespeak a satisfactory situation. There seem to have been serious lapses. But it’s better later than never.

Don’t stop questions from being raised

All the people who ask questions of the Kerala government while making a contribution are not mischievous, but are participating constructively in rebuilding a resilient state and want to be part of a social auditing process. Some studies say that climate change is increasing the risk of excessive rains by about 10 per cent every year, and another flood may be on the cards sooner that expected. Once-a-century occurrences (the last big flood in Kerala was in 1924) is now only wishful thinking.

Countries such as Thailand – which witnessed more flooding in 2011 and lost about $46 billion in assets and revenue – learnt their lessons and are striving to be disaster-resilient. Thailand is now implementing detailed long-term plans that include new policies on management of water resources and wetlands, revised urban planning based on the appropriateness of areas, warning systems, and flood management. It’s spending $1.9 billion to convert 800,000 acres of farmland along a major river into water retention areas. It’s time Kerala also got serious about the recommendations of Gadgil committee, and the concerns of environmental groups about saving rivers, hills and marshlands.

Kerala should make cities like Kochi a part of the UNISDR strategy of “Making Cities Resilient.” Moreover, while dams are part of flood control, it should be remembered that while reducing flood risk in one location, they transfer the risk to another location. That’s why Gadgil questioned Kerala’s need for so many dams.

The Kerala government certainly needs to answer the questions on accountability by committing to a disaster-resilient ‘Build Back Better’ policy, and ask the ruling party’s ill-informed proxies and cyber-cronies not to impute motives behind such questions. Otherwise, the state will be losing a historical opportunity to rejig its development agenda and protect is people and assets.

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