The worst floods in a century in Kerala have left hundreds of people dead, many missing and lakhs taking shelter in relief camps. The state will take years to recover. But watching the images and listening to stories from thousands of miles away, another thing has also become clear — goodness has gone viral. And it is not just the official agencies from the Centre and the state government, tasked to rescue and provide relief. Ordinary people are rising above adversity and lending a helping hand.
Some images and stories will be hard to forget. Like the one of a fisherman who voluntarily kneeled down with his face barely above the flood waters, offering his back for women and children to step on and climb onto rescue boats.
Or that of the doctor from Kerala who postponed his marriage and moved to a relief camp to treat flood victims. Or the elderly woman who was rescued in a cooking vessel after her home was flooded in Thrissur. In Aluva district, the Indian Navy airlifted a pregnant woman paralysed from the waist down and flew her to safety. A college-going girl from Thrissur, who had faced vicious online trolling when the media reported that she travelled long distances to sell fish for a living, has contributed Rs 1.5 lakh to the Kerala chief minister’s disaster relief fund. The Indian Police Service Association tweeted a picture of a policeman rescuing a newborn baby. An eight-year-old girl in neighbouring Tamil Nadu donated all the money she had been saving for four years to buy a bicycle to help the disaster relief effort.
The arc of generosity stretches far and wide. Even as one writes this column, there are reports of Tibetans from Kodaikanal driving to Kerala with food, sweaters and other supplies; and Kashmiri volunteers leaving for Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram to join the relief effort in the flood-battered state.
I heard more uplifting tales of everyday heroism in flood-ravaged Kerala from Unni Karunakara, former international president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) and well-known global health advocate. Karunakara, who was in Allepey district recently for a family wedding, spoke about the amazing civic response. “The fishermen, the electricity workers, transport workers etc. kept things going. Our village was not affected though water levels were rising. That’s why people were moved there. MSF is in Wayanad district, rather remote and more devastated.
The wedding was to be in Guruvayoor temple and no one could get there, so my mother managed to get it all moved to Ambalapuzha temple, down the road from us, in two days.”
On his Facebook page, a tax official hailing from Kerala lauded the spirit of the fishermen who voluntarily and spontaneously came with their boats to rescue stranded people. “I heard one of them saying that he had left his wife and kids who were having fever, to rescue the stranded. I would not have done it so selflessly! Hats off. The massive rescue carried out by the fishermen of Kerala reminded me of Dunkirk. Here is a good example of how to manage disasters. The local community in the forefront supported by the forces of the government.”
Even as the disaster takes its toll, and severe challenges loom ahead, people are getting married, giving birth, grieving, coping, helping. Simultaneously. This is the genius of India. We don’t compartmentalise. People who have lost all can think of others even in their hour of sorrow.
Kerala is not the only state to be hit by the current floods. Kodagu, in neighbouring Karnataka, has been badly hit as well. Many roads have cracked open, many residents forced into shelters and the coffee plantations — the backbone of the local economy — may take years to recover.
In the middle of this, and at a time when India seems increasingly polarised, Suntikoppa, a small town in Karnataka, offers a healing image of communal harmony. The town has turned its church, temple and madrasa into relief camps to help provide shelter to flood victims in Kodagu district. Food for everyone is being cooked in the madrasa and carried to the temple and church.
It is tempting to get carried away by this upsurge of goodness. And yet, as numerous stories filtering in show, the disaster has also brought the bigots crawling out of the woodwork. It has brought out the worst in many people who seek to sharpen the various divides — political, religious, geographical — that exist in the country. Some are spreading malicious rumours, fake news, pitting Indians against other Indians, by viewing them as Hindus, Christians, Muslims, trying to rank those who are helping. An Indian-origin academic sitting in the United States advises his followers on the social media to donate only to “Hindus from Kerala”. Some other worthies tried to publicly insinuate that Kerala may be facing the wrath of Lord Ayyappa due to efforts to let menstruating women enter the Sabarimala temple. Yet others have chosen to vent bile by insinuating that the calamity was spurred on by “Malayalees who ate beef”.
The good news is that such poison has been ignored by most people in Kerala.
Flooded Kerala has shown us what resilience means and what a joint rescue effort by officials and the people can achieve. Now it is time to move to the next step in disaster management — relief, and that includes proactively tackling the health problems likely to arise as the floodwaters recede. By all accounts, Kerala is pulling out all stops to prevent disease outbreaks, especially of infectious diseases caused by unclean and stagnant water — diarrhoea, malaria, dengue, chikunguniya and so on. Medical teams are working round the clock at all relief camps and the health department has issued advisories to help prevent infections.
The people of Kerala have already shown they will not let the bigots win. There is every reason for confidence that together they will win through the next stages too.