Kerala, Sep 03, 2018 : Kerela’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has literally been in the eye of the storm for the past three weeks as his state recovers from its worst flood in a century. In the middle of the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction process, Vijayan spoke to Manoj Ramachandran about generating funds, foreign aid, dam management, the way forward, and the opportunity to build a new Kerala.
The daunting task of rehabilitation and reconstruction after the floods poses a huge challenge. The world is watching. Will you involve international agencies in the building of a new Kerala?
Kerala has put the worst behind it. This was the worst flood in a century. All but two districts in the state were severely affected. At its peak, more than 1.4 million people were in relief camps. The deluge has so far claimed more than 400 lives. The rains and the resultant floods have destroyed tens of thousands of homes. For the first time in history, almost all the major and minor dams in the state had to be opened. Rescue -- the first phase of disaster management -- has been completed. Efforts were taken to ensure that even the last stranded person was rescued. Rehabilitation is also progressing well. As per data on August 31, there are now only 28,000 people from 8,039 families in relief camps.
The people have shown great resilience during the time of crisis. Kerala has set an example for the world to emulate. We will bounce back in record time. The world is about to witness one of the greatest comeback stories. We will put to work the best ideas for our rebuilding efforts. If that requires the service of an international agency, we will seek it. Our aim is not merely a restoration of the state to pre-flood times, but the creation of a new Kerala. We have already decided to engage KPMG to appoint as partner -consultant for the rebuilding. It has offered its services free of cost and we accepted it.
You have said that the estimated loss is much more than Rs 20,000 crores, as projected earlier. With the National Democratic Alliance government announcing Rs 600 crores in aid, how are you looking to generate the money needed?
That amount of Rs 20,000 crore was based on a rapid preliminary assessment before August 17. If we take into account the loss of houses, crops, buildings, roads, bridges, cattle stock, poultry, electricity installations and water supply plants, the actual loss would be manifold. It would surpass the size of the annual plan of the state. We believe that the Rs 600 crore announced was an immediate measure and expect more in aid from the Union government. I have personally briefed both the Prime Minister and the home minster about the grave situation. I want to believe that the Centre has understood the gravity. I did make it clear many a time that the situation warranted unity in action. Of course , the Centre will have to extend all possible assistance considering the situation. We will soon submit a detailed report of the losses.
At the same time, I want to underline the aspect of resilience of our state. The rebuilding of Kerala is not going to suffer from shortage of money. Kerala’s strength is not the size of its state exchequer, but it is the support of Malayalis from all over the world and others who love Kerala. There is support flowing in from every nook and corner of the world. Kerala has always evoked the curiosity of the world at large. We have contributed immensely in enriching such ideals which an egalitarian world would cherish to uphold. With the cooperation from all, we will surmount the challenges.
You have made a request to Malayalis across the world to give one months’ salary to raise funds. How has it been received?
My intention was to ensure the larger participation of all. As you can very well understand, it would be difficult for a salaried employee to contribute his or her monthly salary at a go. I suggested that one may contribute the salary of three days’ each for 10 months. There has been tremendous response to this. Many sections have voluntarily come forward to contribute. Some people even went beyond. I am sure many will follow the call in the coming days.
There are suggestions that there must be transparency in relief funds and letting the public know of the expenditure involved. What steps do you intend to take towards it?
Kerala has little tolerance for corruption. We have also made our governance as transparent as much as possible. We have been constantly updating our fund collection records. We put out data on a day-to-day basis. And there are well-established procedures in spending the money. If it is required to bring in more provisions, we will not hesitate. We will update the public on regular intervals the developmental activities carried out with those funds.
Kerala was hailed for the coordinated relief and rescue work by locals, fishermen, young people and politicians working in a bipartisan manner. Now that the worst is over, Opposition parties allege that the government with allegations of mismanagement of the situation and the relief camps.
Kerala has set an example to the world as such how a calamity needs to be faced. During the hour of crisis, we demonstrated unity of action. All sections, irrespective of religion, caste, creed, gender, politics and profession worked together to pull up the state. Various central agencies also pitched in wholeheartedly. You would have seen the way the state expressed its gratitude to different sections.
The fact that the Opposition is back in attack mode is proof of the return of normalcy in the state. It is not because of any particular fallout. It is politics as usual. Come another crisis, we will get the bipartisanship mode back.
But your government has been criticised on the dam management front. Will there be any audit on its functioning?
We have an efficient dam authority under the chairmanship of retired justice CN Ramachandran Nair. All positive suggestions to improve its operations will be considered. However, there will not be any review based on allegations of shortfalls in dam management. One has to realise that the state experienced heavy rainfall, which led to the filling of dams. However, we will definitely conduct a study on how to manage dams during crisis like this in the future.
A war of words is playing out with the Centre on the supposed offer of the Rs 700 crore aid by United Arab Emirates and help from Thailand. The UAE ambassador to India has said that no official aid has been communicated so far. How does Kerala plan to take on this issue with the Centre?
UAE has formally conveyed their interest in assisting Kerala. In fact, I understand that this was conveyed to the Prime Minister. It is an undisputable fact. However, it is for the Centre to take a decision on accepting the UAE aid. I believe that the Union government will take a positive stance and support Kerala at these difficult times. UAE has talked about the contribution of Indians, especially Malayali diaspora, in their nation-building. I don’t want to discuss this topic any further as our position has been put across without any ambiguity.
Has the Centre short-fused Kerala as it is governed by the Left Democratic Front and not by a like-minded party?
Kerala has been one of the most vocal voices of federalism, and it will remain so. The question of which party is ruling at the Centre or state should be insignificant on matters of disaster management. The stance of Union government has been very positive during the calamity and I have personally appreciated it. We are in constant touch with Centre on this issue.
Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been trading charges over the release of water from the Mullaperiyar Dam. Did TN turn a deaf ear to the request to not release water from the dam?
There were some issues regarding the management of Mullaperiyar dam. We have raised our concerns. However, Tamil Nadu and Kerala share a deep friendship, so these issues will be resolved in an amicable way. During the crisis, the people of TN and its government supported Kerala in a big way.
Do you attribute to the recent tragedy to the lack of proper dam management or the heavy downpour that the state witnessed, or was it a combination of both the factors?
People who blame the management of the dams are obfuscating. The floods were a result of the unprecedented, extreme and severe rains. It was further aggravated by the three-day storm in the second week of August. Almost all rivers were overflowing. In fact, proper dam management helped to prevent a bigger catastrophe. There is no ambiguity on this, science and data are clear.
Kerala’s youth have shown courage and poured out to help the needy. How do you intend to harness their skills, ideas and minds in Kerala’s reconstruction?
Kerala’s inclusive model has helped the state attain high levels of human development indices at par with the developed world. These gains are not going to get washed away in one flood. At present, the mood in Kerala is not what one normally expect from a state affected by a disaster of this scale. There is lot sorrow for the lost ones, despair over the losses, but hopes and aspirations are also high.
There is a saying, in every crisis also lies an opportunity. The crisis has instilled new vigour and vitality that we can build a new trajectory. It is not just the youth, but the people of Kerala as a whole have committed to the rebuilding of state. One of the most memorable images from the flood affected areas include that of a 73-year-old lady who has lost everything but is not willing to be defeated, she promises that she will fight back and will win everything she has lost. There are many like her and they will ensure that Kerala will sail through its present difficulties.
We are a now months away from the General Elections. Will a Federal Front be a reality? Do you think that such a political grouping will be able to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA?
This is not the right time to discuss a Federal Front. The CPI(M) -- Communist Party of India - Marxist -- believes that there is no need for a Federal Front now. A decision for a larger national alliance rises only after elections. Such formations have taken place in the past and there will be more like them in the future. The CPI(M) is committed to removing the BJP from the Centre. The BJP is following and implementing policies detrimental for the country. Their policies are only an extension of those followed by the Congress.