Plans that look good on paper face practical roadblocks on the ground
With Kerala having faced flood situations in two previous years, the state government has been preparing for the worst this monsoon. But with a pandemic breathing down everyone’s necks, 2020 is no ordinary year.
Faced with the challenge, Kerala’s State Disaster Management Authority came up with an Orange Book by the end of May charting out how to fight a flood during the pandemic.
With orange alerts beginning to be sounded across many districts, The Lede spoke to stakeholders in places which were amongst the worst affected in the two previous years.
“I am confident that we will be able to organise relief camps very well,” says Antony MP, who is the village officer of Meloor. Meloor lying by the banks of the Chalakudy river, was among the worst affected in the floods of 2018.
The duty of running camps are assigned to the respective Village Officers as per the Orange Book.
Meloor was amongst the worst affected and yet had managed to organise camps for which Antony was widely recognised as well.
“We don’t have COVID related issues as yet in the panchayat nor any flooding. How far the virus spreads; if or when it floods will also decide how well we will be able to adapt,” he added.
Antony, like other village officers, also has the responsibility of coordinating COVID first line treatment centres (CFLTC) which are to be established in each panchayat with increasing case load.
But Meloor is yet to get a CFLTC.
“We are low priority in the list as of now as we don’t have any cases. But to organise camps as prescribed in the Orange Book won’t be easy,” says Antony.
How then does he plan to run camps?
“We have identified schools as was used in previous years,” says Antony. “We also have a retreat centre with 600 beds which can be used. We are expecting a 2019 like flood. For that scenario I can say we will be well placed.”
The retreat centre was badly affected in the 2018 floods with water reaching multiple floors while only two low lying wards of the panchayat flooded in 2019.
“What we can do, we can do well. But 100% implementation of the new recommendations won’t be possible,” admits Antony.
“Even in our offices, social distancing is expected to be followed. But the sheer number of people coming in and going out every day means there is little we can do really. It is upon the general public as well to do what they can and should,” he added.
As per the Orange Book, a 400 square feet room is ideally expected to have 8 to 12 people or two families only, for physical distancing norms. But this is a luxury in camps. With community transmission accounting for the majority of positive cases, it is worrying many.
“People in my Panchayat are worried about flooding at this moment. I am getting 20-25 calls every day,” says Antony. The worries are exacerbated by the frequent notifications about opening of dam shutters with no further information attached.
“We have been requesting everyone that such notifications should come with data as to how much water levels can be expected to rise,” says Antony. But such data has not been forthcoming.
With COVID cases on the rise and community transmission spreading, Antony admits a flood in the midst of the pandemic may make it difficult to prioritise.
257 wards in Thrissur district alone are under containment, covering 52 Panchayats.
While the Orange Book issued by the State Disaster Management Authority paints a well-planned picture, the preparations are hit by practical road blocks. One such among the many are the requirements for relief camps.
As per the Orange book at least four buildings have to be identified and kept ready at short notice by the local self-government bodies to be used as relief camps.
Building 1: General Relief Camp
Building 2: For people aged above 60 years, people ailing from non COVID-19 diseases
Building 3: For people with COVID-19 like symptoms. The rooms should have attached bathrooms.
Building 4: For people who are in home quarantine. The rooms should have attached bathrooms.
Building 1 & 2 should ideally be in the same place while building 3 & 4 should be in a separate location.
“How are we to get such buildings in a rural area?” asks another village officer falling under Chalakudy who did not want to be named.
“We don’t have sufficient structures meeting the criteria,” agrees Antony.
“Floods can be easily handled. Corona makes things difficult,” he says.
And that is not just because of the fear of spread of the pandemic. The village officer expresses fear that the pandemic may well put an end to the people’s participation which so characterised the rescue and relief efforts in the preceding years.
“It was the people who headed everything. Administration alone cannot do much,” says Antony.
“If there is flooding alone, people are enthusiastic and energetic to help each other out. Everyone is pumped up and it makes things much easier for the administration,” says Antony. “But with the pandemic we are unsure how people may respond.”
Adding to this uncertainty are conditions laid down in the Orange Book regarding rescuing of people who are under home quarantine.
As per the Orange Book, local self-government bodies have to keep lists of those under home quarantine and rescuing of such people has to be done by a team which includes health workers.
“There might be practical problems,” says deputy collector of Thrissur, MC Rejil, who is in charge of overseeing the disaster management in the district. “As of now we have no problems. Monsoon is yet to gain strength and so the problems are also in the future as of now,” he says.
“The present situation in Thrissur at least is that we have deficit rains. So hopefully for flooding and inundation, we may not face it. We have identified 809 camp buildings in the district to be converted if any situation arises. For now, the risks of landslides are a bigger priority as well as the sea surges in coastal areas. We are preparing ourselves to face these in the coming days. The Orange Book prescribes ideal protocols. If difficulties are faced in matching up to the requirements, plans with resources at hand will guide the decision making,” he says.
Shyju CA, village officer of Kizhakke Chalakudy, which includes Chalakudy town which went under the deluge in 2018 and falling on the opposite side of Meloor agrees that they can only do what is possible.
“We have identified hostels, lodges and such buildings in the town to be used as camps for those under home quarantine in low lying areas if needed to be used. Some of these are in the town itself. So if a 2018 like situation were to arise, we may well have to change them,” he said.
“We have prepared our First Line Treatment Centre at St James Academy. In previous years, the relief camps in the church school and east school had to be shifted with rising waters. These are situations which can arise and we are aware of them. The least we can say is that we are all prepared at an initial level,” he said.
Out of the four wards under containment in Chalakudy, four have been affected by floods previously. Shyju says the Panchayat has chalked out scenarios.
“If it is a flood like that happened in 2019, we may not have much problems. Only the three wards through which the river flows will face difficulties. As of now we have no camps running as there is no flooding anywhere. Meetings have been held, volunteer lists prepared, ambulance, JCB and other such numbers updated and kept ready at disposal. As for buildings 3 & 4 we do have buildings which had already been identified for institutional quarantine purposes of those coming from outside Kerala. Now with home quarantine being allowed, we have them freed up. Collector can also order taking over of buildings if a need were to arise. So these are what we are looking at right now. We have a Zoom meeting scheduled for tomorrow with the Tahsildhar where further steps will be looked into,” explained Shyju.
The pandemic has also forced the administration to be increasingly dependent on online meetings to undertake day to day coordination.
“People are also being encouraged to shift with relatives and acquaintances in case of flooding,” adds Shyju.
“Once an orange alert is announced in a district, in view of the special circumstances warranted by Covid-19 and to avoid over-crowding of camps, people living in areas which had got flooded in the 2018-19 floods have to be encouraged to move towards safer places either with their relatives and friends,” reads the Orange Book (translated from Malayalam), advising the administration to reduce the load on government run relief camps from the beginning.
Mini NV who lives in Kattappuram falling under Koratty has given up on searching for alternate places to put her family up to face the near certain flood.
“People don’t rent us houses as we are poor,” says Mini who works as a domestic worker in Koratty less than five kilometres from Chalakudy.
“In 2018 the entire area went under water, in 2019 we had water reaching our floors,” she says. “We are certain that we will be flooded this year too. We moved in here only in January of this year. I built the house with loans taken from ESAF (a micro-finance institution),” she explained.
Mini has reasons as to why she went searching for a house on rent.
“I work on daily wage and if I were to shift to camps, they will not allow me to go working citing COVID-19 situation, Moreover, people will not hire me as well, as they will be afraid of who all I might be in contact with. But no one is willing to give us their house on rent. First I asked around for a house or even a room on rent for me and my two sons to stay. But no one was willing. Then I searched for three months. Even that didn’t fructify.
People are asking for Rs 25,000 as advance and Rs 6000 to Rs 7000 as rent. It is not something we can afford, but we were willing to give that also. Yet the owners would finally say no. What are we to do?” she asks.
“We were earlier living in a small house by the canal. It took us 41 years to finally build a house and move into it. It is sad that the very first year we are having to look for other houses but even that is not possible now,” she says.
Mini insists that moving into camps is last on her list.
“I will first move in with my mother into the mud house by the canal. It is dilapidated and we were planning to move her to our place but it seems like we will have to do the opposite now. If issues arise there, we will together move into camps. I am not alone. The 35 odd families living around my new house have all tried to get houses on rent but I haven’t heard of anyone who has got it. Owners are asking for 11 month agreements,” she says.
While those with means are keeping ready alternate houses to move into if the floods do come, the whispers of no camps this year have the worst affected from the previous floods worried.
Shanthi Raghu who lost her house in the 2018 floods and is still living in her half-renovated house expresses her fears.
“We are hearing that there won’t be any camps this year but we have nowhere else to go,” says Shanthi. “We don’t have any other plans. We will have to go to camps, wherever they are.
We don’t have any relatives’ house we can move into. The one acquaintance whose house we could have moved into are in the middle of renovation works which have got stuck because of lockdown and Corona. Else we could have shifted there.”
Shanthi who used to work as a house maid no longer works, as she has problems with a slipped disc and her husband is mentally ill. Her son is a daily wager whose income runs the family. After the 2018 floods completely damaged the house they were living in, the government, with help from a private sponsor, got her allotted a newly built house in nearby Melur. Two years on, Shanthi is yet to be handed over the house inspite of the private sponsor having completed their side of the work.
“The locals are alleging that the panchayat president is delaying the handover for political gains as giving it just before the elections will boost their image,” said the program officer overseeing the works from the side of the private sponsor.
“The land and beneficiary identification were all done by the local self-government. Water, electricity and possession certificate is what the Panchayat has to get done from their side. Corona has delayed things to an extent too,” he says.
“My son has seen the house and it is good, though very far from the town where we have been living,” says Shanthi.
Had the house been handed over on time, Shanthi would not have to worry about camps this year as the area where the new house has been built is immune from floods being in a hilly area.
Shyamala M a single mother hailing from Meloor is also in a similar situation. Working as a home nurse in Koratty, Shyamala says she has not thought so far ahead as to what to do if floods were to come.
“We will go to camp,” she says when pressed. “I am living with my employer. I have left my child behind to earn this living. What am I to do?” she asks.
COVID-19 and the floods are the last of her concerns. Livelihood is.
Even if she were to survive the deluge and the pandemic, that will remain her primary concern she says.