By Aashika Ravi
As the absolute worst of the Kerala Floods seems to be behind us, it can be easy to assume that the disaster is over. For those of us who contributed to the floods and satisfied some deep-seated need to be useful, it may well be. But for the people in Kerala, rebuilding after a natural disaster of this scale requires time and effort. Not just their own, but ours too.
We spoke to filmmaker Bela Negi who has been extensively involved in relief work after the Uttarakhand floods in 2013 which killed nearly 6000 people. Negi’s family is from Uttarakhand and she has made a feature film Daayen Ya Baayen set in Kanda, a town in Uttarakhand.
We asked Negi about her experiences in Uttarakhand that could be helpful for volunteers working towards rebuilding in Kerala.
1. Do your bit
“There’s going to be help needed in Kerala for months to come. Once the flood recedes in the subsequent months is also when we need to keep a lookout for the people there. If it’s possible, volunteers should go to these places three or four months down the line with supplies or with say, a team of doctors or people to motivate people or teach children. We need to do that in a sustained way so that it’s not like now Kerala is in the news and then it’s forgotten. Kerala will need help for some more time. Let’s keep our resources, let’s keep our time. Keep in touch with some local groups who are working hands on in specific local areas. Keep visiting and assessing if we need to go back.”
2. Focus on their needs, not yours
“It’s not easy to get over this kind of devastation. It’s not just about handing out things. We have to give people what they need, not what we want to give. Because we’ve got extra things lying with us and we want to do this good deed without really stretching ourselves. At some level, we’re all doing it for ourselves. We become so sanctimonious and self-righteous like “Oh, we’ve done our bit!” but we’re just appeasing our own conscience.” She says.
She remembers a water purifier company’s unfortunate attempt at flood relief in Uttarakhand. “They sent like 2000 water purifiers to an area which has such good, pure water, it would be an ideal place to bottle mineral water!”
3. For god’s sake, don’t send old clothes!
“Everyone started sending old clothes. That seems to be a favourite that people want to give. Old clothes! Just to empty out their houses.”
Negi suggests that volunteers keep a sharp eye out for specific help. “I remember a fire in a chawl in Mumbai after which everyone started sending old clothes. In the case of one particular family, their daughter was going to get married the next week. Her entire trousseau, everything, got burnt. They must’ve lost material worth about 1.5 lakh and there was no way they were going to be able to put it together again for the wedding. So those of us who were volunteering realized we need to help with that.”
4. Information is everything
“When we went to Uttarakhand, there was no information on where help is needed. All the action was concentrated in the Kedarnath area, but there were many other regions affected. Then we got in touch with some local NGOs and I had some friends there so we managed to get some things to where it was needed.” She recalls. In the Kerala floods, we have seen no dearth of information. But we must not assume that what is true in Wayanad is true in Aluva.
5. Effective distribution is more important than collection
“In Uttarakhand, the collection centre was Dehradun and a little further. Lots of stuff was collected there, but who’s going to take it further? What you need is a bunch of volunteers to say “I’m going to put all this stuff in my backpack and walk to certain areas.” Sometimes we had to walk for 2-3 days to reach a place that’s affected. Maybe 60-70 km to actually get that material there. It needs that extra effort.”
“If there are groups already working on the ground who can make that effort to actually take the material into villages that are not accessible, that’s what’s needed. Not overwhelming the easily accessible places with more materials.”
6. Don’t flounce in with a Saviour Complex.
“Sometimes, if we go as outsiders, we usually don’t have much awareness about the social fabric, expectations, and how things work. We just go thinking we’re doing a whole lot of good. So it’s always a good idea to tie up with local groups and NGOs which is what we did in Uttarakhand. Because they will give you precise information on what is needed and you know what to do, what not to do.” She says.
7. Don’t be an ass
“In Uttarakhand, mostly marginalized and hill people were affected, not towns. There’s a certain acceptance that people have. I didn’t see anyone sitting and crying. But people had lost their homes and there was still a certain kind of resilience which is amazing. It’s not just material but your life, your memories everything is just lost.” Be conscious about how you’re behaving there, because it’s not a time to educate them about the ways of the city. Or your ways in general.
8. The government can be a goldfish
“The warnings have been there for a long time that if we keep cutting trees or sand mining, this can happen. But now it is happening all over the country. I’ve seen that in any disaster which is to a great extent man-made, public and government memory is short. There are absolutely no lessons learnt by the Uttarakhand government. Warnings about repeat events like the 2013 floods, other repercussions… it’s all just forgotten. The government doesn’t remember what lessons they need to learn and unfortunately the public also forgets. The public has to remember, feel like yes, we’ve got to take charge.”
9. Build memorials for victims of natural disasters
“Recently, I was in Vietnam. I visited the war museum and it just struck me that when you have a museum or some kind of place which is recording what devastation can be like, it keeps the public memory alive. We just tend to forget about all this. So maybe an actual physical space which has pictures of what happened and why so that these lessons are not forgotten would be great.”
10. The fact that Kerala has had 257% more rainfall than usual should not be looked at in isolation
“All the river banks have been mined for houseboats and resorts. I’m not saying all destruction could have been prevented with this particular monsoon, but it could’ve been contained to a much larger degree.”
She compares it to the destruction in Uttarakhand that aggravated the floods. “In Uttarakhand, there was a multi-day cloud burst and landslides that followed. Landslides are caused because they’re making roads into all parts of Uttarakhand and blasting the hills. Once you damage a hill, there’s no going back. You cannot repair a hill that has been blasted. So when you call it a man-made disaster, there’s a lot of truth to it.
We can’t attribute the floods to just one factor, and we certainly can’t discount our role in it. In Kerala it’s not just rural areas that were affected, it’s also towns. But most rural areas are emulating urban habits and there are lots of natural resources thrown away. It’s like a chain, it’s not any one thing. It’s an entire chain of things that causes things in the long run.”
11. Conservation and tourism can involve local people
“Like Uttarakhand, Kerala is very dependent on tourism but the benefit of that is usually in the hands of the moneyed people of that area or politicians. Even in Maharashtra, the entire Konkan coast is virtually bought off by politicians and rich businessmen. You need to change the focus of that tourism. It could be bird-watching, where locals can get involved. That’s what we’re trying to do in Uttarakhand. We’re trying to train local people to become bird-watching guides. Volunteers can adopt a village and urge tourists to keep it as it is in terms of its visual beauty and the way its houses are. Traditional houses are often capable of withstanding disaster. In Uttarakhand, it was mainly the same thing. It was mainly cement houses which got swept away.”
“You can’t exactly blame farmers in Uttarakhand because for them, that’s easy money and even in the areas that we’re working in if someone were to come and say look, I’m buying your house. I’ll give you so many lakh rupees, perhaps they’d do it and want to come down to the plains and live an easier life. He’s thinking about his survival. That’s why it’s important to create other opportunities and protect their livelihoods wherever it’s possible.”
12. Tap into your sense of community
Over the years for Negi, her work in Uttarakhand has deepened her sense of community.
“When a disaster happens, in the moment, you feel like if you don’t reach out now, you never will. You meet a lot of like-minded people, and a community is formed. After the relief efforts were done, we felt like we need to form this connection with the people we met. It was like an opportunity for us to keep this connection going. So we continued to do various programmes in certain areas connected to the environment, livelihood and opportunities. With the effort that we made for Uttarakhand, so many of us felt that other people, those who are not from Uttarakhand, have also gotten connected to those areas.”