How bad dam management by Left Front caused the 2018 Kerala floods

  • By P M Ravindran
  • April 18 2019
  • Article tells about bad dam management and quality of relief work by Left Front government.

The floods that ravaged Kerala in August 2018 are now history. Most of the dams had been filled to capacity by the first week of August itself and the Met people had been predicting continuous rains. But those who were to take decisions to avert any crisis didn’t see eye to eye.


There were talks of conflict between the Minister for Electricity, who wanted to store as much water as possible to produce as much electricity as possible to make as much profit as possible, and the Irrigation Minister who was responsible for managing the dams.


One of the jokes shared on social media was that the Electricity Minister had studied only up to 4th standard and dams were taught only in the fifth standard. When ministers don’t see eye to eye on issues, the ball naturally falls in the court of the Chief Minister.


Jokes apart, the citizens of Kerala paid a heavy price for having an ignorant, indifferent bunch of ministers in the State Cabinet. Even Wikipedia states that all the 80 dams in Kerala were opened on a single day on August 15, 2018. Before going ahead, a flashback to an application under the RTI Act that sought to disclose the roles, responsibilities, competence, training and equipping of the District Disaster Management Team (DDMT) of Palakkad, would not be out of place.


On November 26, 2012, there was a function in the Conference Hall of the Collectorate, Palakkad. A casual enquiry revealed that it was a training being organized for the DDMT. On December 2, an application was submitted to the Public Information Officer of the Collectorate to get information on the definition of disaster, the organisation of various teams, their responsibilities, training and resources provided and the cost of organizing the function on November 26, 2012.


The Public Information Officer informed that any natural calamity, accident or explosions were to be considered disasters. The function in the Conference Hall was a training class on the operation of the District Emergency Operation Center and the attendees were the staff of the Collectorate and Taluk Offices (about 230 in number). An expenditure of Rs 27,000/- had been incurred on providing refreshments. For the rest of the information sought the reply was a simple ‘Steps are being taken for the formation of a Disaster Management Team in the District.’


The order, dated May 22, 2014, by Mr Gunavardhan, Information Commissioner, directed the PIO to provide the copies of the complete documents in the relevant file free of cost. (In the context of the RTI Act, the failure to impose the mandated penalty of Rs 25,000/- was a subversion of the law by the IC. Also, the cost of copies provided was an unwarranted burden on the state exchequer/tax payer. It should have been recovered from the defaulting PIO). But suffice to say that as far as the DMT was concerned, it had not been formed, and if formed later, it had been confined to paper only.


Cut to August 2018. Nature ran a trailer of the floods in Palakkad on the night of August 8-9, before it struck with full fury in the southern districts from August 15 onwards.


Thereafter, an application was submitted to the PIO, Collectorate, Palakkad, on August 30, 2018, seeking some details about water levels in the district’s dams from August 1, 2018, release of waters, etc. No information was provided. On first appeal, the Deputy Collector (General) directed the PIO to provide the information with them free of cost and forward the copies of the application to certain other public authorities for providing the information held with them.


Accordingly, the PIO provided, on January 16, 2019, copies of orders regarding assignment of duties to the sub-Collector, deputy collectors etc. The interesting information was that storerooms for relief materials were opened at three locations and the assignment of duties were done for the first time on August 18, 2018, almost 10 days after the floods wreaked havoc on unsuspecting citizens, and the last was on August 20, 2018.


The list of relief camps established on August 9, 2018 was provided only for Palakkad Taluk. There were 20 camps with 2214 inmates, as per the list. A list, as on August 19, was also provided which showed a total of 110 camps with 11,654 inmates. As per this list, the camps in Palakkad Taluk were only 10 and the number of inmates was 1634. Shockingly, no information was provided on aid material received/distributed and the funds allotted/ expended.


The PIO of the office of the District Medical Officer (Health) provided some information on February 23, 2019, against payment of Rs 646/- for 323 pages. (The demand for cost was illegal as the prescribed period of 30 days was over even after receipt of the application by their PIO. This is another indication of the failure to implement the RTI Act, but that is not the subject here).


Of this, 284 pages were just invoices of medicines sent from Kerala Medical Services Corporation Ltd under the Dept of Health and Family Welfare, Government of Kerala, to various relief camps. There were 46 invoices with the average cost of drugs per invoice being Rs 25,000/-. The other documents pertained to various relief camps and assignment of doctors and para medical staff. The list shows 104 camps with 11,633 inmates as on August 23, 2018. (That the list of relief camps did not tally with the list provided by the Collectorate is indicative of the lackadaisical way of functioning of our public servants. The number of inmates, however, cannot be disputed, like Birbal’s crows in Agra.)


The crunch issue here is that there were no public servants assigned to monitor the functioning of the camps, though the Deputy Collector (Land Revenue) had been assigned the tasks of identifying the areas for establishment of relief camps and provide adequate shelter for the affected people; ensure unhindered supply of necessary relief materials such as food, water, clothes and medicines.


One interesting information was that the Health Department had allotted Rs 14,60,000/- for flood relief operations, of which they had spent only Rs 4,89,001/-. The PIO of the office of the Executive Engineer, Irrigation, Malampuzha, provided some information on March 5, 2019, against payment of Rs 42/-.


Of the 11 dams in Palakkad, the PIO provided information only on 3 dams. The first warning about opening the shutters of Malampuzha Dam, the biggest in Palakkad and the second biggest in the State, was released on July 19, 2018 through a letter initiated by the executive engineer and addressed to the District Collector. The water level then was 113m, 2.06 m short of the maximum level. On August 3, 2018, it was just 0.06 m short of the maximum level. The shutter was opened by just 3 cm on August 5, 2018 and then to 150 cm on August 9, 2018, the day many areas of Palakkad were inundated. (Unfortunately, the records do not show the date and time of closing the shutters. For August 10, 2018, the record shows that just the spillway was opened by 3 cm and on August 11, 2018, the shutter being opened by 6 cm).


It is evident that while the professionals had acted reasonably correctly, generalist decision makers faltered. The most culpable is the District Emergency Operation Center that failed to warn the people staying on the banks of rivers and rivulets which had overflowed. The current in some of the streams was such that even Maruti cars were swept away.


The overall data provided so far has no indication of any relief materials being provided or managed by the authorities. While volunteers were working full throttle, the local MP stirred up a controversy by demanding that all aid should be routed through the Collector’s office. Thankfully for the victims, the volunteers just carried on with their service. In a camp set up in our neighborhood, food and clothes were provided by the local residents who were not affected. The ward member had coordinated with households to provide food turn by turn.


Though it was clear to everybody in the state that there was gross negligence by the State Government in managing the water of the dams, the official indictment came via a report submitted on March 27, 2019, by the amicus curie appointed by the High Court of Kerala. Over a dozen PILs had been filed in the High Court to probe the lapses. Even Metro-man E Sridharan had approached the court for a probe. The amicus curie, while prima facie confirming the lapses, suggested a more detailed probe by a committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge.


Apart from the data exposing the failure of the District Emergency Operation Center in preventing the floods and warning the people, nothing had been done by the district administration towards rehabilitation of the victims in Palakkad. Reports suggest that even the Rs 10,000/- compensation offered to all victims has not been received by all. One victim family was heard saying that just to clean their open well they had incurred an expenditure of Rs 11,000/-.


Meanwhile, advocate Jayasankar, a political analyst, while commenting on the amicus curie report, recollected how the Tsunami funds had been misused. He said this fund was used to cover the floor of the Labour Court in Ernakulam, working in a rented premise, with ceramic tiles. (The commentary in Malayalam can be accessed here )


Even under these excruciating circumstances, there was no responsible behavior by those wielding authority. The Chief Minister of Kerala, presiding over a tottering economy, is in the midst of a controversy for hiring helicopters to move within the State and its neighbourhood.


A proposal has been mooted to buy a helicopter for the Kerala State Tourism Development Corporation. Its potential use is as much your guess as mine. Suffice it to say that this article can be safely concluded by redefining government as a system that does not do anything it is tasked, equipped, empowered and paid to do, but does everything that it is not supposed to do.


First published here


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