GAYETI SINGH | 21 AUGUST, 2018
India’s unique ability to unite
NEW DELHI: Not just Kerala, but entire India has risen with the ravaging floods bringing together citizens, cutting across class and creed, in an assertion of unity rarely seen before. Fishermen and soldiers, constables and truck drivers, lawyers and academics have pitched in with tech companies to collect money, material, medicines, water, for the people who have lost their all.
The rains that pounded Kerala where 360 people lost their lives and over one million were displaced into 3274 relief camps have finally subsided, and the state now faces the colossal task of rebuilding itself. As the rain waters recede, leaving behind damages estimated at over Rs. 20,000 crore, the story that emerges is of India’s unique ability to unite in the face of adversity.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Shinoj Narayanan, a lawyer involved in organising the collection and transportation of relief materials to Kerala. “I’ve been doing this for years,” he said, referring to relief and rescue efforts, “but I’ve seen this kind of outpour of support for the first time.”
The Kerala floods have dominated the newsroom at The Citizen, and while the early conversation focused on the political context (“why haven’t the Kerala floods been declared a national disaster?”) this soon gave way to amazement at the kind of support the state was receiving. Social media, be it Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, has been inundated by appeals from citizens across the country, urging others to volunteer and donate.
Independent citizens have come together to organise collection of relief materials, and while many of these efforts are localised and small, they mark a decisive shift in India’s response to disasters -- one that is citizen-driven and led. Citizens have come together to collect toiletries, cleaning material, medicines, clothes and toys (the list goes on), with some efforts being limited to friends and family, and others taking on a large community dimension.
Narayanan is one such citizen, who has teamed up with other lawyers in New Delhi to mobilise relief material for Kerala. The first call for relief material was a massive success, as six truckloads of material were collected on August 18 and sent to Kerala. “The response was overwhelming,” Narayanan said. “Even after we had collected and sent off over 60 tonnes of material, the offers to help kept pouring in. As a result, we have extended the mobilisation effort, and will be airlifting eight truckloads of material on August 20.” “We are a lot more prepared this time,” he added, saying that although the first call for mobilisation was for a quick requirement and fairly last minute, the response exceeded all expectations.
“We have no political affiliation,” Narayanan said. “We have no religious, class, caste or political banner; we are just ordinary practicing lawyers who want to help.” “I’m from Kerala, we have people from all backgrounds and regions that are part of our core team of organisers.”
“We have received widespread support from ordinary citizens who have come forward to donate but also from NGOs, legal associations, religious outfits, and civil society at large. We were directed by the Indian navy to the airforce, who are providing a military aircraft to airlift the material on August 20. It is this combined effort that’s made this possible,” Narayanan explained. “It’s crossed all expectations.”
“In fact, I have a story to share. We hired six trucks to transport the relief material collected on the 18th. Due to some miscommunication, we couldn’t pay for three trucks, and assured the truck drivers that we will speak to their boss and sort things out. We couldn’t contact the owner and were worried that the material will not reach without the payment. We soon found out that a group of Delhi Police constables -- one of whom had helped us arrange permissions for the trucks -- had contributed themselves and paid for the three trucks,” Narayanan said.
“Another unprecedented incident was that Supreme Court Judge Kurian Joseph arrived at the material collection camp at 7 am, and was there till 12:30 at night -- packing material, writing names, arranging food for volunteers. This is a sitting Supreme Court Judge. I was amazed.”
Divya Kannan, a volunteer with various groups working to mobilise resources for the floods, echoed the sentiment that the response to this crisis has been unprecedented. “Social media has really helped,” Kannan said. “It’s helped in fundraising, in countering rumours, in enabling people who are on the ground and need help to ask for it.” “Not only is the crisis unprecedented, as Kerala is not typically a flood exposed state, but so is the response.”
“I think what’s different this time is awareness thanks to social media, but also how easy it is to help,” said Mona Ahuja, a New Delhi based journalist. “I usually want to do my bit, but often do not know how. This time, I just went on the Amazon website, chose the NGO I wanted to support, chose the products I wanted to donate from their wishlist, and voila -- it was all done.”
Amazon partnered with NGOs Habitat for Humanity, World Vision India and Goonj, enabling users to make a donation to the organisation through their Amazon account. “Most of my friends donated via Amazon,” Ahuja said. “Even friends who don’t normally donate. I think it’s because people want to, and like me, don’t know how.”
A similar option is available on Flipkart through a tie up with Goonj. PayTM is facilitating contributions to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund, enabling users to use their account to donate directly to the Fund. HDFC Bank has sent out messages saying “Let’s help Kerala” and outlining three quick and easy ways to donate to the CM’s Disaster Relief Fund via the bank.
This writer donated directly to the CM’s Relief Fund using the donation button on the website. The process was quick and easy, and the tax exemption certificate was made immediately available once the donation was complete.
S Pillai, originally from Kerala but living in Delhi, said that her entire Delhi neighbourhood -- people from all walks of life, from different parts of the country -- came together to collect relief material. “It was spontaneous,” she said. “No NGO told us what to do. Neither did a government body. People in the community decided what was needed. This list was circulated via Whatsapp and each family prepared boxes of food and other supplies. We then located an NGO that could send the material to Kerala.”
As Kannan pointed out, “People did not wait for the state or organisations; they acted on their own.” Part of the reason why people -- especially those outside of Kerala -- have been able to act so quickly and decisively is attributed to technology. Social media helped raise awareness, share appeals for help and mobilize people, and technology made it easier to donate -- whether cash or material -- than before.
“There’s also the role of an informed civil society,” said Kannan. “Within Kerala, people have kept political differences aside and come together to act. The Chief Minister’s wide network and cadres on the ground have enabled rescue and rehabilitation efforts. The IT industry was mobilised, setting up websites and helplines, all of its own accord. Social media has helped raise awareness and funds. Medical unions have stepped in. It’s a huge collective effort on the part of civil society.”
Kannan referred to the marginalised fishermen community, who have emerged heroes as they took their boats to venture out to some of the worst flood-hit areas, rescuing thousands of people. “The fishermen are a very marginalised community, so while they are currently being celebrated as heroes, the issue of inclusivity remains and will be all the more relevant in the rehabilitation phase.”
“In Kerala, there hasn’t been much political mudslinging,” noted Kannan. “There’s been a bit of a debate on the role of the army, but that too has been muted. Maybe political differences will crop up in the post-rescue phase, but as of now, people stand united.”
A Whatsapp message, unconfirmed but purportedly from an officer at the forefront of rescue and relief operations at Kochi, highlights this collective effort. It reads: “Firstly to the credit of the admin they have also been in the front and have been operating along with the public. Unlike other places where they had hid themselves and were unwilling to show themselves to the public here they were shoulder to shoulder with all affected people. Secondly the youngsters had on their own taken on the task of organising the efforts… The place where they were coordinating the efforts were teeming with the youngsters who were bringing in supplies and other essentials as needed. From my flat complex the young ladies has overnight collected over Rs 3 lakhs and were supplying packed food. Thirdly the fishermen community had on their own transported their boats and were rescuing the stranded. Similarly others also had formed their own little organisations to rescue. The population in general did not wait idly for the govt machinery to begin the actions as in other places. I find tremendous happiness having seen all the groups work together without any sense of religion or cast or other divisions. I had gone to a church with rations and they directed us to a temple as there were more people there. I am sure with such an attitude, in spite of our politicians and what a number of us say, this country has a good future."
The Central Government, meanwhile, has announced Rs. 500 crore for Kerala -- a figure that other political parties have criticised. “This was granted against a demand of Rs. 2,000 crore made by the State on the basis of a preliminary assessment. It was unfortunate that the Centre had refused to declare the floods a national disaster,” said CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury.
As political parties battle it out, the real story of the Kerala floods is that of civil society -- which has shown its willingness and ability to mobilise and take charge. “It’s the least we can do,” said Ahuja. “Humanity over politics, please. It would do us some good to remember that every now and then.”