By The People

The response to Kerala’s worst natural disaster in a century has shown us (again) that citizens mobilize widely and rapidly when called on. So why doesn’t government take advantage of that more often?

“We were trying to find victims, but everywhere we found only heroes”


Large, white parcels, all safely wrapped up in packing material line up against the wall by the entrance to the club house in a swanky apartment complex in Neotown, Bangalore. Labelled clearly – “Sleeping mats”, “Blankets”, “Bedsheets”, “Gloves”, “Gum Boots”, “Cleaning Supplies”- they are all ready to be loaded on to trucks headed towards the neighbouring state of Kerala where almost a million people have been displaced from their homes and many of them are still living in relief camps and temporary shelters after a devastating flood last week destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, resorts and everything else in its path. 

Over 400 people have died so far and many of those who have survived have little to go back to. 

The estimated financial loss to the state runs into several billion Indian Rupees but the true magnitude of what has been lost by many families is unquantifiable. For most families in Kerala, a house doesn’t simply provide the security of shelter- it is their life’s toil and savings and building a house is the bedrock of the middle-class dream. For many families, the floods have shaken that bedrock and for some of them, destroyed it entirely. 

The task ahead is daunting but while the rivers roar on, a glimmer of hope shined brightly through the grey clouds. All across the state, political and religious lines disolved as people turned out to help those in distress. Fisherfolk with their boats helped move thousands to safer lands, the Indian Navy and police airlifted hundreds of others and classrooms and prayer halls became relief camps. From neighbouring states and cities, thousands of people pitched in to raise funds for emergency supplies and made sure it reached those in Kerala who most needed it. Once again, heroes were born when they were needed the most and with their help, kerala is sure to power through this tragedy. 

Screengrab of NDRF officer, Kanhaiya Kumar, running across a bridge to take an infant to a doctor just before the bridge is engulfed by the flood waters.
Image source: Malayala Manorama

Tech-enabled Disaster Management

Kerala has one of the most decentralized governance structures in India and it was in full force in response to the floods. Emergency decision-making and crisis response at the local level were left to the the district administrators who were given the authority to do what was necessary to save lives and mitigate the damage. Over time, it would be worth studying the impact this step had on mobilizing resources and manpower to the right places quickly. But at the scale that disaster struck kerala, it was always going to be too much for government to do on its own. 13 out of 14 districts in the state were on “red alert”- the highest level of alert issued by India’s Meteorological Department (IMD). The deadly cocktail of torrential rains (257% more than anticipated for that time of the year) and the unexpected release of water from some 36 dams brought “God’s Own Country”, as it is popularly called, to its knees. Every single dam in the state was filled to capacity and all of them had to be opened (some for the first time in over two decades) in order to prevent a dam burst which would have had even more severe consequences.

Almost overnight, the government’s IT department was able to set up keralarescue.in to help coordinate the rescue operations. Some 1500 engineers (from all over the world) who are part of the Kerala chapter of the IEEE made the website in just 96 hours for the government (for free). The state government deployed it and made it the center of their rescue and relief efforts. The website had everything from district-wise emergency supplies requirement lists to a facility to request to be rescued (which the disaster response teams used to locate survivors) to a portal for solicting financial contributions and even a map of flooded streets using satellite-driven data. The site has logged over 10 million requests for aid in the short span of time that it has been active. It is unclear how many of those very fulfilled by government but citizens certainly responded to the call. 

Several organizations and individuals who were able to organize the logistics to send trucks into the worst-affected regions of the state began collection drives all over south India (with financial contributions coming from the North too and organizations like Punjab’s Khalsa Aid setting up camp in Kerala to make food for the survivors). Several truck loads of food, clothes, sheets, sanitary napkins, diapers, water bottles and other essential items reached the survivors with little or no involvement of government. In Bangalore, where I was, heartening stories poured in about auto rickshaw drivers who refused to take money from those who were transporting these supplies in the city and grocery stores offering discounts to those buying supplies in bulk for Kerala. My taxi driver to the airport earlier today narrated how he spent some of his day’s meager savings on buying fuel for the trucks ferrying the supplies to Kerala. The middle-aged domestic help at home donated her new saris to those who’d lost everything to the floods while several others in the city pitched-in in quantities both small and big, realizing that every drop in the ocean counted to making someone’s life a little better. 

Through Instgram, Whatsapp and Facebook, those on the ground in Kerala sent updates to those in other parts of the country in real-time (faster than government and even faster than news channels) about the new list of requirements in specific relief camps in each district of the state. These social media powered volunteers were even able to identify and resolve problems with an agility and efficiency that would have been hard for government with its fatigued and anachronistic bureacracy. For example, with some camps housing over 5000 people, a major sanitation issue was reported through instagram- used diapers and sanitary napkins were piling up outside the camps since there was no state machinery running to collect trash. Instantly, a request went out to those in neighbouring districts who had access to incinerators to dispose the waste. In a matter of hours, several people responded with locations and drop off instructions. The problem, of course, is that these informal channels are only anecdotes. But these little anecdotes from all over the state certainly went a long way in mitigating the humanitarian crisis that these floods have set off. 

Formalizing Informality

When I put out a request to my friends to contribute in anyway they can, several of them readily agreed to send me supplies or money for supplies if I would hand over supplies to responsible organizations. While some of them even contributed to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund directly, others were more cynical. There was an element of doubt in giving more money to government. I noticed this lack of trust in government even in speaking with some other people around me. It was a curious contradiction given that Indian’s trust in government as per Gallup’s recent poll is among the highest in the world. 

Trust or not, the fact is that people turned out on the streets to help Kerala when they could just as easily have sent some money to the CM’s fund online and let government do its thing. But why does this civic activism in our citizens only awaken during times of crisis? What does it take to be active citizens 24×7? 

In reality, the assessment that civic activism awakens only in response to disasters like this one is probably a bit harsh. Even in just the past decade, Indians have shown a healthy appetite for mobilizing to effect change. Starting with the protests to Nirbhaya’s rape in Delhi to the massive public support for Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal bill, the incredible response to the net neutrality debate and most recently surrounding issues being heard in the supreme court like the right to privacy and decriminalizing homosexuality, we’ve shown that we will turn out for a wide range of causes provided that there is a clear call to action. People on informal channels of communication like Instagram have figured out that being extremely specific about what you need from the crowd is the most effective way of engaging with it. It is unlikely that a message from the Chief Minister saying “Please help Kerala” would have mobilized even a fraction of the support that the state received thanks to the specific requirements lists that were shared on social media and through keralarescue.in. This is an important lesson that we’ve seen multiple times in other citizen engagement efforts. For instance, asking people for their opinion about a particular issue through an online portal has been proven to be ineffective in multiple projects around the world. At the same time, asking people for solutions to solve that issue based on rigoursouly defined problem statement has led to several innovative suggestions that have helped solve issues ranging from computational biology and astronomy to urban transportation and trash management.

Redefining our democracy 

A democracy can’t simply be for the people and of the people. It needs to be made BY the people too. We’ve shown that we have so much to offer to government, not just financially but by way of our sheer capacity to mobilize, ideate and implement on the go. Citizen engagement is not a panacea. It will not solve all our problems but there are some situations where our involvement will help government make better decisions, provide better services and implement projects more efficiently. There is no dearth of organizations (both in India and around the world) doing research on identifying in what context and in what form citizen engagement is most effective. But irrespective of the context, there are two precursors to executing widespread citizen engagement in government. The first, is that citizens should be willing to engage with government and take part in reasoned, informed debate with space for compromises and experimental ideas and the second is that government (and its entire bureaucratic machinery) should be willing to listen to the people. The question is, are we ready to engage? And if we are, is government listening?

To help rebuild Kerala, you can contribute to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund at this link: http://www.cmdrf.kerala.gov.in

For updates about the situation in Kerala, check out keralarescue.in or follow the Chief Minister on Twitter @cmokerala

To contribute to NGOs, consider volunteer groups working on the ground such as: http://rebuildkerala.gtechindia.org

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