Kerala’s Powerhouse Communist Leader: My Life as a Comrade

This is an excerpt from a book by a well known woman communist leader of the Indian state of Kerala. She recounts her experiences coordinating relief efforts after the catastrophic 2018 floods.
My Life as a Comrade

My Life As A Comrade : The Story Of An Extraordinary Politician And The World That Shaped Her © Amazon/

May 14, 2023 20:06 EDT

Even before we’d completely dealt with the aftermath of Ockhi, Kerala was overwhelmed by the floods of August 2018. Torrential rain isn’t new to our parts, but all fourteen districts of Kerala were affected by severe monsoonal rainfall that year. While they were impacted to different extents, there was severe loss of property throughout the state. Declared a Level 3 Calamity – which means a calamity of a severe nature – it was the worst flood the state had seen since what is called the Great Flood of 1924.

In Malayalam the strongest period of the monsoon is called perumazhakkalam, or the season of relentless rain. In 2018, for days on end, the skies just poured down water. The lowland areas began to get flooded, landslides affected the hillsides, the dams filled up, and large parts of the population were at risk. The floodwaters rose very rapidly and enveloped everything seemingly overnight; lakes and rivers breached their banks so completely that villages and towns went under water. People were forced to seek refuge on their roof terraces or leave their homes on boats that plied through erstwhile roadways. The entire government was called into action by the chief minister. One department cannot ensure the functioning of so many areas of public life when there is a disaster of this magnitude. In fact, even the government isn’t enough. With a seemingly impossible task at hand, one of the first things the chief minister did was ask the fishing community for help in rescuing people from flooded areas. Their work was so crucial and effective that he declared them Kerala’s own army. From housewives to college students and everyone in between, people from parts of the state that weren’t affected as badly reacted spontaneously, helping one another, rescuing, gathering resources and ensuring everyone had basic necessities and food.

Though the rain abated, the waters remained, stagnating in many parts of the state, and there were fears of a torrent of communicable diseases. Dead carcasses, and pools of water could become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which could spread dengue, H1N1, etc. In places with dirty, stagnating water, diseases like leptospirosis and cholera were almost guaranteed. The doctors had a suggestion: administer doxycycline prophylaxis, wherein high-risk populations take doxycycline every day for a period of time to prevent infections. Did we have enough of the medicine to distribute to almost 1 crore people? It had to be given to everyone living in areas under water and those who had waded through water for long periods. All the volunteers at the camps, all camp residents – people whose homes had been submerged – and everyone who was part of the government’s health squad, needed the dose. So, we began collecting doxycycline tablets and distributed them at the relief camps.

Despite these efforts, a few people died of leptospirosis. When we checked we realized they had not taken the medicine as directed. We understood that some people were just ignoring the advice, and since they weren’t sick it wasn’t easy for them to understand the importance of taking the medication. So we organized a squad of healthcare workers, armed with packets of biscuits, bottles of water and doxycycline tablets. They would give people the biscuits and the pill together with a bottle of water, and make sure they swallowed the tablet. It was a mission. And because it was conducted with that level of seriousness, there were no acute outbreaks of disease. When a disease doesn’t happen it’s just a footnote, but what if it had spread and added to the body count? We lost almost 500 people in the floods, and if there had been a disease outbreak, the outcome would have been even worse. People would have cursed us.

I visited the camps throughout Kerala during those weeks. I often feel very uneasy and disturbed just sitting in my office in the capital city, getting information on the phone, during such times. I need to go see for myself whether things are moving according to plan. So, I went to as many places as I could.

The flood caused more than Rs 40,000 crore worth of damages, destroying roads, homes, hospitals, schools and public infrastructure. The rebuilding of the state after this disaster was extremely difficult. In the absence of adequate assistance from the central government, the chief minister put out a call for donations to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF), and people from across the country and the world responded to help the state.

On the ground, with all the different departments of government working together, the health department started a programme of chlorination and spraying to eliminate mosquitoes across the state as soon as the waters began to recede. Many water bodies had been contaminated by sewage or other kinds of impurities brought in by the water and silt, so cleaning water sources was a key activity. The entire system worked in tandem, and I think that is the only reason we were able to come out of that nightmare fairly swiftly. When the Union Health Minister J.P. Nadda came to visit after the flood, at a media briefing he commended us for a job well done – for anticipating disease outbreaks and preventing a health crisis. This was despite the political ramifications of applauding a rival political party’s good work. When you hear praise from unexpected quarters it is even more heartening.

I also understood from these experiences that we are stronger than we give ourselves credit for. Sometimes when the worst thing you can imagine happens, your instinct to fight and to work out solutions kicks in – and you survive. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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