Assessing Relief Efforts Two Months After a Deadly Downpour Killed 70 in Telangana State
It was late at night on Oct. 13 and the rain was showing no sign of letting up. From their ground-floor home, a family of six watched as the road outside mutated into what looked more and more like a ferocious river. They were convinced the situation would settle down in a couple of hours. Heavy rains never got worse than the lift-your-trousers-up-to-cross-the-road level in Hyderabad, the capital of the southern state of Telangana, at least not in their lifetimes.
But their estimate turned out to be terribly wrong. When the water entered their home and rose to a height of about four feet, they had no choice but to brave the outdoors and go someplace safer. Mohammed Shakeel and his wife carried their children on their shoulders and left, not returning for the next 15 days.
In the week that followed, there were two more big bouts of rain in the state and the cumulative effect of the flash floods was devastating. More than 70 people lost their lives, with almost half that number in worst-affected Hyderabad itself. Three major tanks breached, over 200 residential colonies were completely inundated and thousands of citizens had to be relocated, I was informed by Rahul Bojja, who was secretary, disaster management and relief, in Telangana government at the time. The loss of private property, he said, was “disastrous and unaccountable,” and damage to public infrastructure huge.
It’s been two months since the disaster and Hyderabad has got back up on its feet and has even conducted its municipal corporation elections, although the marks on the walls of damaged homes and the intense pain of loss remain. Experts, media reports and an acknowledgement by the state government point to the fact that the massive floods were a result of years of poor urban planning, legal as well as illegal construction on lake beds and climate change. As promises are made to address these concerns and work on disaster preparedness for the future, I wanted to evaluate the disaster response and relief efforts and check whether these were sufficient in alleviating the distress of the people.
On the night of Oct. 13 itself, low-lying areas and vulnerable places were identified by the government, Bojja said. People residing there were shifted to makeshift shelters – schools, function halls and the like – on higher ground. About 40 boats were mobilised for rescue operations with the help of the Hyderabad Boat Club and the Yacht Club of Hyderabad. Four teams from the National Disaster Response Force, the Municipal Corporation and the Fire Department rescued trapped people. Around 150,000 food packets were distributed every day for the next 10 days.
The relief efforts, however, were not carefully choreographed the way they are in regions that are prone to annual flooding like the coastal districts of Telangana’s sister-state, Andhra Pradesh. As it was a relatively unexpected happening, the authorities in Hyderabad had no set drill to follow, and that led to some amount of duplication of work and lack of coordination between departments, Bojja admitted. “We are planning to improve the capabilities of the fire department and the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) in terms of equipment required for immediate flood relief so we do not have to rely on the Hyderabad Boat Club, for example, in such situations.”
In Telangana, it is the Fire Department which is the designated disaster-mitigating force. The National Policy on Disaster Management, 2009, recommends that each state create a State Disaster Response Force equivalent to at least one battalion, but the state does not have such a force.
Role of Civil Society
Rarely can governments carry out immediate relief efforts effectively without the support of civil society initiatives. In this case, too, several volunteering teams came to the fore. One of these is a coalition of 15 non-governmental organisations which came together under the banner “Hyderabad Flash Floods.” From organising boats for rescues to providing essential supplies of food, water, clothing and lamps to those who were trapped, they worked to alleviate distress right from the beginning.
“To date, we are collecting and distributing grains, clothes kits, school kits, bedsheets, and blankets,” Azam Khan, founder-director of Social Data Initiatives Forum – one of the 15 organisations – elaborated. “We have supplied to about 7,000 families so far and intend to go up to 15,000. We are also helping people rent out new properties at minimal rates and pitching in to rebuild damaged homes.”
He described the workspace they managed to get. It’s a 5,000-square-foot area in a prime commercial locality which is accessible to most people in the city. “There have been times when up to 150 volunteers are working there together. That included auto drivers, mechanics, doctors, engineers, advocates – everybody! We have a constant stream of volunteers – old and new – trooping in. The people of Hyderabad have really opened up their hearts and purses.”
Arguably, the state government’s most important, and definitely the most talked about, relief measure is financial assistance of 10,000 rupees in cash for each flood-affected family. The distribution began on Oct. 20 and 664,000 families had received the aid as of the first week of December, according to officials. Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao also promised assistance of 100,000 rupees for people whose houses were completely damaged and 50,000 rupees for those with partially damaged houses.
Mohammed Shakeel told me that government representatives came to his home, filled a form, checked his Aadhar card and gave him the cash. They did the same at his tailoring workshop, where the rainwater had mercilessly destroyed all the machines and ruined every piece of cloth. This economic support enabled his family to meet their basic necessities for the first few days. When they augmented this aid with money they borrowed from relatives and friends, his tailoring work could finally resume. They still do not have a bed or a mattress at home and are making do with a borrowed water pump, but at least life has begun to get back on track.
There are other flood-affected families, though, who have not yet received the promised financial aid. Prakash Jadav is the father of three children and works as a labourer. The family’s entire home was submerged and none of their belongings survived. When I asked if he had received the promised 10,000 rupees from the government, he replied that he was not even aware that it was being given. The only “relief” he had received was a bunch of old clothes that he said his family did not need. He was not sure if it was government personnel or social workers who had brought them.
According to media reports, the non-allotment of funds to several families who needed it led to widespread protests by the people towards the end of October. Citizens also complained that the disbursal of cash aid was tainted by large-scale corruption and favouritism by the corporators. Amid all this, the government halted the distribution of the relief money on Oct. 30, leading to even more anger and public outcry.
Bojja offered an explanation. “In order to keep track of where the money was going, the government decided to disburse financial aid via bank transfers using electronic transaction facilitation centres called MeeSeva. So the distribution was stopped for a few days while we created the required application and then restarted on Nov. 15.”
Three days later, the Telangana State Election Commission put a brake on it again in light of the model code of conduct coming into effect for the GHMC election that was to be held on Dec. 1. Opposition parties, including the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had alleged that the governing Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) was bribing people for votes and disguising it as flood relief.
When a petition was filed at the Telangana High Court stating that money given as a relief measure in case of a natural calamity is exempted under the model code, the court instructed the State Election Commission to explain its stand. The court eventually directed the government to continue “to dole out the financial aid” after the completion of the voting, i.e., post Dec. 4.
The BJP, the governing party at the centre, promised a sum of 25,000 rupees for each flood-affected family as part of their manifesto in the GHMC elections. On the other hand, the Congress party assured they would give 50,000 rupees if elected.
However, the TRS retained its position as the largest party in the election, albeit with just a little more than half the number of seats they had won in 2016.
Even the election results have not brought stability to the distribution of cash relief. On Dec. 7, flood-affected people queued up at MeeSeva centres expecting the service to resume. However, they were sent back and told that GHMC officials would now once again begin visiting homes for verification and then transfer the money directly into their bank accounts.
During this entire pre- and post-election period, the struggle of Jadav’s family to build back their home without any State support has carried on. I heard a heart-breaking despair in his voice when he quietly said on the phone, “I have no expectations from any government.”
Centre-State Coordination for Relief Funds
The state government has spent over 6.56 billion rupees on flood relief, according to the chief minister. He wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Oct. 15, seeking 13.5 billion rupees of immediate financial assistance. He also met with Union Home Minister Amit Shah in the national capital recently and requested him to release the funds for flood relief. The central government, however, had provided no monetary assistance at press time.
Ministers of the governing party in the state alleged that the centre responded to similar calls for help by the BJP-ruled Karnataka and Gujarat governments while ignoring Telangana’s requests for funds. In response, BJP parliamentarian Kishan Reddy claimed in November that the centre had asked the state government to submit a comprehensive report on the disaster, but it didn’t. He also insinuated that it was deliberate because their chances of winning the GHMC elections would have reduced had the BJP at the centre released the funds.
“We have sent the memorandum of damages to the Government of India, so let’s see if they release funds,” Bojja said. “The National Disaster Management Authority norms recommend that we use the money that is allocated every year as the State Disaster Response Fund for immediate relief. But this year, most of that money was already consumed by our COVID-19 efforts.”
After speaking to officials and reading media’s coverage following the calamity, I felt as if politicisation, especially due to the proximity of the election, had derailed and distracted the government’s relief efforts, and a simple exercise of governance had been made into a complex problem.
In the ensuing confusion, it was the common people whose genuine requirements were overlooked. Shakeel told me that what he, and others like him, really needed was an easy loan at low interest to kickstart their small businesses again. But with all the electoral campaigning and squabbling, I wonder if any politician has the time to take this into account.
Tarini Mehta is a staff writer at StoriesAsia. Based in Delhi, she covers politics and culture.