Rebuilding Kerala: Lessons from Aceh

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | JOHN KURIEN
Published Sep 2, 2018, 1:34 am IST
Updated Sep 2, 2018, 1:34 am IST
In Aceh, reconstruction was coordinated by a specially created agency, decreed by the President of the Republic of Indonesia.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan during the inauguration of the meeting of Cooperative society representatives- for rebuilding Kerala held at Nishagandhi in Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday. (Photo: A.V. MUZAFAR)
 Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan during the inauguration of the meeting of Cooperative society representatives- for rebuilding Kerala held at Nishagandhi in Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday. (Photo: A.V. MUZAFAR)

The deluge in Kerala and the challenge to rebuild a ‘New Kerala’ reminds me of my four-year involvement in post-tsunami efforts at Aceh Province of Indonesia to ‘build back better’ – the phrase coined by US President Clinton when visiting Aceh.

I learnt in Aceh that disaster management has five phases: rescue, relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and redevelopment. The first four are part of common discourse in Kerala. By redevelopment, however, we are alluding to using the context of a disaster to re-envision a change in the composition, pace and direction of the development process.

 

In Aceh, reconstruction was coordinated by a specially created agency, decreed by the President of the Republic of Indonesia. The Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR) was designated to operate for four years, with competent full-time staff and two oversight boards.

The Agency's mission was to “restore livelihoods and strengthen affected communities by designing and overseeing a coordinated, community-driven reconstruction programme implemented according to the highest professional standards.”

There was a master plan for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. BRR matched donor funds to specific community needs through a process that was rigorous, sensitive to local concerns and priorities, and well-monitored. BRR coordination was essential to ensure timely delivery of support and eliminate legal and institutional uncertainties in reconstruction.

BRR recognized the important role of local community input and participation in reconstruction. Local government bodies, customary and community leaders, academics, religious leaders and NGOs were continuously consulted and involved in re-shaping the reconstruction plan whenever needed. Mechanisms to trigger community-based reconstruction initiatives were critical to ensure participation – and more importantly to eliminate perception of bias or corruption.

The lesson for Kerala is that reconstruction is best achieved with a separately designated, time-bound and focussed entity for execution, with sanction of the legislature and accountability to it, but with the freedom to function according to the highest professional and ethical standards. This entity should be viewed as a public-private-people partnership for building back better.

Its mission should be to create a part fixed, part flexible physical master plan from a judicious amalgamation of participatory ward/panchayat-level physical rehabilitation and reconstruction plans. Each ward/panchayat should provide a vision statement for their rebuilt reality. This amalgam must then be meshed with macro-assessments of reconstruction needs which have taken seriously the geo-physical and environmental factors in nature made amply visible in the wake of the deluge.

Aid Coordination
With aid pouring into Aceh (it reached USD 8 billion), the Government of Indonesia requested the World Bank to establish a multi-donor trust fund (MDF) to pool donor contributions. The MDF activities had to be consistent with, and guided by, the Government’s Master Plan and under the leadership and direction of BRR.

The MDF helped all donors allocate funds judiciously. It provided detailed spatial and financial information on the specific needs of the survivors.  Procurement procedures were made simpler and transparent, shortening implementation time. Smaller donors with limited overseas experience or administrative capacity also used MDF as a channel for their aid.

In Kerala, a multi-donor profile is gradually evolving for assisting in reconstruction. Aid from central government, foreign nation states and international development agencies and banks have fixed arrangements and channels to reach the coffers of the state.  Kerala can also make project proposals for specific short and long-term needs, availing of soft loans and grants from a range of sources including the World Bank and the United Nations system.

The Kerala Diaspora is ready to answer the Chief Minister’s call to pledge a month’s earnings for this cause. They will pledge more if the state can
guarantee that hard-earned money they contribute can, if they so indicate, be utilised for specific projects intended for designated places and people.

Kerala needs a special purpose financial trust facility for overall and nuanced aid coordination. This facility should have the Chief Minister and Finance Minister at its helm, but the operational charge needs to be given to qualified bureaucrats and experts with experience in dealing with the financial management of disaster reconstruction.

Linking Aid to Execution
In Aceh, when dealing with the post-tsunami relief, information technology and local expertise was not as developed as in Kerala today. The BRR depended on e-mail, SMS, satellite phones, GIS, and regular ground-checks. Matching funds and personnel to exact locations for reconstruction work took time due to complete destruction of road infrastructure. Delays gave rise to doubts about credibility of the process. Local-level coordination and execution were dependent on physical meetings with paper charts. At BRR there were the occasional power-point presentations and rare video conferencing arrangements.

Despite these shortcomings, credibly linking aid and execution helped form strong partnerships and investments were thereby effectively utilised. Information about quantum, location and utilisation of aid was made more transparent.

In Kerala today, the ubiquitous smart phone, provides transparency, accountability and empowerment. Citizens’ photos of damage or progress of restoration can spread through social media networks. Our talented IT personnel, equipped with open source and open hearts, can make a one-to-one match between anyone’s donation with the specific reconstruction needs of a village, a people or special cause of her choice.

The twinning offers, both donor and recipient and transparency and accountability at almost zero marginal costs. This enhances the trust of individual and institutional donors. The result is more aid.

Redevelopment Challenges
For Aceh, the ‘gift of the tsunami’ was total provincial autonomy granted by Government of Indonesia in matters of political governance, customary, cultural and social expression and management of natural resources, among others. The Government of Aceh became open to a new development paradigm for natural resources giving serious consideration to co-management – where state, community and market – coalesce from the lowest level upwards to protect and utilise the real wealth of society for a just, participatory, sustainable and self-reliant process of development.

In Kerala, our settlement pattern, food grains, cash crops, tourism, power sources, fisheries, and easy access to fresh water are a few essential attributes which arise innately from the special geophysical contours of the state. The recent floods have highlighted once again the inevitable need for greater partnership of state and community to utilise and manage these precious natural resources. We must utilise the golden opportunity, thrown up by crisis, to re-imagine and re-design how we situate ourselves within the context of Kerala’s salubrious natural environment.

In the context of global climate change, if we do not wish another deluge, let us forge a measured balance between ‘deep ecological activism’ for conserving nature on the one hand, and on the other, a well-planned reconstruction of our habitations, our choice of cash crop agriculture, a re-look on our dams, a willingness not to disturb the banks and sand o four rivers, and an agreement to leave our beaches as playgrounds for the sea.

To achieve this, we need, like Aceh, a renewed political engagement, in a new framework, where our commitment is not to narrow political, class and caste identities but open to envisioning and co-creating a new Kerala, within the purview of its natural bounties, with the pledge to build back better.

Tsunami of private aid

The Aceh tsunami was the first major disaster seen worldwide on live TV reportage. The impact on hearts and purse strings of viewers was without parallel. In Aceh, after the tsunami their next problem was the tsunami of aid.

Direct private aid, channelled through local and religious institutions, was hard to stop, but they created their fair share of contentious issues on the ground. Allegations of corruption, unwarranted compensation to those who suffered less or did not suffer at all, were rampant.

In Kerala too, NGOs and religious organisations have their clientele and obligations towards them. They may not be willing to pool their resources into any common kitty, particularly if controlled by the state. It is hard to trample on the rights of such organisations. However, these acts of kindness and favouritism must be recorded at the local panchayat level, to discourage their beneficiaries making duplicate claims to aid from public funds.

Affected households, from upper echelons of our society, may not lay claim to government financial assistance. They need to be separately registered. Along with others they will require assistance for getting duplicates of legal documents, linking back to the electricity grid and road network. Thus, dealing with the official reconstruction apparatus becomes inevitable.

How to turn this crisis into an opportunity of sorts?

Aceh Province bears close resemblance to Kerala in physical features – west facing coastline, hills in the east running parallel to the coast and a plenitude of rivers flowing westwards. Some common socio-cultural traits make a Keralite nostalgic. They include the ‘kadai kopi’ (coffee shop) with the single newspaper and contentious political arguments in the morning. Many Acehnese trace their origins to Ponnani in Malabar.

In Aceh, the monster 8-metre tsunami wave of December 2004 swallowed over 150,000 persons in less than 30 minutes, often reaching over 5 km inside the coastline. It totally wiped out coastal towns and villages, leaving the traumatised survivors in a state of shock.

In Kerala, the well-coordinated and heart-rending rescue phase is over. Relief emanated from every corner of the state, country and abroad. Undoubtedly, the best in us manifests in the worst of times. The floods are receding, relief camps closing and people slowly trudging back wearily to their silt-and-mud-filled homes. Rehabilitating people is marked by an up-swell of universal goodwill and fraternal feeling without any consideration of the barriers and identities that divide us in good times.

The narrative of the discourse at all levels – affected households, local communities, and various tiers of governance -- has shifted to thinking about priorities and strategies for reconstruction. How can Kerala turn this crisis into an opportunity of sorts?

(The author is Visiting Fellow, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru and former UN/FAO Post-Tsunami Fisheries Co-Management Advisor in Aceh 2006-2010).

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