The esoteric nature of the monsoon season in India has often caused devastation in a country plagued by its fair share of environmental issues. The 2018 flood in Kerala, which has since been labelled as the worst disaster to hit the state in almost a century, caused 498 casualties, with 1.4 million people displaced and more than 5 million directly affected by the loss of assets or property. Crucial strategic mistakes made by the authorities in Kerala and the complex migratory dynamics of ‘human immobility’ were pushed into the spotlight while trying to understand the disaster. However, that perception might have been skewed by the unique political situation in the state.  

The environmental stressor

Disaster displacement is a recurrent premise across India. The figures have averaged over 1,000,000 new disaster displacements per year between 2014 and 2017. The grid report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) found that most of the yearly disaster displacements can be attributed to the monsoon season. The harsh reality of the monsoon season strikes the country every year, not least in Kerala. Climate change could even worsen the situation with the prospect of floods, storm surges, cyclone-related torrential downpours, occasional droughts and a rise in the sea level

 New displacement between 2014 and 2017 as a result of disasters.

Graph created by author. Source: IDMC

With the huge impact that disasters have on India every year, the country’s National Disaster Management Authority released its Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) report in 2016. It pointed out the risks of environmental hazards across India but also allowed for individual states to take the lead on their own DRR policies. Kerala was the first one to do so with the Kerala State Disaster Management Plan, which recognised floods as “the most common of natural hazards that affect people, infrastructure and natural environment in Kerala.” The plan came up with extensive suggestions for flood risk reduction and flood mitigation, while also taking into account the possibility of relocation as the final option during extreme events. 

Official figures from India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences show that rainfall during the peak of the floods in August 2018 was 164% higher than the normal trend for that period. The month preceding the floods was already showing threatening levels of rainfall but these warning signs, which could have been conducive to more precautionary measures, did not stop the people of Kerala from feeling the full impact of the disaster. Even though there were regions around Kerala that remained safe during the floods, 80% of the villages in the state, which amounts to 1,259 out of Kerala’s 1,564 villages, were affected by the heavy rainfall. The most impacted districts were Alappuzha, Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, Thrissur and Wayanad (cf. figure 2).

Several of the most impacted regions during the flooding had been identified as risky zones for nearly a decade. Environmentalists had already raised doubts about the efficiency of Kerala’s DRR policy in the Gadgil Committee report in 2011 highlighting the need for more proactive measures to face environmental disasters. The report had asked for a reduction in quarrying in vulnerable areas, which could have prevented the flood-induced landslides. 

When the floods occurred in 2018, further reports built on those initial concerns. As the floods were ravaging Kerala and the human toll increased, reports started to suggest that on top of the significant rainfall, failures in water management from the dams contributed and even exacerbated the chaos. The accusations leveled against the authorities were not limited to inefficient water management. The Special Centre for Disaster Research (SCDR) released an extremely critical report arguing that the water management authorities showed more concern for profits from stored reservoir water than human life. The initial criticism has been dismissed by India’s Central Water Commission (CWC), arguing that it was essential for the dams to release water because of their capacities and that this did not contribute to the disaster. The SCDR’s report went further in detailing the flaws of Kerala’s DRR policy, claiming that the state should be held accountable for its mistakes. 

However, this indictment of Kerala authorities does not tell the whole story behind the response to the risks of the monsoon season. 

The political imbroglio

The interest in human immobility across Kerala stems from the state’s peculiar characteristics compared to the rest of India. The difference can be seen at a number of levels, including in flood reports. For example, the Post Disaster Needs Assessment Report by the UNDP goes against the SCDR’s take on the disaster by praising the authorities in Kerala for their response during the floods. In this case, the sources matter, with the UNDP more willing to rely on official figures from the authorities in Kerala. The SCDR based most of its research on unverified testimonies and news articles, while also overlooking the findings of the CWC on water management from the dams. 

Kerala is the only state in the country ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).  The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and often considered to be the largest party in the world based on membership, is almost nonexistent in Kerala. The BJP only had its first ever candidate elected in legislative elections in Kerala in 2016. 

This political anomaly in India makes for a confrontational relationship between the authorities in Kerala and the central government. The tension between the two has allowed for political propaganda to seep through environmental assessments and reports. Professor Ram Ramakumar, a prominent member of the Centre for Study of Developing Economies and one of the few non-ministerial members on the Kerala State Planning Board, claims that the SCDR report is flawed because of its political allegiance to the BJP. “The lead author of this report is known for her virulent politics in favour of the BJP, an ideology that we have not allowed to set foot in Kerala,” he said. 

While divergence in political affiliation might not clear the local authorities of all the blame for the tragedy that came with the floods, it helps to understand the contrasting reports coming from within Kerala and from outside of the state. More than just the political chaos, the intricacies of human migration might also have played a part in the disaster. 

The immobility spectrum

In the case of Kerala during the floods, two components of the immobility spectrum can be dissected. The first one concerns the voluntarily immobile population. It includes people who need to move but have no desire to do so, in which case their ability to move is irrelevant. The second case has to do with the “trapped population”, which involves people who need and desire to move but do not have the ability to do it. 

Voluntary immobility in Kerala is significant but it hides an important economic and cultural aspect of its society. The state has a rich history of emigration, with the total numbers over the last two decades averaging between 1.3 million in 1998 to just under 2.2 million in 2018 (cf. figure 3). This pattern of migration is mostly skewed towards the Gulf, with 89.2% of migrants from Kerala in 2018. The US is far behind as the second host destination with 2.2%. However, these migratory patterns are not equally distributed between gender, with the men usually being the migrating members of the household. In 2018, only 15.8% of the total migrants from Kerala were women. “The men who are migrating don’t want to take their wives or their children because their motivation is to make money and if they bring their families, they won’t have any savings,” said Professor Irudaya Rajan, from the Centre of Development Studies in Kerala who has written extensively on migration in the state. This type of voluntary facilitated immobility allows for one member of the household to emigrate and send remittances, while others are forced to stay behind. 

According to Professor Rajan, there are three possible reasons why Keralites would opt for voluntary immobility. First of all, people who live in flood prone areas are unwilling to move because they place a lot of value on their houses. According to the 2019 Kerala Migration Survey, 40% of remittances sent by migrants into Kerala was spent on housing. Secondly, given the significant investment in housing, locals believe their houses could withstand the normal impact usually associated with the monsoon season, which puts them at risk of sudden onset events like the 2018 floods. Finally, the gender-biased migration pattern complicates matters. With traditional gender roles in society and the heteronormative nature of available statistics, Professor Rajan claims that women are often left behind with children and elder relatives. While some of them initially have the choice to move with their partners, those who stay behind lose their ability to choose whether to leave in times of crisis. This could have contributed to the human toll. 

On the other hand, identifying “trapped populations” can prove to be problematic because of the difficulty to assess the desire to move from locals. The fluidity of the “desire to move” for these groups and the level of vulnerability to the floods – and in some cases the landslides that followed – are the core of the problem. “The most vulnerable populations are usually evacuated in the case of the monsoon floods and the protocol was carried out as usual this time around,” said Professor Ramakumar. The extent of the devastation also had an impact on the scope of people deemed vulnerable, which is hard to quantify. Along with the voluntarily immobile, “trapped populations” will need better accounting for in the future. “These are definitely issues that I will stress upon in future research I carry out in Kerala,” said Professor Rajan. 

As one of the most mobile populations in India, discussing human immobility in Kerala could seem counterintuitive. However, the inability to move during sudden onset events cannot be dismissed, with the likelihood of climate change increasing the frequency of these environmental disasters. The unique political situation in Kerala has also opened the door to misinformation in a country torn by its political divide. Political affiliation aside, a systemic change is required in Kerala’s DRR policy to reduce the risk for the most vulnerable population.