In deep waters

J Devika | Updated on September 07, 2018 Published on September 07, 2018

Swept away: For women whose lives centre largely upon their homes, the devastation of their intimate spaces is likely to extract a huge psychological toll   -  THE HINDU/KK MUSTAFAH

Women did not preside over the wanton disregard for ecology that led to the Kerala floods. But the powers that did need to acknowledge that folly and compensate with care

The Great Deluge of 2018 in Kerala is over. It is hard not to feel that a whole way of life and, along with it, the intellectual tools with which we made sense of that life, have been swept away. The challenges — and possibilities — ahead are piling up fast, and many certainties have vanished, such that even the immediate future is not visible any more. One can only watch and learn as life unfolds again in our homes, public spaces, politics and everywhere else. And at this moment, all we can do is acknowledge the tremendous forces we have seen, of people and of Nature, and begin with humility.

I have been thinking about the many thousands of women who have been severely affected. Images of them flashing on screens reminded one how utterly unprepared they are, how their bodies have been disciplined by culture. Their clothes, heavy with ‘respectability’, permit zero mobility. Their physiques can hardly bear the strength of the currents. Few of them, it seemed, can swim. The more respectable we get, the more are we restricted to the tamed flow of water from the tap. I see how mobility, sartorial choice, and physical strength — all of which gender specialists often count as “strategic gender interests” — are practical gender needs. The non-fulfilment of these could well mean loss of life, in an ecologically challenged world. And it is clear that the list of practical gender needs now includes long-term ecological security.

Perhaps this is not new. Perhaps the deluge has only opened our eyes to what we missed. In Kerala, the numerous struggles against quarrying, sand mining, waste dumping, and other kinds of ecological plunder and destruction very often saw the significant participation of women or many women leaders as well. This was perhaps a message we did not notice: That for women, ecological security, the guarantee that their homes would not be wrecked by mindless developmental and capitalist interventions, is nothing short of an immediate need. We should have expanded the list of practical gender needs in Kerala long ago — we should do it at least now.

To me, the idea of “getting women to work on rehabilitation” sounds odd, especially when we are talking of the most disadvantaged sections in Kerala — the dalit and the adivasi people. For women whose lives centre largely upon their homes (most Malayali women belong to this group), the devastation of their intimate spaces is likely to extract a huge psychological toll, even though it may not be immediately apparent. The language in which we speak of women’s involvement in the rebuilding of community living should change. It should focus on healing, self-care and taking root. Self-help groups must transform themselves into self-healing groups in the affected areas; the government must extend not neoliberalised welfare, but forms of care, so that lower middle-class and poor women do not drown in debt and despair, trying to survive; and the thrust of women-centred programmes should be altered towards securing independent incomes and housing. This is not asking for too much. Women did not preside over the wanton disregard for ecology that led us up this imperilled path. The powers that did ought to acknowledge their folly and compensate with care.

But this is not to say that women are maimed and immobilised by this tragedy and should therefore be excluded from public deliberation about the future. Far from that, it is time to insist that women’s needs and interests should shape not just the relatively short-term work of rehabilitation, but also the long haul of reconstruction. An immediate step should be to convene village and ward assemblies — if necessary, women-only assemblies — so that the full range of the experience of devastation may be presented, discussed and documented. Maybe the self-help group network should take the lead to prepare Disaster-Experience Reports, like the Panchayat Development Reports that were generated from the village assemblies in the heady days of People’s Planning in the Kerala of the 1990s. A truly collective response to the calamity that will heal us can emerge only from the people, and not, for sure, from bureaucrats who would like to build back in familiar ways. And not build back better.



J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on September 07, 2018
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