Thomas Sajan / Titto Idicula

Kerala has begun to recover from the worst floods in a century. The State administration has started on the complex and challenging task of rebuilding the ruined regions in such a way that the lives, livelihoods and the economy recover steadily. Keeping in view the solidarity developed during the disaster, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has announced a ‘salary challenge’ — an appeal to Keralites all over the world to donate a month’s salary for rebuilding the State.

Simultaneously, an idea of a ‘brave new world’ has been mooted. What is intriguing is the government’s push for an ambitious plan for a new Kerala than simply replacing what is lost.

Role of social capital

Contrary to general perception, economic resources and government assistance are not the sole drivers of recovery and rebuilding after a major disaster.

Recent research has demonstrated that ‘social capital’ — that is, interpersonal relations, social networks, shared sense of identity and trust within a society — could serve as the core engine for a swift and robust recovery from disasters.

“Survivors with strong social networks experience faster recoveries and have access to needed information, tools, and assistance. Communities and neighbourhoods with little social capital may find themselves unable to keep up with their counterparts with these deep networks,” to quote from the book Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery .

The book contains case studies based on the earthquakes in Japan, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and hurricane Katrina. The flooding crisis in Kerala witnessed a number of defining moments that were not observed in the past. Various social groups came to unite themselves for combating the disaster. The ‘heroic’ role played by the fisher folk in saving the thousands trapped in flood-waters is, perhaps, the best example.

During the rescue and relief operations, Keralites displayed a high level of intra- and inter-community trust and networking. The tech-savvy coordinated the rescue works through social media platforms sitting in various parts of the globe, saving thousands of lives and mitigating the suffering of many others.

A young couple from Switzerland with previous voluntary work experience in Senegal, who happened to be in Kerala during the flooding crisis, notes: “The decentralised, people-driven rescue operations involving a large population and the use of communication technologies for the coordination were meticulous and something not expected of a developing nation.”

However, what remains a challenge is to keep up the collective consciousness and shared sense of identity created during a disaster into the rebuilding phase and further.

Warning signs

The floods unleashed its wrath mostly along the affluent Pamba river belt and the economically booming Kochi metropolitan area. Those are also the areas with an individualistic culture where people have limited social relations.

However, at a time when the river water took ferocious pathways into the mainland, it was the ‘sons of the seas’ who were the linchpins of the rescue operations.

Here it should be noted that the fishermen, along with dalits and adivasis, remain “outliers” even in the much-touted ‘Kerala Model of Development’. The fishing communities, to a great extent, are assigned only a lower status within the three major religious groupings in Kerala. No wonder when Cyclone Ockhi devastated fishing villages last year, mainstream Keralites showed only half-hearted engagement in reconstructing the cyclone-ravaged areas. It remains a fact that the Ockhi survivors are still at a definite disadvantage in terms of rebuilding their livelihoods.

“What Kerala witnessed was an ‘egalitarian disaster’ affecting rich and the poor alike, although the recovery process would be uneven among different social classes. Fostering social capital is of huge importance to overcome the current crisis and to build community resilience,” says Shaji Varkey, Dean of Social Sciences, University of Kerala.

Social capital created by reciprocal relationships in society will be vital in ‘rebuilding Kerala’ because recovery and reconstruction after mega disasters cannot take place through infrastructural or economic endeavour alone.

Sajan is a social anthropologist trained in Norway. Idicula is a consultant neurologist and researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim