Setting a pioneering example


pioneering-exampleRamesh Kumar Raja             

Monsoon hits Kerala first and the southern Indian state on the Malabar Coast receives  excessive rains during the season. But what follows next brings misery to the residents. Water logging and flooding at various places, including the capital city Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) which is severely hit, throw the normal life out of gear in the state. But thanks to ‘Operation Anantha’ conceived and implemented by Jiji Thomson, former Chief Secretary of Kerala, and launched in April last year, a significant part of the state capital – particularly the areas of Thampanoor and East Fort which witnessed excess water logging – is free from the annual mess.

Faced with the problem following incessant rains in the city almost every year, former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy entrusted Thomson to roll out a plan to make the state capital flood free. Accordingly, the then chief secretary took the task with strong resolve and created a large team at various levels of government to achieve the dream of making Thiruvananthapuram city flood free. The forward-looking project was thus named ‘Operation Anantha’ that cost a mere Rs 37 crore in the first phase of its successful implementation, which could be considered as a tiny fraction of postdisaster expenditure,  for instance in Tamil Nadu, where the government required close to Rs 5,000 crore to handle the flood situation and rehabilitation.

The execution team, led by Thomson, studied various possible situations, including going through the pages of history of Thiruvananthapuram city to understand the old sewage system. A plan was developed to resurrect the system as well as create various new structures for smooth flow of water through canals, sewage systems etc. Help of satellites were also taken to understand the geographical structure of the city. He directly supervised the efforts on a daily basis.

Consequently, what began as an endeavour to clean the congested canals in the capital city to avoid flooding, took the shape of an all-round effort to spruce up the entire city and went much beyond flood-mitigation measures. It included cleaning of existing canals, demolition of encroachments over the canals, revival of existing waterbodies  and wetlands in the city, construction of rainwater harvesting pits, ponds and water reservoirs. As part of this, schemes on waste management was also rolled out, so as to clean the city from things like rusting vehicles, heaps of trash, rejects, leftovers, waste etc. The state government also rolled out a phased ban on plastic and is attempting to do away with plastic water bottles by installing drinking water kiosks across the city.

The team of Operation Anantha also invoked provisions of the Disaster Management Act for the purpose of flood mitigation, especially in tackling the issue of encroachment. The challenge was mammoth since areas belonging to the old city of Thiruvananthapuram, which are extremely crowded, were facing the brunt of floods and water-logging the most. The problem was compounded due to huge encroachment of government lands as well as creation of various religious structures, hotels, offices of political parties etc. on the encroached area.

setting2According to Thomson, “Operation Anantha had to face big resistance from both residents and commercial establishments initially. It should be noted that several people had filed petitions before a court to stay the proceedings of the project. In some instances, some hard decisions had to be taken to pull down the shrines and temples at East Fort and Aryasala. Though the first phase of Operation Anantha was implemented successfully, there are some legal tangles in terms of stay orders and plea before the High Court. For instance, the Park Rajadhani case is pending before the High Court, and vacating it is not possible now.”

The district administration braved all resistance encountered from various quarters with little interference from the government. But the real challenge was the coordination of all the government departments to tackle a single issue plaguing the city over the years. During the construction of the 30km drain which was passing through  the heart of the city, the government  had  to divide the drive into eight departments.

The success of the first phase of the project, which completed in February this year, has finally resonated across the state. “Nearly 600 ponds and lakes in the state were cleaned and kilometres of encroachments on drainages across small and big cities along the roadside were cleared. This has led to the widening of the National Highway from two lanes to four lanes for a stretch of six kilometres, that was stalled for close to 30 years in Pallakad district (Mannarcaud). Also, in Kannur, the cleaning up and revival of large lakes has not only solved the issue of flooding during monsoon but also helped in improving the water table and reducing water shortage during the summer,” as per Thomson, who retired from the post of chief secretary early this year only to become the chief minister’s adviser.

Although the launch of the second phase hangs in balance with the regime change in the state, one hopes the newly-formed Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan takes this successful project forward. It must be noted that the success of Operation Anantha had national scientific experts visiting the state to learn about disaster management and prevention of flooding in major cities, including Mumbai and Chennai, and other parts of the country. It has in fact become a case study for preventive measures on disaster management.

Such is the impact of the project that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed his interest in replicating Operation Anantha in other states of the country. According to Thomson, “The vice chairman of Bihar State Disaster Management Authority (BSDMA), AK Sinha, has also expressed an interest to duplicate Operation Anantha in Bihar, since this state too is vulnerable to flash floods that cause large-scale loss to lives and displacement of thousands of citizens. He has also sought a tie-up with Kerala for effective value addition in technology and manpower.”

While the prospect of the second phase of the flood mitigation programme seems to be doubtful at the moment, if some media reports are to believed; challenges galore before the new administration make things difficult to embark on a new journey. There are a number of stay orders to deal with in courts related to drive against encroachment and illegal structures. The new government needs to act tough to carry forward the noble idea of flood mitigation pursued by the preceding dispensation to set a precedent of its own.