You are on page 1of 4

KERALA’S REBUILDING: LESSONS FROM ACEH?

John Kurien
The deluge in Kerala and the challenge to rebuild a ‘New Kerala’ reminded 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.
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 kilometres 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 back to their homes is marked
by an upswell 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, the local communities, and
the various tiers of governance -- has shifted to thinking about the priorities and strategies
for reconstruction. How can Kerala turn this crisis into an opportunity of sorts?
Leadership for Reconstruction
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
for short -- was designated to operate for a four-year period, 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 program 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.

1
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.

2
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 was 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, transparency and accountability at almost zero marginal costs. This
enhances the trust of individual and institutional donors. The result is more aid.
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 were 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.

3
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 geo-physical 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 of our
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.

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