#KeralaFloods, and how Sydney reacted to it

Kerala, the home-state of Malayalam speaking community in India, has always stood high in terms of the social welfare and quality of life of its inhabitants. The 100% literacy rates and highest life expectancy of the artisan state has always been viewed with awe by the rest of the Indian states. Only 1/200th of the land area of Australia, Kerala is renowned for its lush greenery and idyllic beaches, which makes it quite a charming presence in the international tourism map as well.

However, the torrential rains of some 42% more than its usual amount during the monsoon in July 2018 hit the state hard, and the price Kerala had to pay was substantial. More than 400 people were killed and close to a million were displaced, in this crisis which was the first in the last 100 years. The cost to the state and its people was a staggering $A4 billion. Kerala was estimated to have gone 10 years behind in its economic development, and it was predicted that the rehabilitation including the long term one will take more than 10 years to come.

The coupling of relentless rains with the opening of the majority of the 39 dams in the state, and the subsequent landslides as an outcome of the landmass getting soaked, ravaged the state. Neither the people of the state nor two of their previous generations had seen a calamity like this in their lives; hence there was massive confusion everywhere. However, after the subsiding of the state of initial shock, the state saw the emergence of social media platforms as the biggest monitors during the catastrophe. People keeping vigil on Facebook and WhatsApp day and night to this extent was something the world never witnessed before; converting them to citizen led control rooms, that triggered rescue missions, and procurement and transfer of amenities. Kerala rose back, thanks to the resilient spirit of the inhabitants and everyone that supported them.

However, normalcy is still a long way away. Infrastructural damages to roads and bridges, fall of small-scale industries, small businesses and trades, farming community whose crops and animals got destroyed depriving them of livelihood, and the people whose lifetime savings were lost – all need much monetary, social, institutional and psychological support to be reinstated. This is where the role of expat Keralites becomes much relevant – to extend that helping hand of solidarity and financial support.

Malayalee-Australians played their part too, and Sydney Malayalees stood apart in their response to the massive deluge that ravaged the state. The group held a public vigil on 26 August, which was well summed up by John Jacob, Secretary of Sydney Malayalee Association, to the media at that point “This is a community vigil of reflection, solidarity and connection to help rebuild Kerala. Every thought, every prayer, every penny and every presence count”; and the community did respond very actively to this initiative led by Sydney Malayalee Association.

Sydney saw a whopping crowd of around 600 people attending the Kerala Flooding Vigil held at Martin Place, often called the heart of the city. The vigil was quite inclusive of the regions including the afflicted Coorg which is in close proximity to Kerala, and also of the drought-stricken Australia. Pone of the highlights of the day was the ‘Oath of Solidarity’ taken by Sydneysiders to support both their homeland and the land that welcomed them with open arms, to the best of their capacity. The vigil was well attended by the Australian Parliamentarians as well as citizens of multiple ethnicity.

Roanna Gonsalves, the Premier’s award-winning writer who attended the vigil was quoted advising the media, “I could feel the outpouring of concern and love for the communities badly affected by the floods. I was surprised yet not surprised that the Sydney Malayalee Association had already raised close to $30,000. Living outside India, we feel acutely our privilege of being safe and well, yet there is also a sense of helplessness, and a desire to use our privilege, to be of service to those affected back home. A gathering such as this allowed us to collectively express these different emotions. It was cathartic. And hopefully the funds raised will make a difference to the lives of those suffering in Kerala.”

The mainstream Australian community was very understanding too. Michelle Rowland, the Federal MP for Greenway (NSW), said in her motion at the Federal Parliament – “Whilst it is crucial that disaster relief support is provided immediately, it is also imperative that ongoing support is given in the region to alleviate the damage to the local economy. It’s crucial that we elevate discussion within the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific region about preparation efforts for extreme climate events, including flood mitigation. Australia can and should lead this conversation.”  Jodi Mackay, the MP for Strathfield (NSW) who was instrumental in organising the Sydney vigil, spoke about the importance of restoring tourist activities to Kerala, and thus supporting the economy of the state, during the same.

What followed was the stage event, “Rise and Restore”, a fundraiser, supported and well represented by all of the Indian community in Sydney. Held at Bowman Hall, it was an amazing display of collective efforts to raise funds towards such a noble cause.

In January 2019, for the first time ever, Cricket Australia supported a community organisation to raise awareness towards their fundraising efforts within and outside the stadium on the day of a match; and not surprisingly, Sydney Malayalee Association was the chosen one. About 450 members of the Sydney Malayalee community came together at the ODI between Australia and India at the Sydney Cricket Ground, on 12th January to promote the “Rise and Restore Carnival”. The group was in true celebratory spirit with drummers performing traditional drum beats and dancers grooving to peppy numbers, fascinating the spectators. The bunch did a great job of conveying the idea of the Carnival to the onlookers through banners, placards and stickers affixed on their colour co-ordinated white tops.

Louise Jeffs, the Group Business Development Manager of Cricket Australia said to Indian Link, the ethnic media group. “The ‘Rise and Restore Carnival’ to support the survivors of a natural calamity seemed perfect to kick off this idea of permitting fundraising groups in the pre-match arena. Not only was it relevant to both the countries that were playing but the proposal seemed very genuine and well thought out too. To be frank, this is the only group we have engaged this summer in the whole of Australia.”

The initiative proved to be a brilliant curtain raiser to the fundraising Carnival (held on 27th of April 2019), Sydney Malayalee Association (with kind support from other Malayalee groups in Sydney) organised in association with the Liverpool Council. Two specific projects – building houses and restoring the water infrastructure in a village – were the initiatives taken up. As thousands of people came together on the day to fundraise to assist the survivors of the deluge, they were also etching in golden letters, a new page in the history of migration to Sydney – that of cohesion, solidarity and compassion.

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