With the Kerala floods finally abating, the affected communities are wary of what the long road to recovery will entail. However, relief from the government for losses to their homes, livelihoods and agriculture is expected to lighten the burden. In this context, it is important to examine the norms for disaster relief in India.

The first phase of the floods in Kerala’s Kuttanad region in July brought into focus inadequacies in the scope of relief. As the state’s agriculture minister noted, Rs 95,100 for a destroyed home was insufficient. As the flooding worsened across Kerala, the state government announced relief of Rs 4 lakh each for the families who lost their homes and Rs 10 lakh each for those who lost both their homes and land, but even this was perceived to be insufficient.

The usual practice in the wake of a disaster is for the affected state to ask for central assistance. The Centre then disburses funds from the Calamity Relief Fund, set up under the Disaster Management Act, 2005. The funds come with a set of rules detailing their utilisation (for instance, they specify Rs 95,100 for a completely destroyed house). Though the rules are revised regularly – the latest revision was done in 2015 – they are still problematic.

One size doesn’t fit all

The rules do not differentiate between states when detailing the sums to be paid as relief (except in case of destroyed homes in hilly areas for which the amount is slightly higher). In a country as diverse as India, a uniform relief amount is unfair as the costs of living, labour and construction vary hugely. India is already cleaving into a prosperous South and a poorer North, so a sum of money that is adequate as relief in Bundelkhand is grossly insufficient in Goa or Kerala – and this disparity is set to only widen.

The norms explicitly state that money paid from the Calamity Relief Fund is not meant to be compensation for loss of life and property: “Relief is to reduce the level of suffering and mitigate the distress so as to bring out the affected people from the shock and trauma of suddenly losing their means of livelihoods”. In popular parlance, this relief is often mischaracterised as compensation.

The rules are seemingly blind to the occurrence of disasters in urban areas. While they cover agriculture, fisheries, livestock and handicrafts for relief, there is no mention of vendors or small and medium enterprises that are commonly found in urban and semi-urban areas. The rules are also silent on relief for people living on rent, again a largely urban phenomenon. Given that India is rapidly urbanising – the urban population is now estimated at between 47% and 63% – and urban areas are prone to disasters because of poor planning, this is an obvious lacuna that needs to be plugged.

Exclusions abound

Generally, following a disaster, revenue officials visit the affected areas and identify the people entitled to relief after assessing their losses. This process is given to misuse and corruption and often genuine claimants are left out. The norms already exclude homes that are “unauthorised”. While this is meant to disincentivise building of homes in disaster-prone areas such as floodplains, it discriminates against the poor and marginalised. Historically excluded from land ownership and pushed further to the margins in today’s inflated real estate markets, a substantial number of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families live on land typically classified as encroachment on common land. If applied strictly in Kerala today, the relief rules could exclude a large number of Adivasi households who have been fighting a long, and as yet unsuccessful, battle to get titles to the land they live on.

Relief norms for agriculture also contain significant exclusions. There are two modes of assistance and two categories of farmers eligible to receive relief.

Amount per hectare for farmers with less than two hectares of sown area Amount per hectare for farmers with over two hectares of sown area
Input subsidy Rs 12,200 Rs 4,800 to RS 18,000(depending on crop)
Relief assistance NA Rs 6,800 to Rs 18,000(depending on crop)
Source: Revised list of items and norms of assistance from State Disaster Response Fund, National Disaster Response Fund

The justification for this distinction between small and big farmers is “focussing on the poorer sections of the affected people, considering overall financial implications”. There is another exclusion that is not mentioned explicitly: that of sharecroppers and agricultural labourers. Typically excluded from formal credit and agricultural extension services, their livelihoods are the most vulnerable to disasters. Yet, the norms only mention farmers without specifying if they include sharecroppers.

Not a comprehensive list

The Calamity Relief Fund covers a specific list of disasters. The list, while broad, does not fully capture India’s disaster risk profile. It excludes, for example, conflict, heatwave and coastal erosion. However, it is not static and the Centre keeps adding to it.

Still, this puts states in a spot when responding to unlisted disasters. In such cases, the norms allow for providing relief from the State Disaster Response Fund, but not more than 10% of the Fund’s annual allocation. This relief too must be paid as per the rates specified in the central norms.

Limited capacity of states

The implementation of the Goods and Services Tax has led to a steady consolidation of financial power at the Centre and away from states. In India, disaster management is primarily the responsibility of states. But lacking sufficient financial leeway and restrained by central relief norms, they are unable to tread their own path in providing disaster assistance.

Kerala plans to provide enhanced relief for damaged houses under its Life Mission, a project to provide quality low cost housing. It is unclear if money from the Calamity Relief Fund will be used to offset the costs under this project, but the financial burden for the state is likely to be huge given that over 26,000 homes are estimated to have been damaged.

In disaster-hit districts, farmers can avail various crop insurance schemes. There is no such provision for damage to homes. Since the relief for damaged homes is grossly insufficient, states should encourage communities living in high risk areas to take disaster insurance. This can enable states to provide enhanced relief to the affected people, and help offset cost variations across states.

Paul George is a humanitarian professional who has been involved in post-disaster responses with several NGOs.