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Opinion: How collective intelligence and crowd leadership helped Kerala in its worst crisis.

Kerala , the southern state of India , known as God’s Own Country is facing worst flood in 100 years of living memory. Kerala , a densely populated state with more than 30 Million people is larger than Belgium.

Thirteen out of fourteen districts in Kerala were badly affected by flood. More than 40 rivers overflew , more than 50 bridge collapsed , nearly 25 major landslides occurred in a week time killing several people and destroyed many homes. State’s largest and country’s fourth busiest airport was forced to close. More than 800,000 people are rendered homeless. Over 400 lost lives and several others missing.

A state with 39 major dams and 44 major rivers , is bordered by mountains and Arabian sea on either sides. Monsoon season with heavy rainfall is nothing new to Kerala. But this time state received an unprecedentedly high rainfall. On top of the flood caused by the rain itself, 35 out of 39 dams exceeded its capacity and had to release water from reservoirs further aggravating the flood. This in turn caused rivers to overflow submerging houses in mere span of five hours. These include houses even as far as few kilometers from the river banks.

The authorities couldn’t predict the scale of disaster early since this was the worst flood in in a century and the fact that everything happened so quickly government agencies such as Army , Navy and Disaster Management team couldn’t respond on time. They could only do so much that local civilians were relentless at the disaster sites doing things they never imagined. Over 82,000 people were rescued from the face of death in mere 4 days. The only thing that drove them was compassion and boldness. As of now more than 5000 relief camps which were setup in 6 days hosting more than 800,000 people. The way people swiftly responded at every locality to save fellow lives was unparalleled in country’s history. With no equipment and training , they rose to the need of the hour. Army personnel who also took part in rescue missions in other parts of India testifies that Kerala’s public participation in disaster management and rescue operations was heroic and outstanding. In a matter of a week , Kerala witnessed the rise of unsung heroes.

People in the unaffected areas devoted their time , money and effort for rescue and relief operations. Most of them scaled down and cut short the expenditure on weddings and housewarming parties and donated to support victims. Newly wed couples donated wedding ring to the relief fund. Some textile outlets donated their entire stock to the victims. Mosques, churches and temples all left their door wide opened to all sects of society. Some companies allowed and encouraged employees to participate in relief activities.

The state government machinery is running in full capacity to manage the disaster relief and rescue operations. An amazing partnership between locals and state administration enabled faster and effective response. The sterling leadership demonstrated by the Chief Minister at the face of such a disaster was remarkable.

Several communities such as off road community offered free service of off road vehicles , fishermen helping with free boats and service, telecom networks is offering free calls in affected areas , truck owners association offering trucks to navigate thru waterlogged roads , restaurant association offering free food to relief camps and several other compassionate offers poured in from all sides.

The public teamed up locally , planned and utilized available resources to rescue the strangled. Ideas, creativity, risk management, commitment , time management , resource planning, effective communication, intelligence and focus- All at a time and the result was astonishing.

The massive rescue operation was only possible because of the togetherness of people beyond cast, color, creed and religion. In an amazing display of unity , exemplary humanity and bold initiatives by ordinary people of Kerala , the extend of impact and death toll was significantly brought down.

Civilian volunteers also devised technology that enabled services including virtual control rooms to support rescue operation , supply chain management as well as live flood mapping. Kerala is the most literate state in India and the fact that majority of people are tech savvy made emergency communication between civilians and authorities easy and reliable.

Several families have been welcoming the affected to their homes. Expression of solidarity is reaching to this state from across the globe. FC Barcelona , Liverpool FC, Chelsea FC and La Liga declared solidarity with flood-hit Kerala. Chief Ministers relief fund has received extraordinary response from across the world and raised several millions in record time. HH Sheikh Mohamed of UAE  was the first head of state of a foreign country to reach out to Kerala during this time of crisis. Kuwait , Russia , Qatar and few other countries followed the suite. UN Secratary General also made a special mention about the disaster hit state and offered UN support.

Organizations such as Google ,DHL ,Uber also extended their support to the flood hit state offering their role in logistics and rescue operations. Social media has been key instrument in rescue operation. Thanks to Facebook , Whatsapp and Twitter as well.

I tend to draw 4 lessons from this context on leadership and human behavior.

1. No matter how diverse a team is and how distracted they are , a strong purpose and powerful vision can unite or harmonize them and bring unimaginable results.

2. It also sheds light on crowd wisdom. When you don’t have enough time to consult or think about a solution at the face of a crisis which you haven’t experienced earlier – Crowd wisdom could be an option.

3. Empathy is a value that communities and organizations must nurture. It helps to navigate through tough times , eases stress on leadership and ensures that crisis communication  is well received. It sets the expectation to ‘dynamic’ mode. It augments organizations to remain customer focused.

4. Natural leadership is best exhibited at times of crisis.


About Author:

Mr. Suhail Abdullah is the VP Strategy of Eram Group, a conglomerate with presence in 16 countries and operating in several industrial verticals. He leads corporate strategy of the group and guides the subsidiaries in strategic planning and business development. He also manages strategic investments of the group. An ardent leader and business strategy philosopher who loves to express his thoughts on the happenings around. 

You can find him here :

The article was originally published on August 20, 2018:


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