Phoenix rising

The hurdles are many, but Kerala is clawing its way back to normalcy

Uncertainty looms: K.P. Unnikrishnan, factory in-charge at the handloom unit at Chendamangalam in Ernakulam. The floods destroyed 21 looms, bobbins, spool-sizing machines and Rs 24 lakh worth of stock for Onam | Sanjoy Ghosh


You freeze as successive blasts rock the Aluva metro terminus, 11km from the Kochi airport. You breathe when you realise it is just the tailgates of huge dump trucks snapping shut. The numbness stays as you see monstrous trucks—Tata LPK, Leyland Taurus and Bharat Benz—race past at breakneck speed with people packed inside. The precious cargo rescued from the ravaging waters of Periyar is offloaded in a matter of seconds. The trucks then swerve, reverse, and head back into the floodwaters to go rescue the marooned, and shift the thousands from flooded relief camps to higher ground.


It is all unbelievably quiet. The road is clear of raging waters. No cacophony, no one is shouting out of the names of camps, no sobs from separated families. Just as quiet as Aluva, was Kallissery near Chengannur, the transit point for evacuees from the flood path of River Pamba.

THE WEEK tracked two rivers—the Periyar and the Pamba—from where they started their hysterical run all the way down to their mouths. It is a tough drive to reach the Cheruthoni dam on the Periyar; large sections of the road had been washed away. The tourist haven of Munnar was gearing up to welcome lakhs of tourists who were to come to see the kurinji blooming; the endemic flower blooms once in 12 years. Munnar and other parts of Idukki will now see a significant drop in the number of visitors.

The Cheruthoni bridge and approach roads, which were in the way of the ferocious Periyar, are being cleaned and rebuilt. Jeevanraj M.N., PWD chief engineer, said that an action plan for road restoration has been chalked out; the first phase will focus on debris removal from landslide-hit areas and creating diversions and alternative routes.

On the banks of the river where stood many a house, a bus stand and a volleyball court, only wells remain. Perched precariously on a cliff near the dam is a lone pink church. The once green hills are now bleeding red earth, thanks to big and small landslides. Local residents say the only warning of a landslide is an eerie hum. Then, the liquid mud pours downhill, washing away lives and livelihoods. Did the opening of the dam trigger a series of landslides on August 15? Shaji E., a geologist at Kerala University, said this requires a detailed study. “Changes in hydro-geological conditions and landslides might happen because of the combined effect of water level rise in reservoirs, release of huge volume of water, water pressure, heavy rainfall and extensive recharge,” he said.

While landslides ravaged Idukki, silt and snakes was what the Pamba gifted Ranni, a small town in central Kerala. The town is now buried in ash white, clayey silt. “This clogs up toilets, septic tanks and wells; it is like quicksand which makes it dangerous for those who step into the water for a wash,” said Abraham Mathew, a rescue worker. Ranni is a place where the rescue was a complete success. But, at the time of writing this report, a volunteer who had fallen into the river after losing his footing in the clay, remained missing.

Bed of sorrow: Appukkuttan of Kainakiri in Alappuzha takes out the bed he had bought for his daughter just before the floods | Sanjoy Ghosh

Further downstream, evacuees returning home from camps in and around Chengannur were aghast to find snakes and carcasses of birds and animals around their homes. Suchitwa Mission executive director Ajay Kumar Varma said volunteers were already on the job as per a detailed action plan and any lapses if at all were because of the huge number of houses that need to be reached. “We are aware of the importance of sanitation to prevent epidemics and we are collecting plastic and other waste,” he said. While soaked mattresses dot panchayat roads, people are mulling decentralised waste management.

The electricity board, though criticised for being ill-equipped for flood and dam management, has been working overtime to replace uprooted poles (1,19,302) and submerged transformers (1,448). The total length of the damaged conductor is estimated to be 6,587km. “Of the 26 lakh connections lost, we only have to restore 55,000 more,” said Mohan Kumar, deputy chief engineer, Kerala State Electricity Board. “Of course, some of it is temporary with just a single light point, until the electricians check the wiring and dampness on the walls.” Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, in a goodwill gesture, have contributed 240 and 100 transformers each; Telengana has promised a hundred.

While darkness is slowly giving way to light, shops remained largely closed in most flood-affected areas. There was nothing much left inside anyway. Grocery stores, restaurants, paint shops, bakeries and medical stores... all were hit. The industries department and the revenue department have started their stock-taking by distributing forms for assessment of damage, but the number of people who have lost their means of livelihood is countless.

Across the state the ravaging waters uniformly targeted two structures—compound walls and iron gates. And, as a friend posted on WhatsApp, the sea laughed at the notice boards the river brought. No entry without permission. Trespassers will be punished. No entry for believers of other religions. This is not a public road. Strangers cannot enter.

Sheets of white water cover the once lush paddy fields of Kuttanad. The water from half a dozen dams had rushed through the Pamba and Achenkovil rivers to submerge houses, schools, banks, temples and churches in Kerala’s rice bowl. Most of Kuttanad is below sea level; earthern and granite bunds keep the waters at bay. What used to be a flourishing tourist spot with houseboats cruising along its beautiful canals, and restaurants selling anything from homemade snacks to exquisite sea food, now wore a deserted look. On boats you can see pet birds in cages, left there by children when they moved to relief camps. They are being taken cared for by strangers for almost two months now.

If the rest of Kerala had to deal with just one flood, and life in relief camps for less than a week, Kuttanad had to cope with two floods. More than two lakh people are staying in over 114 camps. This amounts to a quarter of the total number of refugees in the state. Submerged houses have developed cracks, electronic equipment have become useless, furniture and all that they owned have started rotting. All the houseboats in this alluring land have become make-shift houses, as the tourism industry will anyway take a long time to recover.

Kuttanad’s problem is complicated. The water has to be pumped out from the paddy fields and homes, but there has been no power supply since August 16. And, before pumping out water, the bunds breached by the currents need to be repaired. This takes about six days and the agriculture department has started rebuilding bunds. And before power supply can be restored, houses with exposed wiring may have to be rewired. No house in any other part of Kerala has been submerged for as long as the houses in these islands.

The paddy farmers have always been a neglected lot and the loss incurred is yet to be ascertained. “We have to take care of our farmers, ensure good wages and promote paddy cultivation. If not, the flood waters will have lesser space to spread and even more houses will go under water,” said Usha Soolapani, executive director of Thanal, an NGO working with environmental issues. Padmakumar K.G., scientist at the Regional Agricultural Research Station, Kumarakom, said that filling up of paddy fields has to stop as they can hold copious amounts of water.

However, it takes much more than two consecutive floods to break the spirit of Kuttanad. The arterial road connecting Alappuzha with Changanacherry is being repaired and raised, funded by a Rs 7 crore grant from the state. The complete rebuilding will require Rs 50-60 crore, say PWD officials. A massive cleaning operation is on, involving thousands of volunteers from all walks of life and from across political parties. Groups of students are checking on building structures, electric lines, disease surveillance, cleaning and sanitation. “But what they need now is liquid cash. There are no means of livelihood, you see. Even if it is just a hundred rupees, it would definitely make a difference,” said Vyshakan, former president of Kainakari panchayat.

The rice bowl could do with a healing touch.