16 min read.Updated: 25 Aug 2018, 09:57 AM ISTLivemint
Ordinary people in Kerala have done extraordinary things in the past fortnight. Lounge presents stories of heroism, courage, empathy, common sense, quick thinkingand, above all, humanity
The hashtag relief workers
Using a viral hashtag #doforKerala, a volunteer group from Kochi collects supplies from across the country
Kochi-based Facebook group, Anbodu Kochi, has emerged as one of the key groups coordinating relief and rehabilitation for victims of the Kerala flood, collecting essential supplies from across the country and delivering them to local residents. The group is not new to flood-relief work. “We started in December 2015 during the Chennai floods, when a group of us volunteered to take supplies to Chennai," says Sumesh Soman, one of the founding members of the group. Since then, they have been engaged in a host of local activities.
In July, Anbodu Kochi distributed relief material in Kuttanad, one of the first places in Kerala affected by rains. “For the first time, our volunteers were on the ground for distribution," says Soman. The experience came in handy when the collective resumed state-wide operations on 11 August, after Wayanad was flooded. With #doforkerala, the group called for material donations (it doesn’t take monetary contributions) to be delivered to centres in Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai, Bengaluru and Mumbai. The material was to be distributed to relief camps, or via the district administration. The navy and Coast Guard also stepped in, airdropping supplies. By 20 August, the group had sent 1,654 tons of relief material to 120,000 people. According to Soman, 300 volunteers are involved in unloading, sorting and preparing material for distribution.
“The first phase of operations is almost over and we will now enter the rehabilitation phase," says Soman. As people return to their homes, they will need cleaning material, clothes, other items to rebuild their lives. The volunteers are now focusing on bulk donation of such material. The operation isn’t without its challenges—Soman reveals how some supplies were taken by people who seemed to be in need and sold. “We have a system to limit such incidents, but we also want to make sure that people get the help they need," he says.
To get in touch with Anbodu Kochi, write to email@example.com or contact it via its Facebook page @anbodukochi.
Our Lady’s blue army
Fishermen in their country boats save thousands of people stranded in Alappuzha district, becoming heroes overnight
When fisherman V. Patrick Fernandes, 65, reached Chengannur in Alappuzha district on 18 August, rising flood waters had turned large stretches of land there into small islands, leaving tens of thousands stranded.
For those who couldn’t be rescued despite the three-day-long government-led mission using air force choppers and navy boats, fishermen like Fernandes turned saviours. They came in droves, sailing their country boats into the rising waters to save lives, and at the risk of damaging their equipment—their only source of income.
A significant majority of the fishermen are church-going Christians, says Johnson Jament, coordinator of the Kerala Independent Fishermen Society, a local educational group.
When the government realized it was short of boats, and that military men lacked the knowledge to navigate local waters, it contacted the local churches, he says. Once the local priests called, hundreds of fishermen signed up for the government’s rescue operations. Under the guidance of the fisheries office, they boarded lorries with their boats and were transported to inundated areas.
“We could not see a piece of land for long stretches, it was water everywhere in Chengannur. Imagine coconut trees standing half covered in water and dead cows floating," says Suresh Robert, a fisherman.
“We rescued 21 people by noon on 18 August, including a pregnant woman. Once they were brought safely to a relief camp, we set out again without even having tea. By the end of the day, we had saved about 50 people," says Fernandes.
Jament says 100,000-150,000 lives have been saved by the fishermen since 18 August. “While the air force helicopters saved seven lives on Saturday (18 August), 500 fishermen’s boats saved thousands of people just on Saturday," says a police official, who did not want to be quoted.
The government has offered to pay the fishermen diesel charges and a daily bata (per diem) of ₹ 3,000, but some of them have politely refused, saying it demeans their humanitarian spirit.
According to thestate fisheries department, 750 fishermen will now be trained to become disaster responders at the Mumbai maritime training institute.
The newsroom warriors
Local media sets an example in how to respond to a crisis responsibly
The government is doing its best. This is not the time for complaints or blame...the situation is unusual and unprecedented. Each one of us should enrol ourselves in rescue and relief measures." This call for action did not come from a politician—this is how television anchor Shani Prabhakaran of Manorama News began her show, Counterpoint, on 16 August.
The Kerala news media, including newspapers, TV channels and websites, has responded to the crisis in an exemplary way, with a balanced blend of civic responsibility, honesty and positivity. “We took some decisions early on, and one of the first was to not use these three words in any story: bheethi, pedi, aashanga (fear, terror, apprehension)," Prabhakaran told Mint.
Networks had to cope with their own internal trauma—reporters and loved ones stranded, missing or dead; lost equipment; reporter movement at a standstill. Despite this, TV channels acted like 24x7 live display boards without the attendant hysterics and blame game prevalent on national television. They opened their own helpline numbers, received SOS calls, connected stranded people to rescue operations and vice versa.
Asianet News decided to drop ads for non-stop flood coverage, despite the peak Onam season. On 15 August, News18 Malayalam started a 24x7 helpline, staffed by people with bilingual skills, and later initiated the “open your hearts, open your homes" campaign to bring together volunteers to accommodate affected people in their houses. Despite their printing presses, staffers and equipment being under siege, Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi were published every day. In Pathanamthitta district, one of the worst affected, the Manorama desk operated from a staffer’s residence.
Radio channels became the last touchpoint. Radio Mango did live coverage for three days, shelving recorded programmes. Each journalist has taken hundreds of SOS calls, worked nights, helped out at relief centres, raised donations—all while doing their core job as journalists. “Nobody has asked me for leave yet," says Prabhakaran.
Commander Vijay Varma and his angels
The commander’s crew has airlifted over 100 locals in Aluva
Over the last month, the navy brought all hands on deck in flood-ravaged Kerala. One of the most life-affirming stories is of Commander Vijay Varma’s rescue of 25-year-old Sajitha Jabeel. His team flies the lightweight Chetak helicopters and are nicknamed “God’s own angels" in Kerala. On 17 August, Jabeel went into labour and sent out a distress call. Commander Varma responded immediately. “The nature of the operation was challenging. Jabeel was in a small balcony of the mosque in the middle of a thickly congested neighbourhood where there was no place to land and hardly any room to winch up and down," says Varma, adding that this was the toughest mission in his 18-year career as a pilot. When they identified the mosque, they still found it hard to locate Jabeel as the roof was covered with plastic. She couldn’t be spotted easily on the balcony on a lower floor. After communicating with people on different roofs through sign language, Varma’s team discovered that there were not one but two pregnant women in adjacent buildings.
Since Jabeel’s case was urgent, she was rescued first, and the other woman a few hours later. When they reached Jabeel’s coordinates, it was a task for Commander Varma to lower his craft amid gusty winds and space constrictions to send the on-board doctor down to check on her. He held the craft steady as his winch operator lifted Jabeel on board. Jabeel was airborne in 30 minutes and taken to Sanjivani hospital in Alappuzha district, where she gave birth to a baby boy.
Jabeel’s story is one of almost 100 rescues and countless food and medicine airdrops undertaken by Commander Varma and his angels. On 20 August, a few days after the evacuation of two women stranded on a roof in Aluva, Varma spotted a large “Thanks" shaped out of bedsheets at the same spot, a message for him and his fellow pilots.
Crossing the bridge over troubled waters
An NDRF constable saves a child in a heroic move across a flooded bridge
When the shutters of the Cheruthoni dam in Kerala’s Idukki district were opened on 14 August—for the first time in 26 years—the water level rose steadily, inundating roads, flowing over bridges and entering homes. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was going about its rescue operations on a war footing as a young father stood across a bridge in Idukki, an ailing child in his arms, uncertain whether he would be able to cross the bridge that was barely minutes away from being submerged in the rising waters.
Kanhaiya Kumar, a constable with the NDRF’s fourth battalion, dashed across, grabbed the child from the man and ran across the bridge just as the slope alongside gave way. The man followed him.
Kumar, who has been serving with the NDRF for six years, brushes off the accolades, saying: “This is my job. I didn’t look left or right and just did what I had to do. I was lucky that we made it just as the water hit the bridge. Saving lives in such a situation is my duty."
The man who saved a village
Panchayat member M.A. Chacko’s night vigil ensured a dramatic rescue of Panamaram’s villagers
After a couple of weeks of heavy rainfall, Banasura Sagar—India’s largest earthen dam, in Kerala’s Wayanad region —was on the verge of overflowing. In the early hours of 9 August, employees of the Karnataka State Electricity Board (KSEB) made the decision to open the gates. But they did so without consulting the district disaster management authority or giving advance warning to residents of the villages nearby. There was no alert, even as hundreds of thousands of litres of water rushed into the Kabini river.
Downstream, over 120 families in Panamaram village were sleeping peacefully in their homes, unaware of the impending deluge. But M.A. Chacko, a member of the Panamaram panchayat who lives 2km from the village, was on vigil. The 52-year-old had spent the past four nights awake, worried that the relentless rain would cause the river to overflow. But even he hadn’t imagined the scale of the disaster that was rushing towards the village.
“In a matter of minutes, I realized that water had come up to my shins," Chacko told online news portal The News Minute. “I went door to door in my ward and woke up the residents, urging them to leave."
Once the village had been alerted, he arranged for jeeps and large vehicles to transport people to the nearest camp and boats to take livestock to a safer area. One of the last to leave, he had to swim through the snake-infested waters to safety.
Doctors beyond borders
A team of nearly 100 doctors from Maharashtra is providing medical assistance in relief camps
On 20 August, Maharashtra medical education minister Girish Mahajan and a team of 95 doctors and nursing staff from Mumbai’s JJ Hospital and Pune’s Sassoon Hospital were flown to Thiruvananthapuram on two special Indian Air Force aircraft with medicines and relief material. “Our team is going to the worst flood-affected areas. We have taken all of the necessary medicines with us…our aim is to make sure that diseases do not spread," Srinivas Chavan, head of the ENT department at the Sir JJ Group of Hospitals, told the news portal My Medical Mantra.
Earlier this week, Union minister of state for tourism Alphons Kannanthanam tweeted a list of resources that would facilitate the task of rebuilding—packaged dry food, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and “doctors and nurses who can go down to the villages as there is apprehension about the possibility of outbreak of (diseases)". The use of preventive medicine and the effort to curb the outbreak of waterborne diseases as the floodwaters recede is an essential task for these professionals, who are fanning out to shelter camps in districts like Pathanamthitta, Ernakulam and Thrissur. “They are going to be there for almost 10 days," says Mukund Tayade, dean of JJ Hospital. “If they communicate the need for another team, we will send them."
Updates from the medical team are being shared on the @CMOMaharashtra Twitter handle.
The corporate crusader
Amazon has mobilized its logistics network to collect and distribute relief material from across India
Rescue operations are winding down in Kerala, and the focus has now shifted to relief and rehabilitation, with over a million citizens in relief camps. As people all over the country scramble to get food, water and supplies to those affected, India Inc. has contributed considerable technical, logistical and financial resources to the relief effort, with Amazon India leading the charge.
The e-commerce giant joined hands with NGOs Habitat for Humanity, World Vision India, Goonj and Oxfam India to set up a microsite that makes it convenient for people to donate essential products for relief camps. People can pick items from each NGO’s list of essential products and Amazon will coordinate with them to ensure that they’re delivered where they’re needed the most. “In addition, the Amazon Operations team is working to provide relief kits to the impacted areas, and providing drinking water to our impacted service partners, associates and immediate communities," the company said in a statement.
Amazon India is using its on-the-ground resources to deliver supplies, as well as collect donations from customers, and ensure that the necessary items are in stock. In addition, Amazon employees have donated lakhs of rupees through the Amazon Cares employee volunteering portal. “Our thoughts are with those affected by the recent floods in India," the statement said.
The red-tape radicals
IAS officers are taking quick, pragmatic decisions to save the day
You are making history," K. Vasuki, an IAS officer and district collector (DC) of Thiruvananthapuram, told people at the Cotton Hill collection centre in the state capital on 19 August. A video clip of her impromptu speech, less than 3 minutes long, went viral—making Vasuki a public hero for her work in mobilizing relief.
Earlier this month, reports say, Vasuki had warned residents of the consequences of the heavy rain. When it started turning lethal, she began mobilizing youth by putting out a call on social media. Heeding her call, college students came together to collect money, buy provisions and deposit them at collection centres. As the relief material started flowing in, Vasuki opened additional centres to store the items. Under her direction, the sorting, repackaging and distribution of material was streamlined. The system has been functioning with machine-like precision.
Other bureaucrats in Kerala are also being fêted for working day and night to restore order in their devastated districts. Among them are Thrissur collector T.V. Anupama and Prasanth Nair, an IAS officer and former collector of Kozhikode, under whose watch an army of volunteers is working tirelessly to arrange relief material for millions of people.
As Vasuki said in her speech, this collective effort is a historic moment. “You are showing the world what Malayalis can do. In my opinion, you are working like soldiers who fought for freedom," she said.
The animal savers
An experienced team of six has been saving stranded animals
Among the most heartwarming rescue stories has been that of 18 dogs saved on 19 August. “The incident took place on a riverbank where the water level had risen to three times its height," says 26-year-old Nishanth Ravi, whose team was responsible for the operation. “A local breeder had kept these dogs inside her house and we had to get into the water and rescue them by boat."
Ravi heads a team of six especially trained individuals—all under the age of 30—which has been working tirelessly in Kerala, rescuing animals caught in the calamity. The Chennai-based Cloud No. 9 rescue team has done commendable work for the last six years in disaster-struck regions, including the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, the 2015 Chennai floods, and the 2017 Kaziranga deluge. The team was prepared to reach Kerala earlier, but couldn’t since routes were either blocked or unusable. Last week, they were finally able to negotiate densely forested, landslide-ridden Idukki to reach Kottayam. Since then, they have carried out 20 successful rescue operations—saving over 75 animals—across Thiruvalla, Kottiyam, Kochi and Chengannur.
“We receive 14-15 calls every day, and we try to attend to as many as possible. We had to rescue some cows that were tied up in neck-high water level...we managed," says Ravi.
A local start-up fights fake news and misinformation with its social networking app
Natural disasters are also a breeding ground for misinformation and digital chaos. In fact, the Kerala chief minister had to take to Twitter, requesting people to “abstain from spreading misinformation on WhatsApp & social media networks".
In the midst of this chaos, Kozhikode-based social networking app QKopy has been helping the city traffic police and other authorities to curb the spread of wrong information.
“It’s like a digital communication broadcast solution," says Rajiv Surendran, one of the co-founders. “As far as the user is concerned, their mobile number is like a unique ID. If you create a post or an update on the QKopy platform, people who have your mobile number will get those updates (on the app). We are controlling fake messages and forwarded content from other social media (platforms). Nobody can make a fake account on QKopy since the number acts as an ID and address for the propagation (of information)," explains Surendran over the phone.
The QKopy app.
The Kozhikode traffic police has created an account on QKopy to disseminate important information. When the department creates a post, every user who has saved its number gets an update on the app, which is being used by roughly 20,000 users in and around Kozhikode. Organizations like the National Health Mission and Life Mission Kerala are also using QKopy in different districts of the state.
The app is available on Android, iOS. For more information, visit Qkopy.com.
The amateur dam-builders
Villagers pitch in to build an embankment in Thrissur
Building an embankment on a flowing river is an expert job even with the right equipment. Yet a team of 21 people, supported by local residents, managed it with their bare hands in Arattupuzha, Thrissur.
Arattupuzha is one of the worst-affected areas. On the night of 17 August, the Karuvannur river changed course to enter a thickly-populated area. Two dams on feeder streams were opened during the torrential rains. The river flooded houses in villages like Panangulam, Ettumana, Pallissery, Chirakkal and Kurumbilavu.
Only an embankment, difficult to build when the water level is high, could keep further flooding at bay. The Armed Forces were focused on rescue operations, say eyewitnesses. The administration had to find another way. So, 21 people were called in from Kuttanad, a rice-growing region. They sought to block the water with a structure built across the river with palm trees and bags of concrete.
“These people are experts in handling such events as Kuttanad has several embankments like this and they can do the job. Once the water is blocked, all the downstream villages can be saved," said state education minister C. Raveendranath, who was overseeing the work on 20 August.