Almost two months ago, Kerala marooned into chaos. In the broken homes that dot Wayanad and Alappuzha, an uncertain recovery is underway
Vythiri/Kainakary: On 3 August, a fortnight before large parts of Kerala went under water, Naseema Kallithingal’s siblings fixed her wedding to be held in the upcoming month. Elaborate plans were made. The venue had to be her house, a traditional dwelling with a clay-tiled roof which hosted the weddings of all her sisters. From the hillside home in a remote corner of Kerala’s Wayanad, she imagined thousands of people clogging the streets outside and the aroma of biryani wafting all over the place. And then it started raining.
It rained until the entire town was submerged in shoulder-high muddy water. The most devastating floods to hit Kerala in a century ruined Naseema’s wedding plans when it washed away the roof and most of the walls of her house. For weeks, she and her siblings, all blue-collar workers, lived in a temporary shelter that the government opened uphill. When they returned, there was little left to salvage—a couple of beds in a house which was supposed to host a wedding within days.
“We thought of cancelling the wedding, but we did not tell her," says Mohammad, Naseema’s brother.
Across Kerala, once the water began to force its way in, weddings got cancelled; many people lost everything they had spent a lifetime to accumulate; some people held fort for many days inside flooded homes with dead husbands or brothers or grandparents. How does an entire state recover from such trauma? The abstract numbers pegged the overall economic losses at ₹ 30,000 crore, the death toll at 400 people, and the displaced count at an estimated five million. The deluge razed thousands of houses and crippled large swathes of the economy, especially in places like Vythiri, where Naseema lives, which relies almost entirely on tourism.
Exactly two months on, what has changed? On the surface, of course, the state is dry. The water is out of the living rooms and the streets. Most of the residents are back from relief camps in their homes, whether it is refurbished or not. The piles of debris on the streets are long gone, except in some interior pockets. Millions are rebuilding their lives, often from scratch, aided by government funds, donations, and strong social bonds. An economic recovery, even though sluggish, is on track.
Yet, the floods shadow people’s lives in several ways, be it the loss of one’s life-long savings, the loss of a business and future income, spiraling household debts, and so on. A sense of normalcy, it seems, has become elusive.
Naseema’s family now has a refurbished new house in the place of the pile of debris that greeted them on their return from a relief camp. Racing against the clock to conduct the wedding, two Kerala-based social outfits—Urvi Foundation and Thanal—built a new prefabricated house for them at a cost of ₹ 6.5 lakh. The house is set on an elevated foundation, raised from the ground using iron rods, so that it can withstand future floods. The wedding finally took place on 6 October, attended by thousands with endless plates of biryani served to the visitors, as planned.
It might seem as if everything has returned to normal. But with their savings gone, the family had to borrow money to conduct the wedding. While the debt has soared, the brothers have not found regular work after the floods, dragging incomes downwards.
And then, a day after the wedding, it rained so hard that small ponds formed outside the new house. Mohammad assured his wife, Shabina, that it will not flood again, but she kept looking outside the window nervously, praying for the rains to end. “The sight of water alone is enough to terrify me," says Shabina.
The stories are far worse when one reaches Kuttanad, another tourism hotspot that was among the most affected areas.
Kuttanad is a 1,600 sq. km basin that acts as “Kerala’s rice-bowl", a moniker borne out of its vast paddy fields and crisscrossing canals. The geography has historically been a recipient of many foreign and domestic tourists, even before the exotic beauty of Meenachil, one of its four rivers, was immortalized in Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning novel, God of Small Things.
Kuttanad is also famous because about half of the rice-bowl lies below sea level, by an estimated 60-220cm, leaving most of it waterlogged for much of the year, with or without heavy rains. According to one legend, the place derived its name purely due to its geographic character—Kuttanad means “land of shorter people", since people here are often seen working in farmlands with knee-length water.
Normal floods are like winter snow, according to Alappuzha-native and Kerala’s finance minister Thomas Isaac. “So they cling on, hoping against hope that they would be able to prevent the bund breach and save at least some crop," he had tweeted during the floods.
Yet, during the floods in August, Kuttanad was so waterlogged that about 200,000 people, almost the entire population, were forced to move to a safer location in a span of a few hours. The government and the civil society joined hands to rescue them, deploying everything from country sails to houseboats to Navy choppers. Post the floods, it took the state 70,000 volunteers and five days to clean up the slit and debris from a devastated Kuttanad, before families could begin to move back in.
Kuttanad’s Kainakary is one of the most vulnerable regions. Lying below sea level by an estimated 50-250cm, the rains were particularly devastating in Kainakary. The August floods were in fact the fourth flood in Kainakary, since the monsoon kept intensifying from June onward. At its peak in August, some of the villagers rushed to take shelter in a cemetery that was on elevated terrain, and had to keep themselves in the company of the dead for days.
Water is yet to recede
Two months later, many in the area are still surrounded by water and reeling under the floods’ impact. On the way to Kainakary from Alappuzha, one can see hundreds of houseboats, that would otherwise have been filled with tourists, lined up along the banks of backwaters without any takers.
“The water came up to here," says Sadanandan K.V., a farmer, pointing toward the clay-tiled roof of a partially destroyed building, which was lying below ground-level. The building served as the office and godown of ‘Janakeeya Seva Samithi’, a cooperative society which lends money and other essentials, ranging from plastic chairs to grinders, to families to help them conduct funerals.
Such cooperatives are a specialty of Kuttanad’s rich legacy of forming and advancing a welfare society. The Travancore Karshaka Thozhilali Union (Travancore Farmer Labourers Union), one of the first peasant unions in the country in the pre-independence era to openly challenge feudal land and wage structures and become successful, had its roots here.
But after the floods, the very existence of such crucial welfare models are under threat. The Samithi mentioned above lost almost all its ₹ 7 lakh worth of assets in the floods, built up patiently over a span of about 25 years. The floods have rendered it practically useless now, shooting up the costs of organizing a funeral in the village to around ₹ 8,000 from zero previously—a significant burden for most families who earn very little.
Behind the Samithi lies 500 acre of farmland, which was held in the control of six feudal landlords until seven decades ago, and is now shared by 236 persons, mostly belonging to marginalized castes. Almost all of their crop got destroyed. The farmers say they have suffered a loss of at least ₹ 10 crore in damages, a story which repeats itself in every farmland across the low-lying basin.
“It’ll take at least a year for people to forget what happened to them," says Shijo, who was taking me to the village’s many households in a small boat (the houses are easier to access by canals than roads). On the way, we can see electric posts rising up from waters, on what were roads before. Marshy grounds increasingly dominated by overgrown water hyacinths mark the rest of the land. Some of the walkable lands, Shijo said, were waterlogged as recently as two days ago.
Every mud-stained house in Kainakary has a story to tell. In one household, Ajitha Manoj, a well-dressed young woman, does not want to live in Kuttanad anymore, after losing most of her good clothes and degree certificates in the floods. But her mother-in-law, Chellamma Vasudevan, does not want to give up on fighting the region’s many climate battles.
A local community help centre where Ajitha worked has shut down post the floods, unable to cope with the huge repair costs, leaving her jobless. To “distract from her worries", she spends the day watching television, the one thing she was hell-bent on saving during the floods.
But Chellamma, dressed in a traditional (lungi) dhoti and blouse, has moved on. She, along with four other neighbourhood women, have been busy removing the overgrown water hyacinths that have spread in the house’s backyard like a big, green lake. In a house where the only male is toiling as an industrial worker in the Gulf, both the women think the other person is crazy.
Aid is hard to come by
Shashiyamma, whose hair has greyed and eyes have ringed with circles like bruises, has been desperately trying to get the ₹ 10,000 state aid meant for all flood-victims, but has had no luck so far. She lives alone in a house that was so devastated by the floods that it looks like it might crumble at any moment. “When I asked the Panchayat office for aid, they asked me for the payment receipt of the land tax. So I went to the village office to get the receipt, they said they can’t issue it as all the files have been moved to taluk office. I’m not getting any aid, I’m simply being moved from one office to another," she says.
Sindhu Harikuttan, another young woman whose husband is also an industrial labourer in Dubai, lives in an equally precarious house. The floods have ravaged the house’s roof and walls, but she says she lacks the resources to move to another house along with her two children. She silently walked me through the house’s broken interiors, saying that no state officer or politician has seen them yet.
I happened to put my hand against the wall in the bedroom when I noticed that Akhil, her 14-year-old son, had scribbled something on it. Written with a red marker against the wall’s faded green paint, it read “Never let go of your dreams".
Appropriate enough, I thought. Interestingly, the boy had written something on the top of the bedroom door too, which could be the first thing he would see right after waking up every morning. It read: “Best revenge is massive success". What will happen if these walls collapse?
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