Walking amid the muck and stench to fix broken power lines near a tribal-populated hill valley in Kerala’s Kavalappara, Jijo, a young electrician who works at the state’s power utility, breaks down. His voice cracks as he recounts how his sister, Jenzy, escaped death but lost her daughter. Jenzy heard an explosion outside the house on the evening of 8 August. Before she realized what was happening, a river of mud and boulders came tumbling down the valley, colliding with their house.

Jenzy, a mother of two, snatched her six-month-old son and escaped through a narrow space between the collapsed walls and the ground. She wanted to get out and then pull out her elder daughter, seven-year-old Aleena. But the walls collapsed. The mud was now running down even more rapidly. Jenzy tried to remove the rubble with her bare hands to find her daughter. Neighbours escaping the devastation spotted her. She begged them to find the child. Instead, they took her to a safer spot.

Aleena died. “She thinks it was her fault. I don’t know how to console her," says Jijo, when we meet in Kavalappara in the last week of August.

Such stories of death and destruction are common across this tiny village. Hundreds who escaped that horrible day took shelter in a mosque for the first few days. They are still living in a relief camp operating out of a public library 5km away.

In a way, Kavalappara is a microcosm of Kerala. Like Kerala, a sliver of earth landlocked between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, Kavalappara is a small patch of land sandwiched between a hill, Muthappan Kunnu, and a river, Chaliyar.

The landslide buried everything that stood in its way. Workers combed through the mud for 19 days, in heavy rain, to discover some 48 bodies in Kavalappara. “We are only looking for dead people at this point," said the operator of one of the dozen earthmovers. “It is actually their smell we are searching for. Their bodies would have started decomposing, so if the movers touch them there will be a foul smell that will make most people vomit." With hope of finding survivors fading, the state called off the search—the biggest and the most expensive such mission in its history—on 28 August, according to the district fire officer, Moosa Vadakethil. About 11 people are still unaccounted for.

People on their way to the Muthappan temple in Kannur district on 8 August.
People on their way to the Muthappan temple in Kannur district on 8 August. (Photo: Getty Images)

For many, rain in Kerala is about rich layers of experience—bringing out the shades of green, misty hills, palm-canopied backwaters. But none of this comes to mind in Kavalappara. Monsoon here translates into hard, cruel months. The statewide toll was 400 in August 2018, and 121 this year.

The back-to-back devastation of the monsoon in Kerala, where it makes landfall on the mainland, has left people here desperate. Flood references are making their way into movies, a book of flood-related poems has been published, and builders are advertising flood-proof houses.

“I am terrified of everything related to the rains: the sound, the sight, even the very mention of it," says Aseena, a homemaker in Kavalappara who lost her house in the landslide.

But a journey through Kerala shows it’s not just about the weather. Experts from the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority spent the first week of September studying what led to the mudslide that wiped out Kavalappara. Their findings have yet to be made public but a person privy to them says, on condition of anonymity, that apart from the heavy rains, unscientific cultivation of rubber across the hilltop is to blame. The strength of the soil, its ability to resist deformation and lateral motion, has been destroyed by the rubber estates, he says. In other parts of the state, which saw heavy inundation and deadly landslides, they found a clear correlation between the damage and human activities such as quarrying or encroachment of riverbeds. People know about the changes but are not aware of the dangers.

“This whole area was forest before," says Pankajavali, a 59-year-old daily-wage worker who has taken shelter in the relief camp after losing her house to the landslide in Kavalappara. “Our parents received it as charity from the local king, at the behest of Vinobaji (Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan Movement). I was a child then. As I grew up, I saw it getting filled with rubber estates. We are all migrants to this land and rubber made our life better. We never used machines to dig up the soil though, we knew it would weaken the earth. But a rich man, we don’t even know his name, recently came and purchased a lot of land uphill. He had used a Hitachi earthmover to flatten the land there. The officials had tried to stop him but he just went on, I don’t know how. Maybe that loosened up the land and caused the landslide," she says.

This is the flip-side of the monsoon story in Kerala. As its human development indices show, Kerala has visited more wealth upon more in a short span than perhaps any other state in India. People born in Kerala have a good chance of doing well for themselves, as evident in human development indices that can match those of developed countries—this is why it attracts over two million migrants from outside the state every year.

All that wealth creation doesn’t come without its problems, especially when it threatens the state’s environmentally fragile geography.

Housing is perhaps a good example. According to the 2011 census, there are about 1.2 million houses, fully constructed but without any occupants, in Kerala, owned by Malayalis working abroad in anticipation of their eventual return and increasingly viewed as investments by the richer classes. In other words, people are building more houses than they actually need.

A building destroyed by a landslide at a coffee plantation near Munnar, in Idukki district, in August 2018.
A building destroyed by a landslide at a coffee plantation near Munnar, in Idukki district, in August 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)

The problem is also tied to the five-decade-old migration pattern of Malayalis, typically to countries like the United Arab Emirates. Kerala receives remittances of over 1 trillion every year, which props up one-third of the net state domestic product. About 72% of it was invested in constructing houses in the early days of liberalization, when remittances peaked, according to a 2002 Economic And Political Weekly study based on the 1992-93 National Family Health Survey. Kerala-based environmentalist and lawyer Harish Vasudevan says, “Malayalis first build a fancy house in their minds, and then convert it into a reality, no matter where it is built or how it is built."

This rampant construction spree has taken a toll on the ecology, writes journalist Viju B. in his book Flood And Fury. The book gives a comprehensive picture of Kerala’s environmental degradation in the context of 2018’s floods. “In the last six decades, the forest cover in the Western Ghats has been severely degraded due to human activity and rapid urbanization—an appalling 35% of the original forests in the Western Ghats region have been destroyed," he writes.

When we meet in Kochi, he is brimming with anger about the fact that neither people nor lawmakers are grappling with the alarming problem. “We have to get our priorities right. Last year, many of us shouted in protest against women’s entry to the Sabarimala temple. The real scary story in Sabarimala is that of the pollution of the river at its foothills, Pampa. The name Pampa means one that kills all sins. It was a cradle of civilization as old as the Gangetic plain and home to rare and endemic plants. Now it is choked by unchecked construction, 172 quarries and millions of tourists flocking to Sabarimala," he says.

“Earlier, it was a must for pilgrims to take a bath in Pampa before trekking to the mountain temple. Now it is so polluted that they are unwilling to bathe in the river. Instead, a new tradition has emerged, they just throw their towels in the river and pray. Every year, the state now employs dhoti-scavengers, spends lakhs to remove these dhotis from the river. This is the tradition change that we should be talking more about."

Even before the floods, it seemed as if nature had been trying to warn Kerala. One by one, villages in several parts of the state are being lost to coastal erosion, landslides and mining. In Kollam district’s Alappad, coastal zone erosion allegedly aggravated by local sand mining has led to the exodus of an estimated 6,000 fishermen families since the 1960s, when mining started, and accelerated after the 2004 tsunami. Some distance away, in the same district, an entire island called Munroe Thuruthu has become a ghost town, with hundreds of houses abandoned by villagers trying to escape the rising waters. Whether or not such coastal erosion, landslides and extreme rain are linked to climate change, climate refugees are a reality in Kerala.

What is the solution? A serious effort must begin with addressing the elephant in the room—how land is governed, says V. Venu, chief executive of the Rebuild Kerala Initiative, a special purpose vehicle floated by the government to rebuild the state after the back-to-back floods and prevent future destruction. “Today’s legal framework practically lets you build pretty much whatever you want, a resort or a house or a commercial building. They have a few stupid restrictions. And, if you fulfil those, for everything else you will get a licence," he says.

But, Venu admits, finding a solution is politically fraught. No government would want to be seen stopping development or cramping people’s aspirations. This is how state governments justified the sidelining of two important environmental reports about the Western Ghats—the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, also known the Madhav Gadgil committee, report in 2011, and the High-Level Working Group (HLWG), or the Kasturirangan, report in 2013. If their recommendations had been followed, most sites where the landslides took place this monsoon would have been deemed no-construction zones, and damage could have been minimized.

Trucks carrying boats for the rescue operation in flood-hit Pandalam, in Pathanamthitta district, in August 2018.
Trucks carrying boats for the rescue operation in flood-hit Pandalam, in Pathanamthitta district, in August 2018.

Clearly, if last year’s floods were described as a once-in-a-century calamity, this year’s floods were an ecological disaster waiting to happen. Ten of the 11 pockets which witnessed major landslides had 91 quarriesin ecologically sensitive zones, according to a Mint analysis. Following the landslides, the current state government imposed a blanket ban on mining and quarrying. But, ironically, it had to revoke the ban in just 12 days, citing the need to supply minerals for state-sponsored big-ticket projects like ports and Metro construction.

More than half the people in relief camps in Kavalappara, as well as one in two of all fatalities, belong to the Scheduled Tribes. They have been told not to return and rebuild their houses, in order to preempt the chances of another calamity—effectively making them climate refugees in their own land.

In sharp contrast, in another corner of the state, public protest is preventing the state from tearing down four urban apartment complexes near Ernakulam city, as ordered by the Supreme Court on 6 September. The court found that the flats are built in a no-construction zone, close to ecologically fragile backwaters. It set a deadline of 20 September, but the occupants of these flats, including movie star Soubin Shahir, are fighting the order and garnering public sympathy and support across the political divide.

“Whenever we open the paper, or switch on a television, we hear tribals are affected, or people in the high ranges are affected, or fishermen are affected, in the rains. I don’t understand. Why are city dwellers not as affected as us? Why do we live without houses while they get to keep their houses?" asks Shanta, a tribal promoter (or facilitator) and a Kavalappara landslide victim.

The state is racing against the clock. Almost 2.8 million people currently live in moderate- or high-hazard zones in Kerala, and of them, at least 1% must be moved out over the next five years to protect them from natural hazards, according to Venu. It is a huge challenge, he admits.

Meanwhile, if the pattern of extreme rainfall continues next year, and if the state does nothing, more people will surely die. Is this what the age of climate emergency looks like?

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