“We hate it. We can’t even die now”: Kerala flood survivors struggle with the impossible task of rebuilding their lives

In Ernakulam district's Thottakattukara village, the Aluva Shri Mahadeva Temple, which lies on the bank of the Periyar river, suffered severe damage during the deluge. AATHIRA KONIKKARA FOR THE CARAVAN

On 10 August, when Shanta Kumaran left her house in Chendamangalam village, in Paravur taluk of Kerala’s Ernakulam district, her home, like the other houses in the area, was yet to see the destruction of the catastrophic floods that would sweep the state over the next week. Two weeks later, as we stood outside her house, its floor now covered in sludge, she told me, “I left because my daughter was admitted to the hospital for delivery. Her operation was due on Monday.” She continued, “This is nothing. When I returned, the sludge reached above my ankles.” Shanta works as a domestic help in the locality, and her husband, Kumaran, was a fisherman till he stopped working two years ago. Kumaran said the water level rose suddenly on August 13. “I had to wade through the water till the end of this street where I requested an auto driver to take me to the hospital.” He pointed to a wall above a window to describe the level to which the water had risen, but he need not have—in the whole house, for around six feet from the ground, the mint green walls were a shade darker than its upper portions.

Shanta and Kumaran’s house comprises three small rooms and a kitchen in the backyard. The floods had caused extensive damage—two unusable mattresses lay outside the house, along with soiled rice grains. Inside, there was only an empty cupboard in the hall, two soiled calendars hung up on the wall, a bare, dusty bedstead in one of the rooms, and a pile of clothes kept in a bucket for washing. “This is all that is left,” Shanta said. The couple’s daughter’s delivery was due at the hospital of the Kalamassery Medical College, where the district administration had also set up a relief camp. They had been staying at the camp till they returned home, on 23 August. Since then, Shanta has been cleaning the house, with just a broom and a water hose, but she did not know when she would finish. With the house still in an uninhabitable condition, that night, Shanta and Kumaran had slept in an auditorium in the village. Several other residents of the village had also spent the night there due to the condition of their homes. “I don’t think we will go [there] today,” Shanta said, when we spoke the next day.“There is still so much sludge to be cleaned.”

As the flood survivors slowly begin to leave the camps and return to their ravaged homes, they stare at the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding their lives from scratch. I visited two villages—Chendamangalam, in the Paravur taluk, and Thottakattukara, in Aluva region of Ernakulam district—and in both places, everyone’s houses had witnessed severe damage during the floods, but there was a crucial and visible distinction. In Thottakattukara, where the residents appeared relatively financially comfortable, they had hired labourers to clean up their houses, whereas in Chendamangalam, the accounts of the residents were marked by a sense of defeat. For those without any assistance during the ongoing phase of reconstruction, or without the resources to gain such help, this feeling of defeat appeared to have turned to morbid helplessness.

In Thottakattukara, a village nearly 20 kilometres away from Chendamangalam, the roads were covered in sludge and only labourers, who wore gumboots and had been hired by various residents to clean their homes, could work with ease. For others, such as Anand Ramakrishnan, whom I encountered during my visit to the village on 24 August, traversing through the village roads requires them to be more careful and cautious.

“I don’t know how I am going to go into my own house,” Ramakrishnan told me. His house is in the neighbouring village of Paravoor Kavala, where the roads suffer from a similar state. But Ramakrishnan added that he has “become practised” in walking on such roads by now. “Everyone here has brought people from outside for cleaning. Otherwise, it’s not possible.” His words appeared true for several houses in the village. Around a two-minute walk from the temple stands a two-storey house of G Suresh Iyer, a 43-year-old employee of a shipping company. Since 22 August, Suresh said, the cleaning work in his house has been ongoing. On the day of my visit, there were eight people involved in the cleaning—three members of his family and five labourers whom he hired from Ernakulam district because “no one was available” in Aluva.

Iyer said that his office had distributed cleaning kits in the village. “My partner, five–six others and their neighbours came together and we distributed 1,900 cleaning kits to all the camps on our way. It has bleaching powder, soap solution, a bottle of acid, soap powder, and something like a Vim liquid. Since everything was in water, they all need a rewash.” In the verandah of Iyer’shouse, a hose was being used to wash off the sludge. Inside, the off-white tiles had been wiped but muddy footprints of those who had walked into the house remained.

Iyer and his brothers live in three houses adjacent to each other.The residents of all three households stayed in the second floor of Iyer’s house during the deluge. None of the houses had electricity since the flooding began in the village on 14 August. For food, he said, “we gathered the provisions from all the three houses to one place. Or it wouldn’t have sufficed.” By 2 am on 15 August, Iyer recalled, half of the ground floor in his house was submerged. He told me that “there were 27 of us” in the house that day. “On 18th, a boat arrived at around eight  or nine o’clock.” That day, Iyer’s family escaped and moved to a relative’s house.

In Thottakattukara village, the Aluva Shri Mahadeva Temple, which lies on the bank of the Periyar river, suffered severe damage during the deluge. Debris washed ashore by the Periyar littered the temple and the adjoining auditorium. The road to the temple has become a trail of thick sludge, its consistency broken only by the tyres of the vehicles that passed through it, including a tractor that worked through the premises of the temple, prising heaps of sludge off the ground.

For the residents of Chendamangalam village, returning to their old lives appeared to be a more desperate and uphill task. Rajitha Sudheesh, a 38-year-old resident of the village, seemed helpless as she showed me her belongings, strewn outside her house during the floods. “We worked so hard to buy all this rice and wheat. Look at the way it’s lying here,” she said, gesturing towards four or five sacks that were lying under a tree. Sudheesh added, “At the Maveli store, we get sugar for 22 rupees and rice for 25 rupees. That’s why we bought so much. Otherwise we have to spend 40 rupees.” She pointed and identified several belongings that lay scattered on the ground, unusable—a passbook, a few currency notes on the bed, identity documents scattered elsewhere, and the soaked eighth standard textbooks of her son.

Sudheesh did not go to a relief camp to escape the flood. “We went to my sister’s house in Kaitharam”—another village in Ernakulam district, around seven kilometres away. “But it flooded there as well. Then we went to my husband’s house.” Sudheesh, her husband and her son left their house early morning on 16 August, and had to wade through the rising water. She recalled, “I wore a torn nightie and swam through the water. So I couldn’t carry anything or save anything.” Her son is still staying at their relative’s house. “Since we didn’t go to a camp, we only have the clothes we are wearing,” Sudheesh said, referring to the fact that flood survivors staying at the relief camps had received clothes. “Don’t the people who didn’t go to camps need it?” I asked whether any volunteer teams had come by to clean their house. “Those who have a job have people from their office who go and clean their homes,” she said.

Akhil, Sudheesh’s neighbour and a studio photographer, told me, “After this disaster happened, all the ministers came and surveyed everything in helicopters. Even then, do you know what they said? Rs 50,000 rupees to municipalities. Rs 25,000 to panchayats.” Akhil was visibly angered by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s order granting these amountsfor the cleaning efforts. “Panchayats have suffered the most. You know what their calculation is? Everyone residing in the panchayats are poor. All they have to lose is a small TV, a tape recorder or an emergency [light]. Those who live in the municipality have ACs, big LCDs, fridge, washing machine. They are getting more. Nothing for us in the panchayats.”

Akhil expressed similar rage towards the media coverage of the floods as well. “Write a report about us only if you can ensure that the benefits will reach us. Otherwise it's of no use for you to come and look at our difficulties and write about it in a magazine,” he said. He demanded that the media should also work to ensure that “the compensation should reach us without the politicians gnawing at it and giving us leftovers.” He continued, “Ensure that it reaches the people like us who lost everything. Otherwise, preaching about this and that in the papers, magazines and the news is useless. People just talk about this amongst themselves. But we don't have a voice to speak up before the public and the political class.”

As a part of the relief work, volunteers have been distributing food in the neighbourhood. But Sudheesh and Akhil have not benefitted from these efforts either. “You have to go the main road for that,” Sudheesh told me. Her house is located in the deep interiors of the village. Even I had aimlessly walked and taken a few turns before I met her. “They don’t come this far,” she said. “We hate it. We can’t even die now. When we first saw the house after returning, we didn’t know what to do, where to start.”

Sajeev Tharayaparambil, another neighbour and an auto driver, told me, “That dam, [called] Mullaperiyar? It should have just broken open.” In an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court on 23 August, the Kerala government claimed that the sudden release of water from the Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala, by the Tamil Nadu government, was the primary cause of the deluge. Tharayparambil added, “That would have been good.”

The morbidity expressed by the residents of Chendamangalam was similar to that among the survivors at the relief camps in the Cochin University of Science and Technology, which I visited on 22 August. “It would have been better if a tsunami had occurred,” Sudheesh Madanaparambu, a survivor from Varapuzha town, which is also in the Paravur taluk, had said. “At least everything would have gone in three to eight seconds. This is worse than that. Now we are neither dead nor alive.”