“The bed, the cupboard, the table … nothing is there … The water had risen above our heads”

A flooded road in Pandalam village, en route to Chengannur. Aathira Konikkara for The Caravan

The whirring blades of a descending helicopter drew the attention of everyone present in Christian College in Angadickal village in Chengannur, late in the afternoon on 19 August. “Look, it’s an airplane,” a young girl told her mother, who told me that they had come to “just watch” what was unfolding on the ground adjoining the campus. For many others currently residing in this town, however, the arrival and departure of the Indian Air Force helicopters—which carried food, water and other supplies—had become an essential feature of their day. Many of them had recently moved to a relief camp set up at the college to escape the worst flood they had seen in their lifetime, and that Kerala had seen in nearly a century.

Chengannur, a taluk in the state’s Alappuzha district, is among the worst-affected regions in the disaster. The severity of the crisis in Chengannur came to the fore when the local MLA, Saji Cherian, made a desperate plea requesting airlifting operations to rescue those stranded in his constituency. “50,000 people will die tonight. I am sure,” he told the Malayalam channel Asianet late in the night on 17 August. “Please can you tell Modi … if helicopters are not brought in, we will die,” Cherian pleaded, referring to the prime minister. “We have been asking for the navy’s assistance for five days.”

Alappuzha district has received 32 percent more rainfall than usual this year. In Christian College’s three-storey building, classrooms on two floors were being used as shelters while relief materials were collected in the rooms on the ground floor, and distributed to the camp’s inhabitants—about 2,100 on the day of my visit. Most rooms I visited contained dozens of mats donated to the survivors, which they used as makeshift mattresses. One such room was being shared by six families. According to the Kerala government’s website, there are at least 15 other camps in Chengannur alone—an unequivocal indicator of the dire situation of the region.

An IAF helicopter arrives at the grounds adjoining Christian College in Chengannur, where a relief camp has been set up. As of 19 August, nearly 2,100 people were residing in the college's three-storey building. (Credit: Aathira Konikkara for The Caravan)

Twenty-eight-year-old Shanti Prashant’s home is in Pandanadu, a village in Chengannur. She resided in a one-storey house that had three rooms, with eight family members, including three children. Given the fact that her house is located in a low-lying area, Prashant told me, some water entered it every monsoon. But this time was different. Four days earlier, her home began flooding. “Everything is gone. The water reached the roof of the house,” she said. “I will know if my Aadhar and other identity documents are still there only if I go back and check. We were anxious when we left, and just carried whatever we could.”

Sitting on a mat, she recounted the day of the flooding. “At around 10 am, the water suddenly began surging. By 11 am, the water had reached our knees. We then sent the children to a safe place. Then we collected all our things and put them away at the top.” Raising her hand to her neck, she continued, “By 5.30, water inside the room had reached till here.” By morning, it became impossible to stand inside the house.

All the villagers gathered in a committee hall. They waited for three days before rescue workers arrived, on boats. The area was so inundated that no other mode of transport was possible.

Prashant said that she was satisfied with the relief arrangements at the camp. She heard that the water in her locality has not yet receded. “It’s not possible to go back right now,” she said. She had one other concern—she wondered what had happened to the family’s three pets, a dog, a rabbit and a goat. “We were told they wouldn’t be allowed in the boat,” she told me. “We left them on the stage”—in the hall—“as that was the only spot which was not flooded.”

At around 4 pm, three yellow buses arrived at Christian College from the Karyavattom campus of the University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. On a regular day, the buses could have accommodated 150 people in all. But only 30 had travelled to Chengannur that day; the rest of the seats were stacked with supplies meant for the survivors. These were sorted into different boxes and labelled in English or Malayalam. “Kids wear. 2-3 years,” read one. “Torches. Batteries. Extension Cords,” read another. Athul Sulekha, the chairperson of the departments’ student union and an MPhil student at the university said, “Earlier, we thought that the flooding was confined to Idukki and Wayanad alone, which seemed to be usual. We knew it was far more serious when it spread to Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram, which are usually not susceptible to it. That’s when we began relief efforts and started a collection drive.” Sukrutha Sudevan, a volunteer secretary at the Karyavattom campus unit of the National Service Scheme, a central government-sponsored public-service programme, told me that the unit crowdsourced Rs 70,000 to purchase relief material for Chengannur victims.

Relief materials being distributed at the Christian College camp. (Credit: Aathira Konikkara for The Caravan)

In a corridor on the ground floor, which was crowded with people clamouring for items ranging from food to diapers, I met an elderly man holding a packet of milk biscuits and two buns in one hand, wielding a walking stick with the other. Gopi, who appeared to be in his seventies, had been staying at the camp with his wife Radhamani for four days. “We lost our daughter’s school certificates. The bed, the cupboard, the table, gas cylinder—nothing is there. The water had risen above our heads,” he told me. Gopi repeatedly said that he had been left with nothing. His wife, Radhamani, said she was experiencing difficulty acquiring some relief materials such as soap. “By the time I reach ahead in the queue, they say they don’t have anything,” she told Gopi. “Please go and stand in the queue. My legs are tired.” The couple had been allotted space in a room on the top floor. Radhamani had trouble walking. She said it was difficult for her to climb down the stairs as her knees were swollen. “Wouldn’t it be good if they could get a bucket for me?” she asked me, gesturing at women who were gathered outside a room where buckets were being distributed.

In a press conference held on 18 August, Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan compared the devastation to the monsoons of 1924, when Kerala was deluged due to heavy rains. Between 1 June and 19 August this year, the state received 2346.6 millimetres of rainfall, 42 percent higher than average for this period. For August, it recorded rainfall 162 percent higher than the average.

Most states in the country, including Kerala’s southern counterparts, rank far lower in their intake of annual rainfall. While Kerala normally receives rain upto 2924.3 mm, Karnataka is a distant second with an annual average of 1147.2 mm. Up north, only Meghalaya, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh receive annual rainfall higher than Kerala’s—averages of 3837.1 mm, 2971.6 mm and 2933.7 respectively.

With 44 rivers and numerous other water bodies, Kerala has the natural capacity to withstand heavy monsoons. Experts have pointed to various possible causes of the ongoing deluge—including the formation of low pressure troughs in the Bay of Bengal, climate change and extensive developmental activities. According to the state government, the death toll since May has crossed 370, and 7,24,649 people are currently staying in 5,645 relief camps across the state.

On the day of my visit, AK Soman, the head constable of Chengannur police station, told me that two days earlier, the Indian Army had begun rescue operations as well. Soman said that he joined the army on two operations. “The army men start at 8 am and work till 8.30 pm. We brought over 300 people here,” Soman said. “Since this incident happened, it is the policemen who have been here without even going home. It’s been four or five days now. I have been working wearing this one uniform.”

Soman is one of the police officers overseeing the food-supply exercise for the camp. On 19 August, nearly 4 tonnes of food and water was supplied to the camp. “There is enough food in all the camps. It is being transported from states besides Kerala as well,” he said. “Nobody stays hungry. If the food falls short, we get it arranged from somewhere.”