Weeks after the August deluge, Onmanorama team travelled through the worst-affected regions of Idukki district to witness a land devastated beyond measure. We also found people, cruelly dumped on top of their own ruins, unwilling to take things lying down. We found life sprouting anew in the high ranges. We found defiance. Read their tales of fightback:
What remains of Subair-Suhada family's one-storey house at Thadiyambadu, on the banks of Cheruthoni river in Idukki, is a vast jumble of crushed parts. But amid the ruin, on the mounds of silt a river running wild had washed up their devastated place, is an unlikely sight. All around the half-buried debris of stones and wood and photo frames and clothes are tender green paddy stalks. These green tufts have sprung forth from the paddy seeds the couple had stocked to be sown after the monsoon.
People in the high ranges are now exhibiting the resilience of paddy stalks. The landslides and the floods have taken away all that was theirs, and have dumped them in a land that now looks totally alien. But, like the paddy seeds strewn in the rubble, they are desperate for a rebirth.
The place is still reeling under the impact. The ghat road that winds up the forest for nearly 40 km from Kolapra to Cheruthoni is now infinitely more dangerous. There are shocking signs of landslides every 150 metres; massive hollows, clay-coloured hollows, in between the green of the forested hills. Gigantic chunks of hills had broken off, and the deadly burst of trees and boulders and slush and water came down in a flash, crashed on the spiraling ghat road, and then slipped down to the forest below.
The roads have developed wide cracks and in many areas have dropped down completely forming steep precipices right in the middle. Idukki was cut off from civilisation. But, with commendable resolve and perseverance, the high range is getting back to its feet. Just when the rain abated, the ghat road was cleared for traffic. The work of clearing the road of rocks and boulders is still on. Buried electric poles have been pulled up, and in many places, new ones have been erected. The children are back in school, women in autorickshaws pick their friends on their way to the MGNREGS site, and shops and businesses have re-opened.
The Cheruthoni town, which had its northern edge washed away by the floods, is back to being the bustling little town it was. Even a town called Panniyarukutty, which was completely buried under a landslide, has resumed business.
Surendran, bakery shop owner: Cheruthoni
On September 6, long before sunrise, there was a small gathering of men at the edge of Cheurthoni town where the road slopes to meet the narrow squat bridge across the Cheruthoni. The gathering was to mark a new beginning. Surendran was making his first cup of tea after August 13, the day before all the five shutters of Cheruthoni dam was opened. Surendran was standing behind a rectangular table on which the stove, the utensils, the glasses and an emergency lamp crowded. The gas cylinder was on the ground, by Surendran's side. All of it in the open.
“Now this is all I have, and I am beginning from zero,” Surendran said. Behind him is a small dimly lit narrow room that has been freshly plastered. Before the flood, he was running a bakery from this room. “When I returned from the relief camp 10 days later, I saw this room completely blank. There was nothing inside, except for the grinder. Everything else, right from the fridge and cupboards and tables to all the packaged items that I had stocked here were gone,” he said.
If the rampaging Cheruthoni river had looted Surendran's shop, it completely destroyed a four-storey hotel named 'Palace' and eight other shops right across the road from his shop. Surendran has freshly plastered and re-wired his small space for over Rs 22,000. “Now I have no money left to buy anything, not to speak of the interest I have to pay for the loans I had taken,” he said. All that he has before him – the table and the things on it - were gifted by an NGO. He knows it will take a while to restart his bakery business but still he has kept the place ready.
His KRS Bakery was adjacent to the Cheruthoni bus stand, of which too there is no trace. The bus stand, and the check dam beyond it, were ruthlessly run over by the crazed onslaught of the un-shuttered river. Surendran's bakery doubled as a 'thattukada' in the night. It was a 24X7 shop. “We never closed, not on public holidays or even during hartals. The business was good because the bus stand was close by,” Surendran said.
On August 13, he did something he had never done before. He shut his shop before noon. “There was a threat of landslide and we were asked to shift from our house. (His house is on the hill on the other side of the river.) So I took my wife and son to my brother's house in Gandhinagar Colony (which is some four kilometres away along the Kumily route.) We had lunch there. I felt very happy because it was the first time I was having lunch with my people. Since I don't close our shop I don't get time to spend with my family,” he said. The happiness was shortlived.
“We had just finished our lunch when we heard a strange roar, and soon enough there were desperate screams of women,” Surendran said. An earthburst had happened and rocks were coming their way. “It was too late to run out. We huddled inside the room,” he said. Huge quantities of slush were hurled at the house, nothing else happened to them. But nearby, two people died. Surendran could not move out of the colony and the next day, the shutters of Cheruthoni dam were opened.
Surendran now has no place to live either. A friend of Surendran took us to the bank of Cheruthoni river and pointed to his house. It was right there on the edge of the opposite hill that had fallen off in the rain. The kitchen door of the house opens bang into the void. “He has been living there for the past 15 years. Before the landslip, they had an extended work area at the back and then more open space to tie two cows in the backyard,” the friend said.
Saji (hotel worker) and Sanitha: Perinkala
When we first saw Saji at his elder brother's unplastered house on the slope at Perinkala along the Vazhathope-Maniyarankudy road, he was coming out after a shave. He has kept his beard low and thin on his cheeks, in the fashion of the Arabs. “Tomorrow, he will start going to work. So it is good that he has cleaned himself up. Life has to move on,” said Lakshmi, his 85-year-old grandmother. Saji is working at Pappen's, leading restaurant chain in Idukki.
His wife Sanitha and their one-year-old daughter Nanditha had a narrow escape on August 14, from one of the worst landslides to have hit Idukki. Not that Saji is relieved. “Four people died, all of them lived right above us,” he said. Three houses on the slope, and four in the landing below where a lean stream runs were fully destroyed. Saji's house was also on the slope that was filled with rubber trees.
On August 14 morning Saji and his cousins had rushed to a nearby place where a bridge had collapsed in the rains. “While we were asking people living near the 'chappath' (a small bridge) to quickly move to the relief camp, we heard our friends screaming from the nearby hills saying that something was happening near our place,” Saji said. He ran back. “We could hear the snapping of electric lines from our area, and poles falling in quick succession, and then a deafening sound that seems to come from the machines they operate to drill large rocks,” Saji said.
By the time he rushed to the spot, the landslide had happened. “Where the houses and the rubber trees stood, there was nothing. Right from the top of the hill to down below there was a highway of mud and slush and stones,” Saji said. His wife and kid were at home. Though he was prevented by others, he managed to find a way to his house on the middle of the slope. The house was intact; the landslide had flown on either side of the house. But his wife and kid were nowhere to be seen.
Thankfully, they had escaped. “I was feeding the child when I heard what I felt was the sound of a helicopter coming near, and then I heard screams asking me to run,” said Sanitha, Saji's wife. “I realised what was happening and rushed out. People standing below took me and my child to the other side,” she said.
When Saji knew his family was safe he came back to his house. Before he entered he noticed something at his right, just outside the border of his plot. He recognised the colour of the skirt. He screamed and called his people. His brothers and cousins came up. Together they removed the debris, and found her face. It was Achu, the eighth-standard girl living right above him. And just below, hands stretched as if straining to get hold of her daughter, was the mother of the girl, Bhavana. What they didn't know was that five feet below on the slope, stuck on a tree, lay the body of Valsa, Bhavana's mother, covered in slush. The body was spotted 10 days later, on Thiruvonam day, when a policeman standing on the road below found a group of strays sniffing around the tree.
The landslide was so furious that boulders that burst at the top of the hill torpedoed some 500 metres down the slope, taking trees, buildings, lives, everything on its way, and after crushing to nothing the four homes at the base had still so much fury left that it climbed up the road on the opposite side. Such was the force that the fourth body, that of Achu's grandfather Ramakrishnan, was found some two kilometres away in Peppara.
Achu's father Sukumaran, an auto driver, and her younger brother Atul Krishna lived. Sukumaran was not in the house. As for Atul he ran through the rubber trees to the house on the left side when he heard the “helicopter-like” sound. Atul is now with his relatives. His father Sukumran, though it was feared he might lose his mental stability, has now decided to buy a new autorickshaw. “He is a very strong man and he doesn't like people's sympathy. So I heard he is selling the small property that he has, and borrowing the rest,” Saji said. Along with his wife and kid, the landslide had also taken away his autorickshaw that he had named after his first born.
Subair (farmer) and Suhada: Thadiyambadu
It was difficult to see the Cheruthoni river from their house in Thadiyambadu. There was a road in front, then two rows of tall concrete houses, and small paddy lands, and beyond all this was an emaciated Cheruthoni river. It was like this for nearly half a century.
Still, their one-story house was completely destroyed. Over 20 houses on either banks of the Cheruthoni river in Thadiyambadu have been destroyed. But none as absolutely as Subair's and Suhada's. It was hit both by a landslide and the flood. The swelling marauding Cheruthoni blew its foundation and the landslide from the hill behind flattened it.
“By then we were shifted to the camp,” Subair said. Their two children study in other places. “They can continue in their hostels till things get better. It is another matter that we have no idea how to pay their hostel and education fees,” Subair said. Subair's mother has been moved to his brother's house. Now, the couple live in the corner of the Vazhathope church nearby. “My husband built this house and we have been here for 47 years. Everyday we come here from the church to have a look, and then go back,” Suhada said, trying hard to restrain her tears. They had nearly an acre of paddy land on the opposite side, near the river when it was just a feeble skinny waterbody. Now, it is hard to imagine a paddy field in the place they pointed. The spot is filled with silt, trees and garbage thrown up by the river. The silt deposit is so high that wells in the area are buried some four to five feet deep. Moreover, the Cheruthoni has taken on the width of a bona fide river.
Thadiyambadu — with its roofless houses, faded cracked exteriors, mounds of sand and washed up giant trees — looks like a long abandoned village that has been accidentally discovered. “The water had submerged most of the houses, right up to their chimneys. The damage done to the roofs and walls show the force with which the water rushed. I don't think the old occupants would want to come back,” said Jacob Varghese, a contractor who was overseeing the clearing of Thadiyambadu bridge. It is easy to agree with Varghese. Except for Subair and Suhada walking zombie-like around the rubble, most of the other damaged houses look abandoned. Doors and windows have been blown away, and the houses look beyond repair.
But Varghese, it soon became evident, does not have the measure of the attachment people have for their houses. “When the sun sets, most of the families will come back to their houses, wash the clothes they have got at the relief camps, have some food together, talk and laugh a little, and then by night will return to the camp,” said Subair. At the back of a handful of houses, we had found washed clothes on the clothesline.
Two houses after Subair's home is where 77-year-old Karthiyani Amma lives. The house is at a slightly higher level than the others. Even then, it was flooded. But Karthiyani Amma, who stays with her grand-daughter, points out that the water level had stayed right below the framed pictures of gods. “When I asked my daughter-in-law to make the pictures larger, she laughed at me. She then told me instead of keeping the pictures on top we will keep them in front of the gate so that the water will never dare enter the house,” Karthiyani Amma said, sad that she is not being understood.
When we told Subair of Karthiyani Amma's belief, he gave a sad understanding smile. “This is a strange time. Everyone needs something to hold on to,” he said. For Subair, he needs a job. “I don't know whether I can be a farmer again. But we need to survive. I am told that there are many jobs with contractors who have now been given the task of cleaning up after the floods and landslides. One of them had told me that there is work in the Vellathooval area (Vellathooval is perhaps the worst affected panchayat in Idukki.). I will be meeting him this evening,” Subair said. His wife stood near, sobbing.
Bose (farmer): Panniyarkutty
When a whole town is lost to a landslide, it is only natural that the plight of a single family living close by, but caught in another landslide, is ignored.
On August 24 afternoon, a massive landslide had buried the whole of Panniyarkutty, along the Neriyamangalam-Rajakkad route, near Vellathooval. Almost all that was part of the town — six houses, seven shops, one anganwadi, a veterinary hospital and a club — were completely destroyed. There were no casualties as people were by then shifted to relief camps. The bathroom of one of the houses still stands at the edge, its base slightly jutting over the peak of the precipice from where the landslide had begun.
On the same night, just 200 metres to the east of the town, another landslide, almost of the same intensity, took away Bose's house. The family was away at Bose's sister-in-law's house. When Bose returned home next day, hearing of the landslide, he saw a crater and massive boulders where his house once was.
“No one knew of Bose's loss until three days later. He didn't tell anyone either,” said Salim, a contractor who has secured the work of clearing the debris in Panniyarkutty. It were the electricity workers who were pulling new lines through the area who first informed others of a tall hefty man who sat silently over the devastated land from morning to evening. “When I went there, the first thing Bose told me was to bring my Hitachi (the chain-wheel earth remover) and dig up the place. I politely asked him why and he told me that his house was underneath,” Salim said.
This was a hint that Bose was on the verge of losing his sanity. So to pacify Bose, Salim used his earth-mover to excavate the place. There was nothing underneath, as everyone knew. Bose had built his house, piece by piece.“He will construct one part of the house with the money he gets from the sale of his produce, say his cocoa or his plantain, then wait for the money from the next season's sale to construct the next part. It took over five years for him to build the house. I don't know of anyone who has worked so hard for his house,” said 75-year-old Achuthan Pillai who had also lost his house in the landslide. It was three months before that Bose finished installing a rainwater harvesting unit.
Unlike Bose, some in Panniyarkutty town were quick to rebound. Suku, whose tea shop was among the seven shops that were hurled into Panniyar river far below, has opened a new shop in the only building that was left untouched by the landslide. Suku is doing brisk business, thanks to the reconstruction activities in Panniyarkutty and also the stream of visitors from other places who arrive to get a close look at Panniyarkutty's total destruction.
Bose is gradually coming to grips with his loss. We saw him as he was walking past Suku's tea shop, on his way from the village office. “The village officer and team will soon visit my place,” he said, and hurried away. “Initially we thought we had lost the man. Finally, he seems to have realised the need to get his place verified by the revenue officials. He deserves all the compensation,” said Suku.
We walked over to Bose's place, which is along the Ponmudi dam top road. He was there alone, on top of the nothingness. He pointed to the only thing that was left of his house. Three tiled steps, off-white and clean, wedged in between solidified mounds of clay. “That leads to our sit out, and from there to our living room,” he said. Bose owns three acres of land here. More than an acre has now been washed away. Bose constantly bites his lower lip, as if telling himself that he is determined to fight back. “I have also called the soil conservation people here to see what type of crops that I can cultivate here,” he said, once again biting his lower lip.
Diagonally across the road from where we were standing was a small worn house. “I have decided to rent that place so that I can be near this land,” he said. He will bring his wife and daughter to that house. His son is abroad. His daughter is studying for social work in Thiruvananthapuram. “She has been taking counselling sessions for people in affected areas. Yesterday she was in Adimali consoling people,” he said, biting his lower lip hard and beating back tears.