A two-member family living in a dysfunctional school building in the hilly district of Idukki for nearly a year after their house was destroyed in a landslide raises serious questions about the Kerala government's rehabilitation package, a year after Kerala was hit by century's worst floods.
Karuppan K P (65) and his wife Rajamma (57), who belong to a Scheduled Caste community, have made a classroom of Government High School, Kathippara, near Kallarkutty their home ever since they took shelter in the building in August 2018 during the peak of the floods. The school had then functioned as a relief camp for nearly 200 people.
Karuppan, once a student at the same school, says he refused to leave the shelter even after his compatriots left the camp since he has nowhere to go. The state government's geology department has certified that his 30-cent land at Ozhuga City in Kallarkutty in Vellathooval panchayat is not suitable to build a new structure.
Though the Vellathooval panchayat had offered three cents of land to the family to build a new house, Karuppan and Rajamma refused to accept it citing practical difficulties.
The family's tale of sorrow has, however, been dismissed by the panchayat authorities, who say Karuppan has no other option but to accept the offer.
That fateful night
It was mid-August and around 9.30 at night. “I had my dinner early and had gone to sleep. I don't even remember whether my family members had dinner. Suddenly we heard a noise,” Karuppan told Onmanorama, sitting on a plastic chair on the school verandah. A landslide had occurred and large mounds of soil had fallen on the house from behind. “We didn't get time to think of anything. We all ran away,” Karuppan said. Karuppan, who has respiratory ailments, was back 'home' from a nearby hospital.
Karuppan and his family, comprising wife, four sons and their families (one son is unmarried), were rendered homeless in a matter of few minutes and they had to find shelter in a relief camp set up in a private school in Kallarkutty. After a few days, they were shifted to Kathippara school, now their residence.
The couple's eldest son moved to a small house along with his wife and children while the second one and family are staying in a rented KSEB quarters. The youngest son stays near a small structure besides the destroyed house. Apart from his family, the third son also stays with him.
“Everybody asks us why we are not moving to the homes of our children. It is not possible as they are living tiny huts. We cannot afford to rent a home as the landlords here charge Rs 3,000 per month,” Rajamma said.
Karuppan and Rajamma earn their living by doing odd jobs. They also work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme.
Sometimes, they cook in the school's kitchen but mostly they bring food from the youngest son's home. They also use the toilet on the school premises.
Karuppan and Rajamma are not alone in the school. Alphonsa, a widow with a son and daughter, also stays in another classroom. However, Alphonsa was gifted a plot by her church and the work on her house has almost completed. “She will move to the new house soon. Then we will be all alone,” Rajamma said.
Karuppan said he had received a compensation of Rs 10,000 from the state government. “After that, there was nothing,” he said. The panchayat came up with the offer of land a month ago, after their 11-month stay at the school. “We grew up in Kallarkutty area and we would get some work here. We will have to spend at least Rs 100 on autorickshaws to reach the land they have promised. It is also difficult for a person like me, with the health issues, to live there,” Karuppan said.
He said only four of the 35 families, who were offered the land, were willing to accept it.
Karuppan had recently received a letter from the panchayat asking him to take over the land within a week. He has not responded to it yet.
Karuppan had pinned his hopes on the government promise that it would give Rs 6 lakh for those who lost their land in the floods. “We don't want that land. I request the government to help us by giving the amount,” Karuppan said. However, Karuppan's hope is unlikely to get fulfilled for obvious reasons.
“Only those with title deeds for their land lost in the floods are eligible for the aid of Rs 6 lakh. Karuppan's family, like many in the region, doesn't have the deed,” Sudha, member, Vellathooval panchayat, told Onmanorama.
She also contested Karuppan's claim that only four families have accepted the land. “All 35 families, except six in the Panamkutty-Kallarkutty area have accepted the land. Those who accept the land will also get an aid of Rs 4 lakh to build houses,” she said. Sudha said works on the houses of those who have accepted the land have already started.
Sudha said the land at Vellathooval, near the police station, is the only place in the possession of the panchayat. She said the panchayat is ready to hand over the land and the monetary aid to Karuppan whenever he is willing to accept it.
Sudha said in her ward alone, 79 families whose houses were damaged in the floods have been so far given monetary aid ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 2.5 lakh as per the percentage of the damage.
Roshy Augustine, MLA, Idukki constituency, said the rules stipulate that if land is available in a particular block (an area demarcated by survey numbers) victims in that block have to accept it. “One can seek aid to buy land only if habitable government land is not available in the block that person belongs,” he said.
He said it is not necessary to have title deed for the land lost to avail aid for buying a new property.
It remains to be seen if Karuppan and Rajamma will be rehabilitated to a place where they can lead a peaceful life or forced to accept the plot at Vellathooval.
It is not sure how long the couple will be able to stay in the school as an official in the Vellathooval village office has told Karuppan that there are plans to convert the building into a government hostel.