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Picking up the Pieces

Flood relief efforts in Kerala, August 2018

When heavy floodwaters bracketed the Indian state of Kerala in August 2018, the crisis was accompanied by a remarkable atmosphere of solidarity and support from across the state.

 

At a government-funded high school in Karimpdam, north of the port city of Kochi, volunteers from disparate organizations worked to clean out the flood-damaged buildings in a desperate attempt to help restore normalcy to the area. Among them were men from a municipal council, joined by academics and students of a science literature forum. The challenges they faced were steep. In this area, floodwaters had reached as a high as seven-and-a-half feet, inundating the area before steps could be taken to safeguard resources.

At the school, a 19-year-old volunteer, Dhariish Raj, led the way to a long line of computer equipment and other educational electronics, destroyed by flooding from the nearby River Periyar. Floodwaters also ruined over 90, hundred-kg sacks of rice which had been stored on the grounds to feed impoverished students.

In the badly affected nearby town of North Paravur, residents expressed anger at the government’s mismanagement of water which had created the crisis. Believing that heavy rainfall would fill hydro-electric reservoirs, allowing the state to generate a large amount of electric power in the months to come, the ruling Communist Party failed to take in account predictions of excess rainfall. When heavy rainfall threatened to breach the dams, sluice gates were opened with little warning, inundating local waterways and causing flooding to transpire in 13 out of 14 districts in the state. In some instances, flood warnings, issued solely on social media and on the internet failed to reach affected communities.

 

“We had no warning at all,” said Paul Jo, an Indian expatriate recently returned home to the village of Chendamangalam from Qatar. Rising waters prompted Jo and his family to relocate to high ground near a bend of the river Periyar which served as a lightning rod for other refugees. The area around a historic 175-year-old Jewish Synagogue at Chendamangalam and the nearby Holy Cross Church soon became home to 7,000 refugees concentrated in an area of three square kilometers. “Every religion and social group was represented,” Jo said. “There was no power for 5-6 days and food was running short. There were so many people that we could not move.”

College student and volunteer worker, Dhariish Raj, 19, holds up a flood-damaged computer screen at the DDSHS High School at Karimpdam, Kerala, on August 27, 2018.

A few miles away, with the recession of floodwaters at Chendamangalam town, Jithin Sankar K.S., 33, and his family took stock of the damage to their home, built along an inlet of the Periyar River. The river burst its banks in the third week of August, catching residents by surprise. “The water rose by three feet every day. We did not know that things could get that bad or that the water level would ultimately top to over seven feet,” said Sankar whose family lost all of its possessions. “We were told that the water rise would be marginal. Had we known otherwise, we would have moved our belongings to higher ground.”

Jithin Sankar K.S., 33, stands on an old British-built bridge spanning the Periyar River which flows near his home in North Paravur, Kerala, on August 27, 2018. The Periyar burst its banks in mid-August, inundating the area with seven-foot-high floodwaters, taking residents by surprise.

Not known for their wealth, residents of the North Paravur area face the daunting task of rebuilding their lives from scratch. “We had no insurance,” Sankar said. “And now, we have suffered the loss of Rs 50,000-worth of goods. The government said it will compensate families registered at a relief camp with Rs 10,000. But we stayed with relatives and are not even entitled to claim this base amount.”

 

In another badly affected area, however, residents were less prone to criticize the state leadership. The low-lying Kuttunad region, which is four to 10 feet below sea level, floods annually during the monsoon season. Despite this, the scale of the crisis this year left many inhabitants in shock.

Nibin Baby, 30-year-old nurse employed in New Delhi returned home to the remote village of Pullinkunnu in the Kuttunad backwaters to find his house half underwater. After ensuring the evacuation of his elderly parents, he stayed behind to safeguard their property. “It was a diabolical situation,” he said. “We had never seen such flooding in our lives. Everything which was not tied down was swept away — our belongings, important documents, even pets.”

Another town resident, Hormese George, a homestay owner, said they were initially stranded with little prospect of help. “We didn’t know how to get through the crisis. The village was totally cut-off for 10-12 days,” he said. “Eventually we were taken out by fishermen in boats. Although our house is still standing, everything within has to be replaced.” When asked if he believed the government would provide affected and displaced people with financial aid, George was skeptical, saying that he was unsure of any funds being disbursed even though, by September 11, donations to the Kerala relief fund had reached a sum of Rs 120,000,000 ($1,650,000).

A crane boat lies abandoned after it ran aground during heavy swells in the Pampa River, on August 29, 2018.

A quartet of flood victims, a father and his sons, return home with their dog in the Kuttunad backwaters on August 28, 2018. During the wholesale evacuation of the area in mid-August, rescue boatmen and helicopter crews refused to take on domestic farm animals and pets, prompting many people to abandon animals to their fates. This Rottweiler was apparently the exception, having been evacuated with its keepers.

Few residents in this part of Kuttunad, however, were willing to complain about the government. Many were unremitting in their praise of the state’s rescue and relief efforts. “What happened was a natural calamity,” said Nibin Baby. “There is no point in blaming anyone.”

However, few in Kuttunad were as thankful for the large-scale military airlifts and rescue efforts by the Indian Armed Forces, operating on the orders of the national Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Party, which the Communist Party of India (CPI) regards as political rivals. In some cases, local communist party workers saw the crisis as an opportunity to increase their party base. At Pullinkunnu, a 31-strong group of communist party members offered to clean flood-affected homes in exchange for a chance to talk to families about communism.

This partisan mentality, in part, was responsible, for sustaining humanitarian efforts. On August 28, 2018, nearly 50,000 communist party volunteers descended upon Kuttunad District to help with cleanup efforts. One such volunteer, Christopher Dev Jose, a 21-year-old student from Trivandrum, explained that he had been partly compelled to participate in relief efforts because of his political beliefs. “I loathe the right-wing [BJP] because it feels like they are trying to block foreign aid to Kerala and because of their anti-left propaganda. This was our chance to show that we can do good work.”

In contrast, another volunteer, 29-year-old Anooj Kumar from Kottyam, expressed a different motivation. “The main thing is that I am going to help people,” he said. “I was raised by the funds of the government and I obtained an engineering degree because of a government scholarship. In all, the government contributed Rs 1,200,000 ($16,500) — taken from taxpayer money — to my college education. This is my chance to give the people something back.”