The scenes could well be from a war-torn area, replete with evacuations on a war-footing. As wars go, it may never catch the attention of the international community as a recent Syria or a distant Bosnia. But the damage is just as mind-numbing. The ongoing catastrophe that first hit Kerala on August 8 and has been tearing the state apart since August 15 has resulted in close to eight lakh ‘refugees’ being forced out of their homes into nearly 3,500 relief camps.
Such has been the scale of the tragedy that over 360 have lost their lives, more than 200 of those, in the last five days. With the flood situation easing up over the last two days, almost two lakh people holed up in their houses were evacuated in a mammoth rescue operation spearheaded by the people, supported by the armed forces. Tens of thousands are still stranded, many of them reluctant to leave their flooded houses and join the thronging lakhs in the shelter camps.
Places Pandanad in Chengannur finally being accessed, coming to light are shocking cases of survivors holding on to their dead relatives for days. Elsewhere, morbid cases of corpses floating down swirling waters are getting common. The true scale of the catastrophe would be known only when the last body is flushed out, the last tract of submerged land once again open to the sky.
Receding waters are proving equally treacherous as lesser known rivers - Achenkovilaar, Chalakkudipuzha and Muvattupuzha, tributaries of mainline rivers such as Periyar, Bharatapuzha and Pampa - have kicked into life and started charting new, random routes. As a consequence, residents in places like Ranni, Kozhenchery, Pandalam, Thalayolaparambu, Parakkadavu and Chalakkudy have had to scamper for cover.
In contrast, the residents of Aluva, Eloor and Paravur were better prepared as they knew it was coming. It will be a miracle if the final toll is limited to a few hundreds and the aggregate damage less than `25,000 crore. One refrain that’s now heard with disquieting regularity is Kerala may have paid a steep price for generating a few megawatts more of electricity. Desperate lamentations for help do not rend the air but eerily float through the ether as most of these primeval shouts for survival come across through WhatsApp messages, Tweets and FB posts.
What was just a month ago only a localised cry of despair from Kuttanad has now mushroomed and echoes across the state. Cries for food and dry clothes till they get air-lifted from the newly turned waterworlds get feeble as their cellphone batteries die out. Most of them get rescued. The list includes women, children and a huge number of geriatrics, reflecting the state’s peculiar demographic profile. And the desperate pleas for help come from their children, settled in the US and the Middle-East. Thankfully, the accursed occurrence of relief camps, even hospitals getting flooded has been rare. Not as rare as the sight of boats steered by fishermen from Neendakara, Alappad, Valiathura, Vypeen and Kannur plying the roads of mid-Travancore.
Though hampered by a lack of coordination, truth be told, a lion share of rescue operations has been undertaken by them. Damned by angry waters running riot from some 35 dams, triggering flashfloods and mudslides, a distressed Kerala is shivering in dismay. It has also been a forced recall regarding the 44 rivers flowing through the state. The entire state has got a rude awakening as these rivers suddenly came to life, Armageddon-like. Perhaps, some in the government, while taking the belated decision to down all the dam shutters which opened the floodgates on the state, may have been reminded of the adage shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.
Hit the main roads and you are unsettled by the sight of hundreds of uprooted residents, mostly women, children in accompaniment, dejectedly plodding on to the next relief camp. In short, an exodus reminiscent of scenes depicted in the movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings. Now, for a little rewind - Irrespective of which front came to power, UDF or LDF, Kerala has continued its recalcitrance over yielding ground to over 14,000 hectares as Ecologically Fragile Land.
Be it Idukki, Wayanad or Palakkad, nobody has shown willingness to surrender even a square meter of the EFL areas and the list includes MPs and MLAs not to mention the seriously influential. Result: Large tracts of what should have been forest land have got denuded of green cover, quarries mined, natural waterways leveled, diverted, forgotten, whatever. That is, till the rumbling noise of vengeful waters rose in revolt from their artificially confined boundaries and broke loose.
And did all hell break loose! From viewing it as a source of recreation when water was first released from the Banasura Sagar dam in Wayanad when scores of onlookers went picking up stunned fish to running helter-skelter with genuine fear for life, it took less than a fortnight to completely overhaul the average Keralite’s outlook on water as a natural resource. For a state that puts faith in the legend regarding its origin at the hands of warrior-sage Parasuram, there could be nothing more depressing than a revisit of this watery path.
Reclamation may have unified the seven isles of Bombay, Colaba, Old Woman’s Island, Mahim, Mazagaon, Parel, and Worli into what is today the core of the mega city called Mumbai. But that was quite a while ago, when the population was negligible. It would be a catastrophe if Kerala is forced to do anything similar by way of repairing the wounds inflicted by the unbridled power of water. It’s a massive plus for the government and a major credit to the people there has been a rare single-mindedness in tackling this calamity, spanning political, religious and ethnic divides, at least for the time being.
Having lived through the Gujarat earthquake in 2001 and the Mumbai floods in 2005, the monster floods tearing down Kerala should not have caught me by surprise. But then each natural calamity leaves its own signature. And it keeps surprising you. Meanwhile, if there is one prayer that is oft heard these days, it is, “God, let it rain no more.” Noah’s ark is nowhere in sight.
Resident Editor, Kerala