On July 21, Sai Prasad Sawant watched from his house on the ground floor as it rained incessantly in Chiplun, a city in Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra’s Konkan region. Barely 15 km away, the heavy downpour had led to the reservoir of the Kolkewadi dam in the Sahyadri hills filling up past the danger mark. When its floodgates were opened that day, water came rushing into the city.

By the afternoon of June 22, the water had reached up to six feet at Sawant’s home, leaving the 34-year old with little time to pack his belongings and shift his 80-year old grandfather to the first floor of a neighbour’s two-storey home.

“Everything has been destroyed,” said Sawant, who is employed as a computer engineer in Thane, but has been working from his home in Chiplun since June. “My fridge and washing machine were floating,” he said. “A cupboard that takes four people to move was also floating.”

The floods have not only devastated Ratnagiri but also other districts such as Raigad, Thane, Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur. At least 149 people have died in the floods and landslides. Over one lakh residents have been evacuated so far while hundreds remain missing. The National Disaster Response Force has deployed 34 teams to rescue those who are still stranded.

One of the worst affected areas was Taliye village in Mahad block of Raigad district, where 70 people went missing after a landslide on Friday, said Pavan Gaur, deputy commandant of the fifth battalion for the National Disaster Response Force in Pune. So far, 42 bodies have been recovered in the village, he said.

Another 17 people went missing after a landslide struck Birmani village in Khed block of Ratnagiri district. Eleven bodies have been found so far. “The landslide was so massive that five to ten feet of mud has fallen over and it is very tough to recover bodies,” said Gaur said.

Houses have been submerged because of waterlogging in villages across districts, and basic facilities like electricity, mobile connectivity remain affected after the floods, he added.

Sawant sent an image of his muddy utensils drying outdoors in the aftermath of the flood.

Rescue operations and Covid-19

As rescue operations are still underway, pictures show NDRF workers in tightly bound face shields and masks evacuating village residents from flooded areas in boats and other vehicles. Several Covid-19 patients had been shifted out of hospitals to other makeshift facilities, said Gaur, adding that the force had to adapt to different ways of functioning after the pandemic.

“It is too tough,” said Gaur. “But we are used to it because we have been following these precautions for the last year.”

In other parts of the state, volunteers engaging in relief efforts were trying to accommodate as many families, displaced because of the floods, in shelters while also maintaining physical distancing norms.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Maharashtra has dealt with a high number of Covid-19 infections. It currently has over 93,000 active cases. Among its districts, Kolhapur has seen one of the highest number of infections with over 11,000 active cases as of July 24 and a slight uptick over the last week.

As the water levels of the district’s Panchganga river rose, more than 5,000 people who live alongside it had been evacuated and shifted to empty wedding halls and 13 community boarding facilities on July 23, said Aadam Sheikh, a resident of the city volunteering with a non-profit called Help Kolhapur, which was started after the district was flooded in 2019.

“A lot of students have gone back home and there are barely any weddings so we have been able to easily accommodate these families,” said Sheikh.

Some families in Kolhapur took shelter in schools, a makeshift facility at the market yards and under the shed of the city’s central bus stand, said Amita Shah, a volunteer with Help Kolhapur.

For other families, though, maintaining physical distancing and other Covid-19 protocols was not an option. In Chiplun, Sawant remained drenched in the same pair of clothes for nearly four days until the water in his house receded. He spent four nights on the first floor of his neighbour’s empty house with his grandfather. There was no water supply or electricity. The neighbours had an inverter but they switched it on only momentary to charge their phones fearing a short circuit. They had even run out of drinking water on Saturday, he said.

“We got two bottles of drinking water after a relief van passed through but we had to make do with that for the whole day,” he said, adding that others who lived in the vicinity arranged for a few meals for them.

The flood had left behind heaps of mud on his furniture, utensils and other home appliances. His drenched mattresses had to be dragged out of the house to be dried. “If anyone tells us to wear a mask or maintain distance then we will tell them to come clean our house first,” said Sawant. “I am so tired and I do not have any help.”

Mud and dirty left behind in Sawant’s kitchen after the water receded.

Ongoing relief efforts

In other parts of the state, volunteers with non-profit organisations were trying to coordinate with village residents to transport food grains and other necessities like clothes, soap and sanitary napkins.

“People are literally struggling to be alive,” said Kunal Mandlik, a member of Junior Chamber International, an American non-profit organisation, in Dapoli, a city in Ratnagiri district.

The organisation is running a donation drive to collect bed sheets and blankets, and has been able to provide relief materials and groceries to at least 80 families in Chiplun and Khed in Ratnagiri. But for three days, Mandlik has been unable to send relief materials and groceries to Taliye village in Raigad district which witnessed a landslide.

“The water [in Taliye] has gone but the mud in people’s homes and shops will take at least ten day to remove,” said Mandlik, who is a professor of hospitality and tourism management at Mumbai University. “People do not have money to buy food and even the shops have been damaged,” he said.

Transporting relief material was proving to be tough without electricity and mobile connectivity in the affected areas. Currently, Mandlik was able to coordinate with a few volunteers only after they returned to Ratnagiri city from Khed and Chiplun, and there was a shortage of volunteers.

“All the ghats are shut because of landslides so people cannot come to volunteer from Pune, Mumbai or Sangli,” he said.

Others were travelling to the areas with doctors to assess the physical and mental health of those affected by the floods.

“The government will do their job and click photos but the people need emotional and moral support,” said Dr Milind Bhoi of Bhoi foundation, a non-profit based in Pune. On Sunday, Bhoi was on the way to Koynanagar village in Satara with a team of two psychiatrists and relief material. “That place is in chaos because the phones aren’t working,” he said.

Most of the flood and landslide affected areas also include agricultural fields. Some volunteers have been trying to rescue and transport livestock to safer lands.

Sanyogita Mane of Kare Society, an NGO in Kolhapur, has rescued around 25 stray dogs and five cows that were stranded in various parts of the city. Mane has arranged for trucks and boats to transport rescued livestock 50 km from Chikhali village in Kolhapur, to Khidrapur within the district. “Right now Chikhali is full of farmers who need help to transport their cattle,” she said.