One of the largest flood relief camps in Kerala’s Palakkad district, on the border with Tamil Nadu, is a building called Apna Ghar. The four-storeyed building, which means “our home”, is a hostel that Kerala government has built for migrant labourers.

Today, all of its 64 rooms are packed – with at least three families to each room. The 591-odd inmates are anxious and restless. The majority of them are daily wage labourers and their families, and it has been several days since they left their flooded homes.

Kerala is in the grip of its worst flood in a century, with 357 people dead since May 29. Since Saturday, the rain has eased up and the flood waters have started receding, bringing some relief to residents. But other worries have taken over.

For daily wage workers, the question of survival and livelihood hangs heavy on them. Many have started to venture out in search of work.

Mujeena, 22 and six months pregnant, moved to Apna Ghar with her three-year-old daughter and elderly mother Rehmat. She says her husband left for Chennai in Tamil Nadu in search of work four days ago. “We need money,” she said. “Though he reached Chennai four days ago, he is still struggling to get work.”

She added, “We have lost all our belongings and our house is completely damaged. My mother is 70 years old and he [Mujeena’s husband] is the only earning member in our family. We cannot live in the relief camp for long.”

Apna Ghar, a hostel for migrant labourers in Palakkad district.

Search for work

In Palakkad town, neighbourhoods such as Sundaram Colony, Kumarasamy Colony, Jainimedu, Sanguvarathodu and Jabbar Colony, Kalpathy, Akathethara and Ramanathapuram have been hit particularly hard, said G Ramesh, the tehsildar and nodal officer for Apna Ghar. They were inundated by the flooding of the Kalapathy river and the water released from the Malampuzha dam.

In Kalpathy, most of the men made a living as scrap collectors while the women worked as construction workers and farm labourers. Eighteen-year-old Ajeesh, a resident, plans to start looking for work from Monday along with his twin brother Aneesh.

“We have been given food and shelter but at some point, we have to leave this place,” Ajeesh said. “We were earning Rs 300 a day [from selling scrap] but we do not have anything now. We are ready to do any kind of work.”

But the search for work is not going too well. Several men at the camp said they had been going out and looking for odd jobs in nearby places every morning with little success.

Eighteen-year-old twins Ajeesh and Aneesh are ready to get back to work.

Rebuilding their homes

The women have a different worry – rebuilding their homes. “My house is completely damaged and I cannot go back to live there,” said 40-year-old Amasu from Sundaram Colony. “My father is a cobbler and I do odd jobs. We earn when we get work, otherwise we go hungry. We are most worried about finding a place to live after we leave this relief camp.”

Many of the camp’s inmates have been taking the permission of state officials and visiting their damaged homes to salvage what they can. In many villages, men, women and children can be seen taking out furniture and utensils and washing them clean.

In Kalapathy, the relief camp inmates return to their damaged homes during the day to clean and salvage what they can.

A volunteer group called the Ideal Relief Wing is helping the residents rebuild their homes. Shihabbuden, a member, recalled that migrant labourers from neighbouring states had started settling down along the banks of the Kalapathy decades ago and their numbers had multiplied over the years.

Meanwhile, several companies and non-governmental organisations are providing food, clothes and other provisions to Apna Ghar – one of 107 relief camps housing 9,822 inmates in Palakkad. In fact, given the number of shelters it has set up and its proximity to Coimbatore district in Tamil Nadu, Palakkad has become a nerve centre for the transport and distribution of relief material to all of Kerala.

Volunteers are helping residents rebuild their homes in Kalapathy.

All photographs courtesy S Senthalir.