In the first six months of 2018, Vikas Achaiah thought the rains in Kodagu – a district of lush coffee plantations in southern Karnataka bordering Kerala – had been just perfect. They were sticking to a coffee planter’s schedule and promised a good harvest.

Delight gave way to worry in June when Kodagu – also called Coorg – received what Achaiah called its heaviest rainfall in many years. “The coffee beans started dropping from the coffee plants,” said the coffee planter from Mukkodlu village.

Heavy rain continued to lash the district through July and August. But even then, residents were not too worried. “We were worried only that we may have lower coffee production this year,” Achaiah said.

They never anticipated that the rains would destroy their homes and estates. But that is what happened last Thursday when a landslide swept through Makkandur, a village with a rain-fed stream running through it. It left hundreds homeless. Then came a series of landslides, taking out several villages like dominoes. Achaiah said his village, Mukkodlu, was the second casualty. “Then it was another village called Kalur,” he added.

Around 25 homes have been lost to the landslide in Mukkodlu village. (Photo: Vikas Achaiah)

As Kerala battles its worst floods in close to a century, Karnataka across the border has reported 12 rain-related deaths. Kodagu, the worst affected region in Karnataka, reportedly accounts for eight deaths while over 4,000 people in the district have taken shelter in 41 relief camps.

‘You cannot recognise the land’

Some residents of Kodagu managed to leave their villages before the worst of the rains came. Pemmaiah Napanda of Mukkodlu left for Bengaluru with his wife and two children on August 18. On Monday, they were helping coordinate the collection of relief material at the Kodava Samaj there.

“In Mukkodlu, about 25 houses have been lost in the landslides,” Napanda said. “It had been raining like this since June, but the last three weeks were especially bad.”

He added that Mukkodlu and nearby villages have been without electricity and mobile connectivity for the past week.

Rakhal Cariappa, who works for Hewlett Packard in Bangalore, spent his weekend helping rescue people near Madikeri, a hilly town that serves as the district headquarters of Kodagu. He estimates there have been 30 to 40 big landslides in the district. These have swallowed whole estates, homes included, in some places, he said. In others, the homes still stand.

“But I don’t know how people are even going to get back to these houses,” he said. “Acres and acres of land have just caved in. You cannot recognise the land anymore. The rivers have changed course because the landslides have moved the flow of water by at least half a kilometer in some places.”

Volunteers collect relief material at the Kodava Samaj in Bengaluru. (Credit: Nayantara Narayanan)

Residents led evacuations

Cariappa and Achaiah say rescue efforts in Kodagu were led largely by residents.

Cariappa, who was in the North Kodagu town of Hattihole on Monday as a volunteer rescue worker, said, “People have walked 5 km to 8 km [to relief centres] depending on where their houses were.”

He added, “Most people in Hattihole town have been evacuated. I heard there might be three families who have refused to leave their homes. People trapped in a homestay were the last to be evacuated at 7.30 pm yesterday.”

Putting the number of those rescued in Hattihole at 300, Cariappa said most of the resident families were accounted for. But he was not sure if all the estate workers – the majority of them migrant labourers from North India and the North East – had made it out safely because nobody knew their exact numbers.

Cariappa said the evacuation was carried out by the employees of “two or three companies here who conduct river rafting in the area”. He added, “The Army was not in the area yesterday.”

Achaiah, who was helping out at a relief camp in Madikeri on Monday, agreed that most people had got themselves to safety. “If you ask me, the district administration lacked planning and implementation,” he said.

Moreover, rumours that Army helicopters were on their way only hampered rescue efforts, he pointed out. “Many older people who found it difficult to walk to safer ground did not want to leave their homes as they hoped the Army choppers or rescue boats would come,” Achaiah said.

He added that almost everyone in the affected villages had been rescued, though four persons in Makkandur were still unaccounted for as their “house itself had gone”.

The northern areas of Kodagu lie under piles of slushy mud. (Photo: Vikas Achaiah)

No shortage of relief material

With the rain now receding, the focus has shifted to relief efforts. At the relief camps, volunteers said there was no shortage of food or other provisions.

“In fact, in some of the camps, we have excess supply because we have had relief coming in from places like Bengaluru and Mysore,” Achaiah said at the relief centre in Madikeri. “Coorg is a small place, everyone knows everyone. So people have been staying in the homes of relatives and friends.”

He added, “It is the labourers from Assam and other places who really need the relief centres. Many people who were rescued have actually gone back home.”