Every person visiting relief camps in the Adivasi block of Attappady in Kerala’s Palakkad is being monitored. Their names, phone numbers are recorded and their identity cards photographed by the police’s intelligence officers. “There used to be a strong presence of Maoists in this tribal belt,” Mohan Das, a police official monitoring one of the camps, explained the purpose of the exercise. “We have to ascertain the credentials of strangers coming to the camps lest the Maoists influence Adivasis. There is a standing order from the sub-collector that non-natives should register at the police station before entering Attappady.”

Many villages in Attappady such as Thavalam, Chemmanur and Kallamala were inundated when water was released from the Upper Bhavani dam on the night of August 14 and the Siruvani river, a tributary of the Bhavani, surged.

Attappady is a valley at the headwaters of the Bhavani river in the Nilgiri Hills, bordering Tamil Nadu to the east and the north. It comprises three panchayats – Agali, Pudur and Sholayur – and, according to the 2011 census, has a population of 64,318. Of them, 27,627 belong to Scheduled Tribes and 3,054 to Scheduled Castes.

Sreekumar, assistant at Agali panchayat, said 30 families were evacuated from 21 wards of the panchayat and housed in the relief camps set up at the Model Residential School in Mukkali, the Government Lower Primary School at Kookampalayam and a hostel in Kottiarkandi. More people were rescued from the hamlets of Thindakki, Pottikal and Kakkuppadi.

While the people housed in the camps at Mukkali and Kookkampalayam returned home by August 20, the Kottiarkandi camp continued to shelter people from Pottikal. “We have asked for land at a safer place in this area that is free from flooding,” said Udayakumar, a resident of Pottikal staying at the camp. “The huts in Adivasi hamlets are built from basic material with roofs covered by plastic sheets. The government is yet to consider our demand and provide us an alternative space to reside.”

An Adivasi woman walks towards the Kottiarkandi relief camp. Photo credit: S Senthalir

The village officers overseeing the camps at Mukkali and Kookkampalayam are now preparing to evacuate people from Kallamala village, which is over 10 km from Mukkali. A hill overlooking the village has fissured from heavy landfall and erosion, heightening the risk of landslides. “Scientists from the geology department have visited the site [to assess the danger],” said Jasim, a village officer in Agali. “We are planning to evacuate at least 200 people from the area.”

The villagers, however, are reluctant to move to the camps, the officers said. “It is difficult to gain the trust of Adivasis and convince them to take shelter in relief camps set up by the government,” explained Udayakumar. “It took me nearly three days to bring down 100 people from Pottikal to the camp in Kottiarkandi, which is 10-15 km away. At least 10 Adivasi families have fled into the interior forests.”

A road to Mukkali damaged by the floods. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Still isolated

At least 855 families in around 15 of the remotest settlements are still cut off. Harsh terrain and landslides are making it difficult to transport relief material to the area.

Attappady’s Adivasis belong mainly to Kurumba, Irular and Muduga tribes. “The worst affected are the settlements of the Kurumbas who live closer to the forest,” Ganesh C, a member of the Attappady Adivasi Action Council, said in Agali. “They are classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Even in normal days, people trek at least 20 km to reach them.”

Nearly all roads to these settlements have been damaged by landslides, said Maruthi, secretary of Thai Kula Sangham, a women’s collective working for the welfare of Adivasis. “Since no helicopters are being sent here to distribute relief material, we are organising volunteers to carry them,” she added. “We are trekking 20-30 km to get relief material to the people. From Mukkali to Galisi is nearly 45 km. Vehicles ply up to Anavai, 12 km from Mukkali. To reach the remotest forest area in Galisi, volunteers have to trek 33 km.”

Maruthi accused the government of ignoring Adivasis. “Ministers and officials visited the relief camp and they are aware that several Adivasi families in the remote forest areas are suffering,” she said. “They should try to reach those places at the earliest and help them.”

'Volunteers are trekking 20-30 km to get relief material to Adivasis in remote settlements,' says Maruthi. Photo credit: S Senthalir

K Krishnaprakash of the Integrated Tribal Development Project, however, said Adivasis store millets for the monsoon season and, therefore, will not face a shortage of food. “Only thing they will miss is the supply of tea and sugar,” he said.

Palakkad District Collector D Balamurali said there is no “panic situation” in Attappady. “This part has not been affected as much as the low-lying areas in Palakkad,” he said. “Only the main road connecting Mannarkad to Attappady was blocked due to landslides. The blocks are cleared now and light motor vehicles have been allowed to pass since Monday. The situation was never alarming here.”

Asked about the monitoring of visitors to the relief camps, he said it was to ensure the safety of the inmates.

A damaged bridge on the way to Mukkali. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Lacking resources

Still, because of a lack of adequate resources, the village officers are facing a challenge evacuating people from remote villages of Attappady and running the relief camps. A village officer said they did not even have a vehicle. “I had to hire a private vehicle to bring people from Adivasi hamlets,” the officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I had to pay from my pocket to get food. There are not enough funds. Non-governmental organisations reach with relief material only a few days after disaster has struck. We are helpless at crucial moments when sufficient resources would have helped us tackle it efficiently.”

Not just money, there is a shortage of manpower as well. The village officer said his panchayat is short-staffed. “The government has to fill the vacancies immediately,” he added. “When Adivasi hamlets got flooded, their evacuation would have been impossible without help from the local youth clubs.”

To make it easier to deal with crises in the future, the officer said, the state government must provide more funds, vehicles and manpower to the local panchayats.