Yemmethalu is a small village that had 26 homes until last week. Ten of these homes were washed away in one of the many landslides across the Pushpagiri hill range in Karnataka’s Kodagu district last week after incessant heavy rain between August 15 and 17.
Manjunath, an auto driver from Yemmathalu, described how most of the village’s residents got out just in time.
“We heard a loud sound and when we looked to the top of the hill, we saw muddy water gushing down towards us,” he said.
Everyone in the village quickly got out of their homes and walked to what then seemed to be safer ground to the left of the flow of mud. Three people from a cluster of villages were killed in that landslide.
All the remaining homes have been damaged and out of these, eight are still in the danger zone. Land has collapsed around these homes and there is no guarantee that they will stay standing.
“Under no circumstances can anyone can live here now,” said Dharmaraja, a 43-year-old auto driver who lives in the village. “If you have a home around which land has collapsed on all sides, what can you do?”
Dharmaraja, his wife and children have all moved to his sister’s home in Suntikoppa, one of the main towns of the district that is an hour’s drive away. He comes to Yemmethalu everyday to feed his three dogs. To get to his house, he has to trudge through a slushy mud road for the last couple of kilometres.
Estate workers among worst affected
Most of Yemmethalu’s residents work as labourers on coffee, pepper and paddy estates. They have now moved to the homes of their relatives in other parts of the district or to one of the many relief shelters that have been set up.
The large majority of people among hundreds taking shelter in the relief centres in Suntikoppa town are estate workers.
Vimala and all her neighbours from Haleri village have been staying in a small dark room in St Mary’s school in Suntikoppa, where clothes are drying on wires strung across the room. There is a light in the room, but electricity is gone for the longer part of the day.
“We came here with only the clothes we were wearing,” said Vimala. “We left everything else at home –all our belongings, all our documents.”
She was worried about where her family might have to live next. “We can’t live here forever.” she said. “If we get other estate jobs with places to stay, it will be good.”
Across the road from the school is a Ram temple where hundreds more are staying.
Neighbours in Haleri Pushpa, Manjula and Mahadevi and their families had to leave their homes at midnight and were rescued from flood waters. They also came to the temple without carrying any belongings.
These labourers, who are paid daily wages of about Rs 300 per day when there is work, do not have any savings. Many have taken loans that they have to repay.
“We have taken loans to build our homes,” said Pushpa. “Now the homes are totally damaged but we still have to repay the loans.”
Some of the displaced estate labourers are locals. Others are migrants, mostly from Assam. But there is one thing they all say – the future is uncertain.
Bina Sharma came to Kodagu from Assam nine months ago because she heard that labourers earned more here than in her home state. She used to make about Rs 1,600 a week working on a coffee estate in Haleri.
“All our earnings are used up in living expenses,” said Sharma. She is now among a group of 13 – seven estate workers and their children – who are considering going back to Assam.
But Machila Hebram does not want to go back. She came to Kodagu with her husband and two daughters aged six and 13. Hebram is hoping to find another estate job here. “I don’t want to go back to Assam,” she said. “There is no work there.”
Locals vs outsiders?
However, chunks of land and entire estates have disappeared in Kodagu, with their owners suffering major losses.
“Land has disappeared left and right,” exclaimed Dharmaraja. “When they start finding work for people, should they give it to people from here or to outsiders?”
He is certain that no one will be able to get proper work in the area for the next two or three months at least and is counting on the government to help out in the form of new land or new homes or compensation. “We need some kind of security, no?” he said.
District authorities have so far been busy with rescue operations and providing immediate relief. Over the last two days, the National Disaster Relief Force has been retrieving bodies from the sites of landslides. On Wednesday they recovered the bodies of a mother and son who died in Yemmethalu.
“The next task is the big one and that is finding land to rebuild houses,” said Inspector General KV Sharath Chandra. “We have no estimate of how much land has been affected. It will take weeks to survey the land and find out.”
This bodes a long wait for Dharmaraja and everyone else affected.
Dharmaraja also has to look after his 11-year-old son, who has a kidney ailment. “I don’t understand what will happen now or how we are supposed to rebuild our lives,” he said. “We have to wait and see.”