On Thursday afternoon, a meeting was in progress at the Civil Station Office in Idukki district in Kerala. Convened by the district administration, it was attended by the state’s Minister for Electricity MM Mani, Idukki MP Joice George, Idukki MLA Roshy Augustine, district collector Jeevan Babu K and representatives from 52 gram panchayats. Those gathered discussed the challenging task of rebuilding one of the worst affected districts in the flood-devastated state.

As of Friday, 52 people had been reported dead in Idukki while seven bodies were yet to be recovered. District officials have also identified 161 properties buried by landslides, 400 homes that are in danger of collapsing and another 1,600 that are partially damaged.

Across Kerala, the toll stands at 223 since August 8 – when heavy rain led to the worst flooding the state has seen in a century – and at around 370 since the onset of the monsoon on May 29.

“Landslides have destroyed major roads and buildings [in Idukki],” George said. “The priority of the government is to restore connectivity here. Present manpower is insufficient to deal with the massive damage caused due to this calamity.”

In Idukki, landslides caused by rain and floods have buried 161 structures, including homes.
In Idukki, landslides caused by rain and floods have buried 161 structures, including homes.

Idukki – with the districts of Ernakulam to its northwest, Kottayam to its west and Pathanamthitta to its south, and Tamil Nadu on its northeastern side – was flooded when the shutters of the Idukki and Mullaperiyar dams were opened. The Mullaperiyar dam lies entirely in Kerala but is operated by the Tamil Nadu government. The floods and the rain triggered several large landslides that blocked roads. Road connectivity is yet to be restored in several places.

In the tea-growing tourist town of Munnar, for instance, several roads are yet to be cleared of mud and rocks while the Government College has been completely destroyed by a landslide. The extensive damage in this hilly region has been blamed on the mushrooming of commercial buildings, illegal construction and rampant granite quarrying. According to a 2017 study mapping the distribution of granite quarries in Kerala, Idukki has 42 quarries lying within just 1 km of protected forests while 201 are located in close proximity to reserved forest areas.

Piles of rubble after a landslide at the Government College in Munnar.
Piles of rubble after a landslide at the Government College in Munnar.

The case of Edamalakudy

Edamalakudy, a remote panchayat area 22 km from the Civil Station Office, perhaps best exemplifies the difficulties Idukki residents faced during the floods. A 40-year-old resident was stranded here for seven days. She was sick but had no access to medicines or doctors. Once the waters receded, her neighbours carried her on a bamboo stretcher to a hospital in Marayur town. From there, she was shifted to a hospital in Coimbatore where she died on Wednesday.

“She was sick and we did not know the reason for her illness,” said a resident of Edamalakudy who was coordinating relief work in Munnar. “There is no hospital in our place to diagnose [her illness] and give her medicine. There are no roads or transportation to take her to a hospital, which is 24 km away. We had to wait till the water receded. There was water everywhere. We were unable to move from one tribal settlement to the other and provide any help to the sick.”

Spread across 35,000 acres, Edamalakudy is home to the forest-dwelling Muthuvan community and is an area known for its remoteness and inaccessibility. Those travelling to Edamalakkudy reportedly have to trek 18 km from the nearest village connected by road to Munnar. The panchayat has 26 settlements.

“There are at least seven to eight houses [in Edamalakudy],” the relief worker in Munnar, who did not want to be identified, said. “There are 750 families in the 26 settlements. There is a distance of 3 km between each settlement.”

At the time of filing this report, Edamalakudy remained cut off from the rest of the district – though eight medical officers from the Army had managed to get there and panchayat officials and volunteers had carried headloads of relief material to the 26 settlements.

Landslides on the way to St Anthony Colony, where tea plantation workers and daily-wage labourers have been hit particularly hard.
Landslides on the way to St Anthony Colony, where tea plantation workers and daily-wage labourers have been hit particularly hard.

Housing problems

Apart from restoring road connectivity, providing housing to the thousands of impoverished people in Idukki whose homes have been completely destroyed or are in need of repairs has become a challenge.

In Munnar, tea plantation workers and daily-wage labourers are among those struggling to find shelter. “Our houses are either partially or fully damaged,” said 50-year old Jaquline Mary, a resident of St Anthony Colony. “Five houses were completely buried during the landslide. We moved to the relief camp set up in Little Flower High School.”

The colony is home to many Christian Scheduled Caste families whose ancestors worked in the tea plantations. Many of their descendants still work in the tea estates.

“The companies provided huts to the workers several decades ago,” Mary said, recalling that her own forefathers had settled here after leaving Tamil Nadu to escape famine. “We continue to live in the place given to our forefathers. After the landslide, we are scared to go back to that place. The government should allot us land in a safe place to live. We cannot live in fear all our lives.”

The majority of residents in this colony are labourers dependent on tourism. In 2017, tourist arrivals in Munnar touched 6.3 lakh, according to state government data released earlier this year. But with the resorts all shut in the wake of the floods and no commerical activity, they are worried about their livelihoods. “Only if we have money can we repair our homes,” said Mary Varghese, a daily-wage worker in the resorts. “I do not know how long it will take for the resorts to give us work.”

A house stands precariously close to a landslide on the way to Munnar.
A house stands precariously close to a landslide on the way to Munnar.

Counting the losses

When the problem of housing was raised by panchayat leaders at Thursday’s meeting, the electricity minister, MM Mani, said the government would put the people up in vacant government buildings for now. “The panchayats have been asked to provide accommodation on rent for people who have lost their homes,” he added. “For every person who has lost both land and houses, the government will provide compensation of Rs 10 lakh. Those who have lost houses will get Rs 4 lakh.”

Assessing the damage to agricultural land presents a huge challenge to the Idukki district administration. But Idukki MP Joice George says residents have sustained other losses apart from land and homes. “The district is facing a huge loss of animal wealth too,” he said. “A huge population of domestic animals have been killed.”

The meeting ended with the collector directing district administration officials to start preparing estimates of the losses incurred and what they need to start the rebuilding process. “In Idukki, disaster struck one after another,” Jeevan Babu K pointed out. “First, there were landslides on August 8 and August 9. By the time we reached out to the people, we were informed about the opening of the Idukki dam on August 9. Following that, the Mullaperiyar dam was opened on August 14, leading to floods. Again, landslides hit the district on August 15, August 16 and August 17. Now, we face the challenge of rehabilitating the affected.”

All photographs by S Senthalir.