Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced on Sunday that Kerala’s schools and colleges will reopen on August 29 and flood relief camps housed in them will be shifted elsewhere. The announcement has sparked concerns that people may be forcibly moved out of the camps and sent home.

“We will resist any move to send people home forcibly,” said the Congress legislator VD Satheeshan, whose North Paravur constituency in Ernakulam district was one of the worst affected by this month’s floods. Pointing out that many houses are still unfit to live and food and clean drinking water are scarce, he said the government “will be putting their lives at risk if it forces people to go back”.

The government, on its part, has sought to quell such fears, assuring the people who are still in relief camps that nobody would be sent home forcibly. “Relief camps are being moved out of school buildings now,” the agriculture minister VS Sunil Kumar said on Monday. “It doesn’t mean that the camps will be closed.”

Kerala had established around 3,500 relief camps to shelter 10.50 lakh people forced from their homes by the worst floods in a century. Over seven lakh of them returned home in just a week after the floodwaters receded on August 20 but, according to the government, around 3.42 lakh people remain in 1,093 camps. With the cleaning of homes progressing apace, more people are expected to leave the camps in coming days.

Most of the 3,500 camps were housed in schools and colleges, but some functioned out of hospitals, community halls and places of worship as well. The floods killed at least 322 people in August alone.

‘Not ready to take chances’

At many flood-ravaged villages, people said it is too early to even talk about closing the camps. “The villagers were lucky to escape but the floods destroyed their homes, agriculture and cattle,” TD Mohanan, a member of the Pandanad gram panchayat in Alappuzha, said over the phone. “All the houses were damaged. People cannot move into unsafe houses. All the houses need to be reconstructed. Mere patch work won’t help us. The camps should continue for three more months till people get safe places to live.”

The floods displaced over 25,000 people from Panadanad and Thiruvanvandoor in Chengannur taluk and destroyed their paddy and sugarcane crops.

KK Ajith, a member of the Thiruvanvandoor gram panchayat, said the government will be doing a great injustice to the people who survived the floods if it shuts down the camps now. “People are yet to recover from the trauma,” he explained. “Closing relief camps will put them in deep trouble. The government should hold them at this hour of crisis,” he said.

VK Ratheesh Kumar has removed slush from his home in Pandanad, but he will not stay there with his family of six. “There are cracks in the main pillar,” he explained. “It may cave in any time. I am not ready to take chances.”

Kumar’s family started cleaning their home last Wednesday, hoping to move out of the relief camp four kilometres away where they had been staying for week. “It was hard removing truckloads of mud from my house,” he said. “But all our efforts went in vain when we saw the crack.”

Satheeshan said the floods have damaged over 60,000 houses, partially or fully, in his North Paravur constituency. “People lost everything but the government has not provided financial aid yet,” he added. “How can we send them home under such circumstances?”

Cleaning up Kuttanad

In Kuttanad, where around 1.25 lakh were evacuated to relief camps on August 17, government officials, supported by over 50,000 volunteers and residents, started a massive drive to clean up homes on Tuesday.

Though Kuttanad is spread out over the foothills of the Western Ghats to the east and the relatively elevated plains of coastal Alappuzha to the west, the region actually lies below sea level. So, it was quickly flooded when the Pampa, Achenkoil, Manimala and Meenachil river surged.

Finance Minister Thomas Issac said the plan is to clean Kuttanad in three days. “We have asked people with expertise, electricians, plumbers and carpenters, to join the massive voluntary effort,” he said.

But even after the clean-up, many people whose homes are damaged are likely to remain in relief camps. “Cracks have developed in many parts of my house,” said KN Bijumon, a labourer staying in a relief camp in Changanassery in Kottayam. “I am scared to go there. Mere cleaning and some patchwork will not help. I will stay in relief camps till I am convinced of my safety.”