Kerala is still recovering from the worst floods in a century, which left 322 people dead, with 3.42 lakh people still in relief camps, according to state government figures released on Tuesday. The crisis has galvanised both the government and citizens’ groups into action, with many inspiring accounts of rescue and relief efforts.
There were, however, several failures. Citizens in several districts complained they were not given warnings for floods and landslides, and district officials admitted that the disaster management exercise was haphazard because of the lack of a decentralised system and adequate information.
Under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, all states are meant to have district-wise disaster management plans. These plans are supposed to provide a detailed roadmap for the organisation and management of resources for dealing with such emergencies. They lay down the responsibilities of authorities at the village level, block level and district level. But though Kerala has disaster management bodies at the state and district levels in the form of the State Disaster Management Authority and the District Disaster Management Authority, the lack of such a body at the block or panchayat level left local governance bodies in Kerala dependent on the district administration. Thus, when disaster struck, panchayat leaders were frantically calling up the District Collectors to send help to rescue people, move them to safety, and clear debris.
In Idukki district, though the district authorities were anticipating floods – they had been closely monitoring the water levels in the Idukki dam since July 26 – they were caught by surprise by the massive landslides across the district because of the heavy rainfall.
Here, the absence of a decentralised disaster management system, meant that the burden of managing the crisis fell on District Collector Jeevan Babu K.
“At 7.30 pm on August 8, when I was in Thodupuzha I received information that landslides were reported in several places in Devikulam region [10 km from Munnar],” said Babu. “I called the concerned officials and they said they were removing the debris. By 3.30 am, I suddenly received a call saying that eight people were buried in earth in a major landslide in Adimali [30 km from Munnar] and that they did not have enough light to reach the place.”
Babu said that he called the tehsildar, an official of the revenue department, in Devikulam and asked him to reach the affected areas. “I called several people including the Superintendent of Police in Munnar,” he said. “When the number of distress calls increased, I alerted the additional district magistrate and explained the problem. We immediately moved the fire force personnel to the affected areas.”
Five people were killed in the early morning landslides in Adimali panchayat on August 9. Its residents said that they had received no warning of floods or landslides from government authorities. “We heard a loud noise,” said Tijo Sam Jacob, 28, a resident of Adimali. “We thought it must be a bomb blast and rushed out to find water rushing towards our home. The landslide had already destroyed the homes close by.”
Jacob rushed to rescue his neighbours but managed to save only two persons. “There was no power and it was completely dark,” he said. “We did not receive any warning about floods or landslides. When it happened, we walked to the police station, wading through flood water and sought help. Later, the fire department reached our place in 20 minutes to rescue those who were caught in the floods.”
By 4.30 am on August 9, a number of landslides had occurred in different parts of Idukki, and panchayat presidents started calling Babu frantically seeking help. “I called the village officers to rush to the places,” he said. “The panchayat presidents wanted help in bringing police and Army forces to the affected areas.”
However, the forces were unable to reach people as it was dark and because access to several areas was also cut off.
Babu said the lack of information about flooded and blocked roads led to chaos, delaying potential rescue teams from reaching their targets. “There was no information on where the roads were cut off, which ones were accessible and where the landslides had occurred,” he said.
When asked if there were control rooms to attend to SOS calls, he said that even if there were control rooms, there was no information on what was happening because of the heavy downpour. “[This is because] the entire force including village officers, officials from the revenue department were in the field evacuating people,” he said.
While the officials from the local administration, police and Army personnel scrambled to rescue those affected by the landslides, at 10.30 that morning, the local administration was informed that the gates of the Idukki dam were being opened at 11 am to release excess water.
District Collector Babu told the authorities that 30 minutes notice was not enough for him to evacuate people from low-lying areas that the dam waters would submerge, and sought time till noon to inform people and evacuate them. The gates of the dam were finally opened at 12.30 pm.
But even then Babu did not have enough personnel free to warn people about the impending inundation. “A week before that, the water in the [Idukki] reservoir was increasing at 0.01 feet to 0.1 feet [per day], but by August 9 it was increasing by 3 feet per day,” he said. “We did not anticipate this. The entire police force was tackling the landslides and we had to depend on whoever was available to alert the people about opening the dam.”
By August 14, the district administration was informed that the gates of the Mullaperiyar dam, located upstream of the Idukki dam and also in Idukki district, would also be opened. Over the next three days, floods and more landslides hit the region, cutting off connectivity in major parts of Idukki.
Many people in flood-affected areas in Chalakkudy in Thrissur district, Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district, Chengannur in Alappuzha district and North Paravur in Ernakulam district also complained that they did not receive any warning about the impending floods.
TK Babu, who lives in West Chalakkudy in Thrissur district, said no one asked him to move to a relief camp when flood waters began to rise on August 15. “I would have moved to the relief camp on the same day if I got the alert,” he said.
He and his family were eventually rescued by fishermen from Nattika on August 17. “We [Babu, his wife, mother and daughter] were stranded for two days without food and water,” he said. “All of us struggled to get into the rescue boat. We wouldn’t have passed through difficult times had we got prior flood alert.”
TS Vishnu, an auto-rickshaw driver in North Paravur taluka of the neighbouring Ernakulam district, also complained that no government official had issued a flood alert for the area.
“We heard reports that dams would be opened and many places in Ernakulam district would go under water,” he said. “Since our village is a low-lying area, we thought that water will reach our place too. But we never expected flooding of this proportion. No one told us where to go during the deluge. We were lucky to have an eight-storey building [the Sree Narayana Institute of Medical Sciences] in our village [to take shelter in].”
It was the same complaint in Alappuzha district’s worst-hit gram panchayat, Pandanad, which comes under Chengannur taluk. Several flood victims here complained that they received no flood warning, and blamed gram panchayat officials for the lack of information. “That is why 1,600 people were stranded here,” said Ratheesh Kumar, a social worker.
Kumar said when the water levels started to rise, he and his friends cut up banana tree trunks and used them as make-shift rafts to rescue people. “We rescued a few elderly people but halted our mission when the water level rose further,” he said. “Fishermen from Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam rescued the remaining people.”