On August 9, a huge landslide wreaked havoc in Kurichiarmala, or Kurichiar Hill, in north Kerala’s Wayanad district. It destroyed hundreds of acres of forest land and tea plantations, obliterated five houses, killed many cattle and threatened the lives of hundreds of tea plantation workers living nearby. The debris and boulders it brought down almost destroyed the lone government lower primary school in Kurichiarmala village in Pozhuthana gram panchayat. This put a question mark over the likelihood that the 92 students in the school – which has been closed since the beginning of August because of the rain – would resume classes anytime soon.

Kurichiarmala is one of the highest points in Wayanad district, and also one of its more remote areas.

At 10 am on August 9, as many as 150 families living on the hill were shaken when a large section of the hill began to slide. They had a fortuitous escape as the flow of debris got diverted away from them because of the topography of the hill.

The district administration had ordered schools in the area to shut in the first week of August because of heavy rain that had led to floods and landslides all across the state. From June 1 to August 29, Wayanad had received 2,944 mm of rain, an excess of 24% from the normal rainfall in the district for that period.

After the rains subsided, the government announced that schools would open on August 29. But that was easier said than done in Kurichiarmala.

The landslide that devastated the side of a hill in Kurichiarmala.

The school building was all but destroyed. Large amounts of debris – mud, rocks and trees – were piled in front of it. District officials suspect that the force of the debris hurtling down the slope may have damaged the building’s foundation. Though the exact nature of the damage to the structure will be ascertained only later, the district administration has decided to abandon the building and asked the education department and gram panchayat officials to identify a suitable location for a new building.

But what would the students do in the meantime?

That was a question that troubled headmaster PK Sasi. He approached the district administration on August 25 to identify an alternative building to be used as a temporary school, but did not get any assurances from them.

The local mosque committee then stepped in, saying that a temporary school could be set up in its madrasa building, which is just a kilometre away from the damaged school.

This offer and the labour of a group of 40 volunteers ensured that the children in the area were able to start attending school from August 29 without any further delay.

(Photo credit: Human Beings Collective.)

‘Team effort’

On Thursday, Sasi told Scroll.in that he was grateful to the mosque committee for allowing the school to function from the Hayathul Islam Madrassa. “We are indebted to the youngsters and the mosque committee for giving us a new facility,” he said.

He explained that he had bumped into the volunteers when he went to meet the district collector. The volunteers belong to different parts of Kerala and are affiliated to three organisations – Green Palliative, Human Being Collective and Malabar Flood Relief Volunteers. They include artists, teachers and students. “When I told them the difficult situation we were in they offered to help us,” said Sasi.

The madrasa building comprises a ground floor, where the Islamic school operates from, and a first floor that was not in use. The first floor had a concrete roof but no walls. The villagers, with their limited resources, and the volunteers, who effectively used social media to source the items required to start the school, helped upgrade this space.

(Photo credit: Human Beings Collective).

The volunteers reached the village on August 26. “They asked us to provide a list of essential things for the school,” said Sasi.

“Contributions poured in after we requested people to support our effort to set up the school,” said Anees Nadodi, the leader of the group who works as an art director in the film industry. “We got all the materials for setting up the school, from the bricks for the walls, tables and chairs for students, books for students and shelves for teachers in just one day.”

With the help of villagers, the volunteers worked to make the space suitable to be used as a primary school. It took them 72 hours, working worked round the clock. They constructed and plastered walls, installed white boards, rolled out mats in classrooms, painted cheerful murals and populated the corridor with plants.

The volunteers say that they could not have done this without the support of the people of Kurichiarmala. “They took the initiative and did the planning and execution,” said Nadodi. “We just supported them. They put us up in their houses and gave us sumptuous meals three times a day. It was a complete team effort.”

Nadodi spoke of the volunteers’ motivation. “We decided to set up the school to help children overcome the trauma of the landslide,” he said. “Otherwise the children would have to spend their time in relief camps, and they will be haunted by the horrific scenes.”

(Photo credit: Human Beings Collective.)
(Photo credit: Human Beings Collective.)

The district collector threw open the new school building at a colourful function on August 29, at which the volunteers also sang and danced.

The school will be shut on Fridays so that Muslims in the area get enough space for their Friday prayers. To make up for this, it will remain open on Saturdays. “The arrangement will continue till the end of the academic year,” said Muhammed Aslam, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association and vice-president of the mosque committee.