Benny Varghese, 49, and his wife Alice, 43, have been living in an asbestos-roofed, dimly lit, poorly ventilated room in an old building in Kerala’s Idukki district since they escaped a landslide brought on by last August’s massive floods. The disaster wrecked their quarter-hectare farm.
“We were lucky to survive boulders that fell down the mountain but they destroyed everything on our land, including our little home built nine years ago with Rs 9 lakh borrowed from a bank,” said Alice. “We saw four of my neighbours being crushed to death. We have been living here since. We don’t know when will we get a new home. We have not received a penny from the government. We feel betrayed and we will register our protest in this election.”
Alice is angry with the Pinarayi Vijayan government for failing to rehabilitate her family even nine months after the worst floods in a century and landslides wreaked havoc in Kerala, killing 483 people and affecting 55 lakh people across 981 villages.
Her resentment is shared by many flood survivors, who complain about delays in the disbursement of financial assistance to rebuild and repair homes as well as to compensate farmers who lost crops, livestock and, as in the case of Benny Varghese, even their land.
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Considering the enormity of the disaster, it is not surprising that rehabilitation is a major campaign issue this election. This is especially so in the parliamentary constituencies of Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha and Mavelikkara, which were hit the hardest. Kerala has 20 Lok Sabha seats and votes in the third phase of the general election on April 23.
Many of the survivors blame the Vijayan government’s “callous attitude” for their plight. In some places, they fault local governments bodies as well.
Mulling election boycott
At Kainakary in Alappuzha’s Kuttanad region, women farm labourers are mulling boycotting the polls to protest against the government’s failure to help them after the floods.
“I have lost faith in all the political parties so I have decided not to cast my vote this time,” said Rajimol, 42, collecting rice in jute bags on a paddy field. “My house is in a precarious condition. It will collapse if it is not repaired urgently. It may cost more than Rs 2 lakh. My husband and I are not in a position to raise the money with our daily wage jobs.”
Rajimol’s family spent 18 days in an Alappuzha relief camp after their home was flooded. They returned to a home filled with silt. They received emergency assistance of Rs 10,000 in October, which they spent to buy essential household items. “We thought the government would give us aid for repairing the house immediately,” Rajimol said. “Unfortunately, we are still waiting. Neither the ruling party nor the Opposition have raised their voice for us.”
Fellow labourers Mini, 47, and Mohini, 58, have decided to boycott the election too. “The floods gave us a big jolt and we are yet to recover,” Mini explained. “No one helped us when we needed it the most. So, let us protest in our own way.”
Not far from the paddy field, Thankachan, 68, and his wife Omana, 51, run an eatery out of a thatched hut. They have also decided to stay away from the polls. “When we were trapped in floodwater, fishermen saved us,” said Thankachan. “At the relief camp, voluntary organisations gave us food. When we got back, we expected the government to help us. But it failed us.”
The mood is no different in Idukki, which bore the brunt of the floods after all five shutters of the Idukki dam were opened on August 15, forcing thousands of people into relief camps. Shelters in Cheruthoni even today house at least 20 families that lost everything in the deluge. Among them are Leela Sukumaran and PJ Beena.
Sukumaran, 65, has since set up a makeshift tea shop near the relief camp. “I lost my home and land,” she said. “I haven’t even got the emergency assistance of Rs 10,000 promised by the government. I have approached officials requesting them to check why I have not received any assistance but in vain. I only have this shop to make a living.”
Sukumaran has decided not to participate in the electoral process. “If the government and the political parties are not bothered about my existence, why should I vote?” she asked.
Beena, 42, shifted to the camp with her son Binu, 17, after their home was damaged by a landslide. She has not received the initial aid of Rs 10,000 either. “Who will give us our home and land back?” she asked. “We will vote for those who help us. If I do not get help before the election, I will not go to the polling booth.”
Unhappy with assessment
Chief Minister Vijayan told the Kerala Assembly in January that the emergency financial assistance of Rs 10,000 was provided to 6,87,843 flood survivors. In addition, of the 13,368 families whose homes were completely destroyed, 9,431 have received the first installment of the total compensation of Rs four lakh. Another 1,21,265 families would get between Rs 10,000 and Rs 2.5 lakh to repair their partially damaged homes, the chief minister said.
After the floods, officials from the revenue department and local bodies assessed every home for damage. Accordingly, compensation of Rs 4 lakh was set for each home with over 75% damage, Rs 2.5 lakh for 60% to 74% damage, Rs 1.25 lakh for 30% to 59% damage, Rs 60,000 for 16% to 29% damage. A family with a home that suffered up to 15% damage is not eligible for compensation aside from the emergency aid of Rs 10,000.
Those who lost property in landslides are eligible for a maximum assistance of Rs 6 lakh to buy land elsewhere.
Many survivors are unhappy with how the assessment was done and some have filed complaints regarding the exercise as well as the officials. They allege that the officials were forced to include ineligible flood survivors “under political pressure”.
In Champakkulam, which is in Mavelikkara constituency, milk farmer Babu Kuttan, 56, has spent days trying to convince the authorities that his home suffered a lot more damage than the assessment established. He, along with his parents, wife and children, spent 15 days in a relief camp after his home was flooded in August.
The floods also washed away Kuttan’s five cows, leaving him without a source of stable income. He defaulted on a Rs 5 lakh loan from the Alappuzha Cooperative Bank that he had taken in 2015. As the bank decided to take over his mortgaged land, he borrowed from private moneylenders at exorbitant rates to save it. In the process, he sunken deeper into debt.
“I felt happy when I got Rs 10,000 as emergency assistance,” he said. “The assessment team did not report the actual damage of my home. Our gram panchayat member did not ask the team to rectify the mistake. So, we will vote against her party as a mark of protest.”
On the other side are people who have received adequate assistance and they vow to vote for the parties that helped them the most. Rajamani’s home at Aranmula village, Pathanamthitta, was completely destroyed. The owner of a small pan shop recently got Rs 98,000 as the first installment for reconstruction. Her gram panchayat member did all the paperwork. “I am indebted to my gram panchayat member who works tirelessly for us,” Rajamani said. “Of course, I will vote for his party.”
In Pathanamthitta, the rehabilitation process has been going smoothly, with 18,263 families receiving some assistance so far, according to the district collector PB Nooh. “Of the 637 fully damaged homes, construction of 537 is in progress while 70 have already been built,” Nooh added. “We hope to complete the rehabilitation work by the end of June.”
There’s one community in Pathanamthitta, however, that is not happy. Artisans who make the famous Aranmula metal mirrors suffered losses to the tune of Rs 3 crore in the floods. They lost nearly 6,000 mirrors, which were broken or swept away. Many were also left with damaged homes and workshops.
“The government has not supported us, so we have to depend on bank loans,” said KP Ashokan, president of the Vishwbrahmina Aranmula Mirror Nirman Society, an association of 22 families in Aranmaula and Mallappuzhassery villages along the Pamba river, which has the exclusive right to make GI-tagged Aranmula mirrors. “We were lucky to get some equipment and dye from Mumbai NGO Habitat for Humanity India.”
KA Selvaraj, a member of the society, said the artisans “will scrutinise the government’s initiatives to revive our industry” before casting their votes.
Bumper crop effect?
In Kuttanad region, known as the rice bowl of Kerala, paddy farmers heaved a sigh of relief when they got a bumper harvest in the recent puncha crop season. They got six to seven tonnes per hectare as against the usual harvest of four-five tonnes. Rough estimates by state officials put the rice production in the puncha season at two lakh tonnes, 75,000 tonnes more than last year. These farmers had lost standing crop in the floods, which wrecked around 30,000 hectares in Kuttanad.
However, some farmers say the bumper harvest is a one-time phenomenon and the government should not make it an excuse to further delay the rehabilitation process.
“This harvest makes us happy but we will not forget in this moment of joy all the hardships we have faced,” said Raveendran, who lost crop worth Rs 50,000 in the floods. “The government has to keep its promise.”
A few farmers, though, argue the bumper harvest is good news for the government as well. “This will reduce the intensity of protests against the government,” said Biju Alakkad, who harvested 36 tonnes of rice from his three-hectare field this season.
Sabarimala on mind
The floods left a trail of destruction in Ayiroor village on the banks of the Pampa river in Pathanamthitta, destroying hundreds of homes, standing paddy crop and banana plantations. Santhamma Nair, 73, had never seen such a deluge in her life and she considers herself lucky to have survived thanks to the timely arrival of the rescue workers.
She does not think the floods are a major campaign issue, however. “This time it is about the Sabarimala issue,” she argued, referring to the controversy about the Supreme Court decision in September 2018 allowing women of menstrual age to enter the hill shrine, to the dismay of conservatives. “It is an emotional issue for all Hindus in Pathanamthitta.”
Her sentiment was echoed by even younger voters in this village dominated by the upper-caste Hindu Nair community. “The main issue in this election is Hindu pride and not the floods,” said Ashwin M Nair, 20, who has just graduated from college. “People have forgotten the floods.”