“We hate it. We can’t even die now”: Kerala flood survivors struggle with the impossible task of rebuilding their lives

25 August 2018
In Ernakulam district's Thottakattukara village, the Aluva Shri Mahadeva Temple, which lies on the bank of the Periyar river, suffered severe damage during the deluge.
In Ernakulam district's Thottakattukara village, the Aluva Shri Mahadeva Temple, which lies on the bank of the Periyar river, suffered severe damage during the deluge.

On 10 August, when Shanta Kumaran left her house in Chendamangalam village, in Paravur taluk of Kerala’s Ernakulam district, her home, like the other houses in the area, was yet to see the destruction of the catastrophic floods that would sweep the state over the next week. Two weeks later, as we stood outside her house, its floor now covered in sludge, she told me, “I left because my daughter was admitted to the hospital for delivery. Her operation was due on Monday.” She continued, “This is nothing. When I returned, the sludge reached above my ankles.” Shanta works as a domestic help in the locality, and her husband, Kumaran, was a fisherman till he stopped working two years ago. Kumaran said the water level rose suddenly on August 13. “I had to wade through the water till the end of this street where I requested an auto driver to take me to the hospital.” He pointed to a wall above a window to describe the level to which the water had risen, but he need not have—in the whole house, for around six feet from the ground, the mint green walls were a shade darker than its upper portions.

Shanta and Kumaran’s house comprises three small rooms and a kitchen in the backyard. The floods had caused extensive damage—two unusable mattresses lay outside the house, along with soiled rice grains. Inside, there was only an empty cupboard in the hall, two soiled calendars hung up on the wall, a bare, dusty bedstead in one of the rooms, and a pile of clothes kept in a bucket for washing. “This is all that is left,” Shanta said. The couple’s daughter’s delivery was due at the hospital of the Kalamassery Medical College, where the district administration had also set up a relief camp. They had been staying at the camp till they returned home, on 23 August. Since then, Shanta has been cleaning the house, with just a broom and a water hose, but she did not know when she would finish. With the house still in an uninhabitable condition, that night, Shanta and Kumaran had slept in an auditorium in the village. Several other residents of the village had also spent the night there due to the condition of their homes. “I don’t think we will go [there] today,” Shanta said, when we spoke the next day.“There is still so much sludge to be cleaned.”

As the flood survivors slowly begin to leave the camps and return to their ravaged homes, they stare at the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding their lives from scratch. I visited two villages—Chendamangalam, in the Paravur taluk, and Thottakattukara, in Aluva region of Ernakulam district—and in both places, everyone’s houses had witnessed severe damage during the floods, but there was a crucial and visible distinction. In Thottakattukara, where the residents appeared relatively financially comfortable, they had hired labourers to clean up their houses, whereas in Chendamangalam, the accounts of the residents were marked by a sense of defeat. For those without any assistance during the ongoing phase of reconstruction, or without the resources to gain such help, this feeling of defeat appeared to have turned to morbid helplessness.

In Thottakattukara, a village nearly 20 kilometres away from Chendamangalam, the roads were covered in sludge and only labourers, who wore gumboots and had been hired by various residents to clean their homes, could work with ease. For others, such as Anand Ramakrishnan, whom I encountered during my visit to the village on 24 August, traversing through the village roads requires them to be more careful and cautious.

“I don’t know how I am going to go into my own house,” Ramakrishnan told me. His house is in the neighbouring village of Paravoor Kavala, where the roads suffer from a similar state. But Ramakrishnan added that he has “become practised” in walking on such roads by now. “Everyone here has brought people from outside for cleaning. Otherwise, it’s not possible.” His words appeared true for several houses in the village. Around a two-minute walk from the temple stands a two-storey house of G Suresh Iyer, a 43-year-old employee of a shipping company. Since 22 August, Suresh said, the cleaning work in his house has been ongoing. On the day of my visit, there were eight people involved in the cleaning—three members of his family and five labourers whom he hired from Ernakulam district because “no one was available” in Aluva.

Aathira Konikkara is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: Kerala Flood relief Kerala