The whirring blades of a descending helicopter drew the attention of everyone present in Christian College in Angadickal village in Chengannur, late in the afternoon on 19 August. “Look, it’s an airplane,” a young girl told her mother, who told me that they had come to “just watch” what was unfolding on the ground adjoining the campus. For many others currently residing in this town, however, the arrival and departure of the Indian Air Force helicopters—which carried food, water and other supplies—had become an essential feature of their day. Many of them had recently moved to a relief camp set up at the college to escape the worst flood they had seen in their lifetime, and that Kerala had seen in nearly a century.
Chengannur, a taluk in the state’s Alappuzha district, is among the worst-affected regions in the disaster. The severity of the crisis in Chengannur came to the fore when the local MLA, Saji Cherian, made a desperate plea requesting airlifting operations to rescue those stranded in his constituency. “50,000 people will die tonight. I am sure,” he told the Malayalam channel Asianet late in the night on 17 August. “Please can you tell Modi … if helicopters are not brought in, we will die,” Cherian pleaded, referring to the prime minister. “We have been asking for the navy’s assistance for five days.”
Alappuzha district has received 32 percent more rainfall than usual this year. In Christian College’s three-storey building, classrooms on two floors were being used as shelters while relief materials were collected in the rooms on the ground floor, and distributed to the camp’s inhabitants—about 2,100 on the day of my visit. Most rooms I visited contained dozens of mats donated to the survivors, which they used as makeshift mattresses. One such room was being shared by six families. According to the Kerala government’s website, there are at least 15 other camps in Chengannur alone—an unequivocal indicator of the dire situation of the region.
Twenty-eight-year-old Shanti Prashant’s home is in Pandanadu, a village in Chengannur. She resided in a one-storey house that had three rooms, with eight family members, including three children. Given the fact that her house is located in a low-lying area, Prashant told me, some water entered it every monsoon. But this time was different. Four days earlier, her home began flooding. “Everything is gone. The water reached the roof of the house,” she said. “I will know if my Aadhar and other identity documents are still there only if I go back and check. We were anxious when we left, and just carried whatever we could.”