This was a man-made disaster: Residents of Kerala’s flood-ravaged Chellanam village

Vijayan, a 50-year-old Chellanam resident, surveying the damage the floods caused to his neighborhood, on 15 May. Following the onset of COVID-19, Vijayan can no longer work repairing fishing boats and mostly makes a livelihood filling sandbags and making bunds to prevent further flooding. Nishad Ummer
28 May, 2021

One morning in mid-May, Arathi Devadas, an elected member of Ernakulam district’s Palluruthy block panchayat, looked on worriedly as high waves thrashed against the coast behind her house, amid the heavy rains of cyclonic storm Tauktae that had started a day before. The tides grew the entire morning, slowly flooding her neighbour’s house—the water was nearly three-feet deep. The Vijayan Canal, a stormwater carrier passing in front of the houses, had also broken its embankment. Antony, her 65-year-old neighbour, was trying to put up sacks of sand in front of the gate to reduce the intensity of the water that was flowing in. “Meanwhile, his wife Susan was busy in the backyard of the house cleaning the dirty water and collecting the crockeries and household items that were washing away,” Devadas told me. “Around 2 pm, after hearing the continuous barking of dogs, Susan went to the entrance and found Antony lying in the flood water.” No one knew how long he had been lying there. “She ran to us for help,” Devadas continued. “We helped push a car through the water on the roads before driving him to a local hospital.” Antony was declared dead on arrival. He became the first victim of the floods in Palluruthy block panchayat’s Chellanam village this year, which destroyed many homes even as the COVID-19 pandemic surged through the nation.

Chellanam is a densely populated fishing village on the outskirts of Kochi, and is home to at least sixteen thousand families. Nearly ten thousand of these live on the shore and a majority are fishing workers who belong to the marginalised Latin Catholic community. The village is bordered by the Arabian Sea to the west and backwaters to the east. More than sixty houses in the village were completely destroyed in the cyclone and another 200 were seriously damaged. Garbage and waste from septic tanks washed in with the flood. Many residents got stuck in the houses, some on their roofs and terraces as lower levels went under the water line. The Fort Kochi-Cherthala state highway went underwater leaving the region, as a whole, stranded. No sea wall protects the fishing villages in the region, which faced the worst devastation.

The flooding pushed many of Chellanam’s residents to hastily set up relief camps where COVID-19 safety measures cannot be followed, leading to a spike in the number of cases. A similar set of events occurred in August 2020, when Chellanam faced both flooding and a mild increase in COVID-19 cases. Though the state government has been well aware for years that Chellanam is flood-prone, and despite three years of local protests, the government has not been able to ensure the construction of effective flood barriers to protect the village. Instead, there have been attempts by the government to shift residents out of the village. Several residents told me that Kerala government’s approach brushed away local concerns while constructing sea walls and flood barriers around key ports, that shifted silt, furthering accelerating flooding in Chellanam.

Radha Joy, a 50-year-old volunteer with Kudumbashree—a government-sponsored self-help group for women—left her home at 7 am on 14 May to volunteer at a community kitchen for COVID-19 patients in Kandakkadavu village. By 12.30 pm, all roads into Chellanam went underwater. She stayed for several hours in an acquaintance’s house and, when the water receded late that night, she returned home. “My house was full of dirt and garbage,” Joy told me over the phone. “Many doors were jammed. We cleaned a room and went to sleep.” Minutes later, the water began rising again. Joy and her son stood up on the bed and waited for morning to come. Water continued rushing into her house the rest of the night and morning. Rescue workers arrived at 11 am the next day, shortly before the house was entirely submerged.

“We lost everything,” she told me. “The clothes I was wearing got drenched as I swam through waist-length water. We left home without even taking a single piece of cloth.” She said the electronic devices, crockeries, and other household items were either destroyed or washed away. Her scooter and car were irreparably drowned in mud. Joy, along with 15 others, sought refuge at the house of a panchayat ward member in Chellanam. When I spoke to her on 15 May, she told me they were struggling for food as rescue workers had not been able to bring them supplies yet. There had been no electricity in the area for two days and Joy cut our conversation short, as she had to save her phone’s battery to make emergency calls.

As the flood intensified, the district administration opened several relief camps in churches and schools in Chellanam, on 15 May. Among them is a quarantine centre with seven COVID-19 patients in the premises of a Chinmaya Vidyalaya school in the village. “There are more than three hundred people at St Xaviers and around one hundred and twenty-six people at St Mary’s,” KD Prasad, Chellanam’s panchayat president, told me. “The panchayat had arranged food for at least one thousand people on 15 May. The food was cooked from the St. George Parish hall and distributed to the camps and homes of needy people.”

A Chellanam resident stands on a temporary sea wall built with sandbags looking at the ocean, on 21 June 2020. The tides eat into the land further each year as a result of devastating coastal erosion. The sandbags are a temporary and ineffective alternative to a strong sea wall that could protect the region. Nishad Ummer

Chellanam is one of the worst COVID-19 affected areas in Kerala. Even during the first wave of the pandemic in Kerala, the village had been a major COVID-19 cluster. Prasad told me on 16 May there are 477 active COVID-19 cases in Chellanam panchayat. “As the Kandakkadavu primary health centre was submerged in chest-high water, we were unable to conduct any COVID-19 tests since 14 May,” he said. “On 13 May, 62 out of 100 people had tested positive. The patients were being shifted to a first-line treatment centre at Kumbalangi, seven kilometres away from Chellanam.”

Volunteers with the rescue operations in Chellanam told me that they could not follow COVID-19 protocols such as social distancing. TA Dalphin, the convenor of the Paschima Kochi Theera Samrakshana Samiti—the West Kochi Coastal Protection Council, a collective to protect coastal communities—said his organisation had been working on rescuing flood-stranded people in Chellanam for two days. “Many people who were under observation and home quarantined after testing positive were forced to get out of the house as the water gushed in,” he told me. “We were not in a situation to maintain the COVID guidelines. Our priority was to save the lives from the flooding.” he said. On 13 May, a day before the cyclone hit, S Suhas, Ernakulam district’s collector, announced that all COVID-19 patients in the village would be shifted to a first-line treatment centre in Kumbalangi village. However, as late as 15 May, patients were still stuck in relief camps or at home. “On 14 May, two COVID patients, who were rescued from their home, were taken to Kumbalangi FLTC,” Dalphin said. “As there was no vacancy, they were bought back to their homes.”

Volunteers told me that COVID-19 guidelines could not be followed in relief camps either, due to which many in distress refused to come to the camp. Anila Sebastian, a 29-year-old ward member of the Chellanam panchayat, told me that she and her husband were volunteering at the relief camp in St. Mary’s High School. “Many people are hesitant to go to relief camp as they are afraid of COVID-19,” Anila told me. “We are trying our best to maintain social distancing. One or two families are staying in a classroom. Masks and sanitisers are being provided to them. Our main priority is to offer shelter for the people who lost everything in the flood. It is hard to maintain strict COVID protocols in such difficult times.”

Muhammed Hashim, Chellanam’s health inspector, told me there was a visible increase in COVID-19 cases since the onset of the cyclone. “On 22 May, we did Antigen tests of eleven people and RT-PCR test of eight people at St Mary’s school,” he said. “Seven of them tested positive. The test positivity rate in Chellanam currently is 70 percent.” Deepak KD, the health inspector of Kandakkadavu PHC, the other PHC in the village, told me that as of 22 May, there were 185 active COVID-19 cases under his jurisdiction. He told me that a majority of those cases were at home, and not in relief camps. On 25 May, this number rose, with 94 people testing positive of the 108 tested. Hashim said that serious cases were being taken to FLTCs in the villages of Kumbalangi, Palluruthi and Edakochi, but they were attempting to deal with mild cases at home. “The national health mission volunteers and state health department had distributed bleaching powder, disinfectants, doxycline, chlorine tablets and ORS solution to every house in Chellanam,” Hashim told me. “At least three oxymeters were provided to each panchayat ward in Chellanam.”

Even aside from the experience of the first wave of the pandemic, the disaster that unfolded in Chellanam was all too predictable. As early as 1986, the Kerala government designated the area as “highly susceptible to coastal erosion.” Devastation in floods has become a nearly annual affair in the village, which was hit hard in 2017 and 2020, too. In a video that went viral during the flooding in August 2020, VT Sebastian the convenor of the Chellanam Sumyuktha Samara Samiti—roughly translated to Chellanam Strike Coordination Committee—an umbrella group of fish workers, merchants, and civic organisations, could be heard saying that the floods could have been mitigated if not for state government incompetence. “This is not a natural disaster,” he said in the video. “This disaster is created by the state and its bureaucrats. We have been warning the government about the possible flood and observing hunger strike for the last 564 days.”

The CSS, alongside a wide range of civil society organisations from Chellanam, have protested for years demanding that the state government construct robust flood barriers along the coast line of the village. “Just two months ago, we met S Suhas, Ernakulam’s district collector, and requested him to intervene to prevent a possible flood,” Sebastian told me. They had learnt last year that a flood amid the pandemic can ravage the community—in August 2020, more than 400 houses in Chellanam had been flooded by seawater. “Hundreds of houses were damaged,” Sebastian said. “Many houses were filled with waist-high mud. Many people lost electronic devices, groceries, household items and important documents. Vehicles and fibre boats got damaged. Many people still haven’t recovered from that loss.” Plumbing and hardware shops were closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown so residents could not rebuild their houses. “Luckily we didn’t have too many cases at the time because only northern Chellanam was flooded then and the main COVID-cluster was in southern Chellanam,” Sebastian said. “The government should have still learnt from that experience about what could have happened.”

Some Chellanam locals also contacted the union government. Edgar Sebastian, a 15-year-old, wrote a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind on 25 July, which said, “We are not sure whether we will be alive until a reply comes for this letter … We the people of Chellanam are caught in between COVID-19 and sea erosion. You are my last hope.” With the letter Edgar also had attached photos of his family cleaning the house and filling sand in geo bags—water proof polyster bags used in flood control—to prevent sea erosion. In a reply on 28 July, Kovind ordered Vishwas Mehta, the chief secretary of Kerala, to intervene immediately and inform the complainant about what actions were taken.

A man passes sand to build a hasty bund near Chellanam’s Velankanni church, on 21 June 2020. The bund they are building is parallel to the geo tube project which the Kerala government has failed to complete even three years after it was formally inaugurated. The sand to fill the geo tubes was taken from the shoreline adjoining it, which in turn affected the foundational structure of the existing sea wall. Nishad Ummer

In November 2017, Chellanam had faced major flooding during Cyclone Ockhi. Giant waves hit the village, destroying many houses, blocking toilets and sanitation systems. The waves deposited huge piles of silt, plastic waste, and garbage, which took weeks to clean up. Hundreds of people were shifted to the relief camps which lacked basic amenities. The cyclone destroyed nearly one kilometer of the sea wall. With the support of church committees, Chellanam locals formed a committee called the Chellanam Janakiya Samithi—Chellanam Peoples’ Council—and announced that they will not return to their homes unless the government finds a permanent solution to the problem of flooding.

On 4 December 2017, they started a hunger strike at various relief camps in Chellanam. At least seven hundred people participated in the protest. The strike was called off after six days, when the Ernakulam collector Mohammed Safirulla, Kochi’s representative in the legislative assembly KJ Maxi, and the former member of parliament P Rajeev held talks with them. In the meeting, the residents demanded the construction of a sea wall, sanitation facilities, and maintenance of damaged houses.

In January 2018, the Kerala government sanctioned Rs 18 crore for the construction of a sea wall and handed over the site to Mohammed Niyas, a contractor on June 2018. In May 2018, J Mercykutty, Kerala’s fisheries minister, inaugurated a sea-wall construction project in Chellanam. The government decided to use geo synthetic tubing—made of thick nylon and filled with sand and sea water—to construct the flood barriers. The government estimated that at least 111 geo tubes had to be laid, covering about one kilometre of shoreline.

After an initial attempt to lay geo tubes failed, the contractor attempted to use geo bags to provide temporary relief. Locals told me that most geo bags got washed away during high tides. On 28 October 2019, Chellanam residents formed another collective called the Chellanam Janakiya Vedi—roughly translated to Chellanam Peoples’ Front—and started an indefinite relay hunger strike at a tent in the Companyppady locality near Chellanam. Their demand was the same: ensure a permanent solution for sea erosion on a wartime basis. As the hunger strike gathered public support, CJV expanded the strike by erecting another tent camp at the Bazar area in Chellanam. “After many legal and contractual hiccups, the geo tube project resumed on 24 November,” Mariamma George Kurishinkal, the chairperson of CJV, told me. “The contractor was asked by the Kerala High Court to finish the project by the end of March 2020.”

In court the contractor had argued that 60,000 cubic metres of sand was required for the project and there was a shortage of sand. The state government had allowed the company to dredge sand from the beaches in Chellanam itself, but locals feared this would worsen erosion, not prevent flooding. A senior engineer with the state’s irrigation department, who wished to remain anonymous, told me, “The contractor had no previous experience in waterworks and lacked the equipment needed to dredge sea sand.” On 18 February 2019, the district collector instructed the irrigation department and panchayat officials to permit the contractor to take sand from anywhere in Chellanam. Despite this, later that month, the irrigation department filed a report to the Kerala High Court that the contractor will not be able to complete the project by March.

In March 2020, an Ernakulam-based company, Greenway Solutions got the contract for the geo tube project. The work was tendered at an estimate of Rs 7.5 crore, with an additional 20 percent to make up for the delay due to the lockdown. Officials of the company were confident that the project would be complete in a few months. On 11 May, a Greenway official told the Times of India that 40 percent of the project would be complete by the end of the month. Yet delays continued. On 16 June, much of the company’s dredging machinery was destroyed by waves. The irrigation department warned the contractor that emergency actions will be taken if the company failed to finish the work by 28 June. Of the eight geo tubes that Greenways was to fill, only two were completed. In June 2020, waves broke the two tubes, laid by the old contractor, and high tide washed the sand away. However, little progress has been made on the project since. I emailed Alex Varghese and Roshy Augustine—the chief engineer of the government’s irrigation department and the current irrigation minister of the state, respectively—asking what action had been taken against Greenway. At the time of publication, neither had responded. “We had witnessed many inaugurations,” Samson Anjilparambil, the church vicar of the Arogyamatha church in Saudi village, which neighbours Chellanam, told me. “But there is no progress in the work. The work could have been completed in a matter of few months.”

Throughout this period, locals continued to protest. In March 2020, the CJV decided to expand their strike to Kochi city. Soon after the government announced lockdown following the novel COVID-19 outbreak, Sajimon, who was the circle inspector of Kannamali police station under whose jurisdiction Chellanam falls, asked the locals to call off the strike. “We decided to continue the hunger strike from our homes,” Sebastian told me. “Every day a person was assigned to do the hunger strike and we upload their photo on social media. The hunger strike had gone 564 days by then, we weren’t going to break it till they created a permanent solution.”

On 5 June, marking world environment day, the CJV organised a protest on the Chellanam seashore. “We were a group of around 25 people,” Kurishinkal told me. “All of us wore mask. We split into groups of five and protested while maintaining social distancing. But the police detained all of us and later released us.” She said that just a month earlier, Maxi, the Kochi MLA, of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), had held a religious ceremony to mark the start of the geo tubing project with over fifty people, without maintaining social distancing. “None of them got arrested,” she told me. The campaign also wrote several letters to the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Eight hundred postcards were sent to Suhas, the collector, which simply read, “If anything happens to us now, the government will be solely responsible.” Suhas did not respond to emailed queries. Neither did Maxi, or Ernakulam’s member of parliament Hibi Eden.

Rema Ravi, a 49-year-old resident of Chellanam carries cement bricks to prop up her furniture that is getting damaged in the flooding, on 15 May 2021. This is the first time her house had flooded to this level, and it had already damaged a lot of household appliances. Nishad Ummer

During the 2021 Kerala Assembly elections, the CJV organised a people’s convention at Ernakulam’s Thoppumpady locality and decided to boycott the election. “The refusal to vote is a mark of protest against political parties that make promises on addressing the issue of sea ingress every election season, but fail to implement any work, betraying the electorate in the process, according to the protest group,” The Hindu reported. “The manifesto of different political fronts prioritise projects to deal with sea ingress, but such assurances are forgotten soon after the election.” 

Experts told me that the erosion in Chellanam was largely a result of government projects in the region, including the expansion of Kochi port, which lies to the north of the village. “Coastal erosion is basically due to the drastic reduction in the availability of beach sand,” KV Thomas, a former head of the Thiruvananthapuram-based National Centre for Earth Science Studies’ Coastal Process Division, told me. “Very strong and high sea walls were constructed along Chellanam between 1978 and 1982. The dredging for the Cochin port also affected the availability of sediments to this area. Over time, the sediment was deposited mostly on the northern side of the Cochin harbour.” He added that coastal works, such as groynes—stone embankments to break water flow—to protect the Indian Navy’s gunnery school, INS Dhronacharya, also worsened the situation. “If sufficient sediment supply is not there, the depth increases. This makes sea walls unstable. Most of sea wall rebuilding was not based on proper design, most were emergency responses. Many drainage canals will also get blocked thus resulting in flooding.”

A 2018 report titled A National Assessment of Shoreline Changes along Indian Coasts by the ministry of earth sciences shows that the shores of west Cochin lose 20 percentage of its coastline from erosion. Most of the locals said that breakwaters are the most effective solutions for the continuous flooding and sea erosion. Samson pointed to INS Dronacharya. “Even if the institute is situated at the Fort Kochi coastal line, it had survived the 2004 tsunami, the Ockhi cyclone, and sea erosion,” he said. “The institute is protected with a strong sea wall with at least eight groynes. Even the beach road, next to the INS Dronacharya, is less prone to sea erosion.” In comparison, nothing protected Chellanam apart from sand bags that locals themselves had lined along their houses. These got washed away early into the cyclone.

Many locals told me that geo tubes and geo bags were not a permanent solution. “On every monsoon, officials came up with geo bags,” Thomas Mayjo, a professional footballer and Chellanam local who has worked on preventing sea erosion, told me. “It cannot withstand strong waves. The sacks filled by the hard work of one and half months will be washed away by a day’s sea erosion.” In a video shot by Mayjo and a friend last year, geo sacks could be seen floating on the water. Mayjo told me that in their experience, geo tubes were only effective if they were submerged in the seawater. “On the other hand, the contractor installed the tubes on the shores and they are damaged if exposed to sunlight and water for a long period,” he said.

Mayjo, in the video story, showed that the coast had regenerated on the southern side of Chellanam because of the strong sea walls and the breakwater walls situated in the Chellanam harbour. “The main excuse of the government for not building sea wall are the environmental consequences and the scarcity of rubble granite stones,” Samson told me. “Loads of granite was used for the construction of Chellanam harbor and maintenance work was done twice. Recently, granite stones were laid in Vyppin and parts of Alappuzha. Two laws exist, one for the navy, shipping and ports, and another for poor villages and fishermen.”

Many pointed out that, rather than working to firm up coastal defences the government was instead insistent on attempting to evict those living near the sea shore. Under the Punargeham rehabilitation program, launched in December 2019, the state government announced that all families living 50 metres from the sea would be rehabilitated. While speaking to a news channel  about sea erosion in July 2020, J Mercykutty, who was the fisheries minister at the time, had spoken about how eviction was necessary. “There is no permanent solution to the problem and people who reside within 50 metres of the sea, have to cooperate with the rehabilitation project,” she said. But images, videos and testimony by locals from Chellanam clearly showed that even houses more than five hundred metres away from the sea were not spared by the high tides.

On 5 March 2020, the Kerala government announced Rs 10 lakh compensation for every family willing to vacate their home. Of this, Rs 6 lakh were to be allotted to purchase land and Rs 4 lakh for the construction of a home. The government, however, specified that documents for land purchased under the scheme would be handed over to the house owner only after successful completion of the construction. Under this scheme, the government also announced plans to construct flats in various parts of the state for fishermen, similar to the Lakshamveed scheme in 1972, where the communist-led government of Kerala planned to construct 1 lakh houses for the poorest in the state. However, most locals I spoke to in Chellanam did not want alternate housing—they simply wanted solid sea walls to protect the houses they had lived in for generations. “The ordinary people in Chellanam are emotionally and economically dependent on the sea,” Jaison C Cooper, an Ernakulam-based environmental activist, told me. “Survival away from the sea is difficult for the locals.” Saji Cheriyan, the current fisheries minister and CA Latha, the fisheries director, did not respond to emailed questions about Punargeham scheme.

Sebastian told me that the recent flooding was only a teaser for what would likely continue throughout the year. “Though I may not be an expert, I have been researching sea erosion in Chellanam for years now,” he said. He said while severe flooding currently would only last four to eight days, flooding was also likely during high tide until August, exacerbating when the monsoon hits Kerala. He was not confident the government would bother working on a sea wall before that. He added that his viral video covered everything that was likely to happen. “Dear CM, you were advising people of Kerala to use double or triple mask to fight COVID 19,” his video concluded. “What do you have to say to us? Were you sleeping for the last five years? We don’t want any politician and officials to tour our village with those relief kits and do disaster porn. Don’t you dare to come.”