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.