Local fishermen have been hailed as the heroes of the great Kerala flood. Some came without life jackets or even boats. But when they received word late on August 16 that Chengannur, one of the worst-hit areas in the southern-most state, had tens of thousands of people marooned in their own homes, they didn’t think twice.
The seven-man team hired a boat from a friend, arranged a small pick-up jeep and drove to the town of Chengannur, which is 150km from their fishing hamlet on the coast of Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital.
“We have seen the rough seas. We have braved the high tides. And even if we are put in the sea for four days, we can survive. So, we were confident that we could do something in the flood-hit area. That’s the only thing we had. But it helped us to save lives,” Johnny Chekkitta, who led the seven-member team, told Asia Times.
Over four days, from the morning of August 17 morning till the night of August 20, they rescued 800 stranded people. This included pregnant women, toddlers, 27 children from an orphanage, aged people and bedridden patients from marooned houses in Pandanad, the worst-hit area in Chengannur.
After days of heavy rain, part of the southwest monsoon, the government was forced to open the gates of 80 dams, a move that eventually led all 44 rivers in the state overflowing. Chengannur, on the banks of the Pamba River, was badly hit as its banks were inundated.
“On the morning of August 17 when I, John Mathew, Silvadasan Antony, Aneesh Pathrose, Rateesh Peter, Jineesh Jerome and Vipin Andrews, reached Chengannur, we were told to register at a government office to be involved in the rescue operations,”Chekkitta said. “While waiting for that, we got an emergency call saying that there were 100 people waiting to be rescued and they were in a dangerous situation. So, we skipped the registration and headed to the location.”
As they were new to the area and the phone network was feeble, rescue coordinators had to relay recorded messages of the route and location. “That was enough for us. We would replay the recorded message and drive our boat,” Captain Johnny said.
Aneesh, who was driving the boat and injured his left shoulder while rescuing local residents, said it was quite risky and scary. “It is not like the sea. The houses are in alleys and the floodwater was flowing in full steam with a heavy undercurrent. If we wanted to take a turn to the left, we had to do it some 10 meters ahead to enter an alley, [and] we needed to give it full strength to slide the boat in that direction. Most of the time, we would hit on walls and other objects. We still can’t believe how we managed to reach out to many places, where even Indian Navy boats could enter,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rateesh said even if they reached a home, there were obstacles such as barbed-wire that stopped them being able to dock the boat. “So we used to get down and swim with ropes tied to the boat. Once, one us fell against a well. Who knows what is under [the water]? Everywhere there was mud-colored water. But somehow we managed to save many lives. That was enough,” he said.
Responding to the crisis
On the morning of August 18, the fishermen got a call from a police officer saying there were 27 children stranded in a marooned orphanage without food or drinking water. “The official [rescue] boats were big, so they were not able to reach to the place. We took the risk, got to the location and drove the boat to the orphanage. Interestingly, we entered into the orphanage and took them onboard. But while returning, we had to cross a heavy current. So, we stopped the boat and got the children down and made a human chain and moved them to a safe place,” Jineesh Jerome said. “After dropping them off, we got involved again in rescuing others.”
On August 19, Saji Cherian, the Member of Legislative of Assembly for Chengannur, joined the seven fishermen in rescue operations. “Even though Central Industrial Security Force, Border Security Force, Indian Navy, Air Force and National Disaster Response Force had beefed up their rescue operations, we realized that we also had a vital role to play,” Vipin Andrews said.
“That day, we got a call that there was a pregnant woman waiting for help, so we rushed there. We rescued that woman and others. While returning, we got another call that nearby there was another pregnant woman in a bad condition. But we already had two dozen people on our boat. So, Vipin and Jineesh got out and swam to a safe place. So, we had a space to accommodate the pregnant woman and drive to the shelter,” Silvadasan Antony said.
While doing their rescue operations, with limited battery power, the seven fishermen all reported on their work in the area on Facebook. They said it turned out to be a great idea to help many.
“On August 20, when we were involved in these rescues, Johnny was going live on Facebook covering the operations, and interestingly, we got a call from a woman named Leena Susan Mathew from the United States, saying that the boat had just passed a house where their parents were stranded. We then turned the boat around and rescued her parents,” Silvadasan Antony said.
Johnny had his phone number on Facebook and it helped people to reach out to them.
After nearly 20 hours of rescues each day, the fishermen sheltered in a lodge near a temple which had some food. According to Kerala’s Fisheries minister, there were around 2,900 fishermen in boats doing rescues at that time. The minister said the fishermen had saved around 65,000 people, most of them from Chengannur and Alappuzha.
Recognising their vital contribution, locals have started to say that if Hollywood has Superman and Batman, Keralites have Fishermen! Some also have posted on social media that the fishermen are the Avengers of Kerala, its own Navy.
Government steps in
The Kerala government said it would pay Rs 3,000 (about $43) for the fishermen involved in rescue operations. But these seven refused to take it. “We did it save lives,” John Mathew said. “So, we don’t want that. We have informed the authorities to deposit that money in the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund.”
In fact, the fishermen, who call themselves “coastal warriors”, want to put their boat, used to save 800 people, up for sale. “We are planning to put this boat up for auction and to offer the proceeds to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund,” Johnny Chekkitta said.
The great flood in the south claimed around 400 lives and displaced at least 800,000 people in Kerala. Now, the state is looking for funds to help people rebuild. The central government has provided Rs 600 crores ($86 million). However, the state’s Chief Minister has said they will need more than three times that amount.