India's southernmost state has been hit by its worst floods in 100 years. Photo:  Rejimon Kuttappan
India's southernmost state has been hit by its worst floods in 100 years. Photo: Rejimon Kuttappan

After nine days of incessant rain, there has been little respite from heavy downpours in the south Indian state of Kerala. Moreover, the opening of some 80 dams, including five sluice gates of the Idukki Dam, Asia’s biggest arch dam, resulted in the Periyar and Pamba Rivers overflowing.

While the government has downgraded the alert announced in Kerala on August 9, weeks of heavy rain have caused unprecedented flooding.

Some described it as one of the worst deluges in a century. Many towns and cities were marooned – Munnar, Idukki, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Aluva, Kottayam and Alappuzha (formerly Allepey).

About 800,000 people had to seek refuge in thousands of camps across the state from May 29 up till August 18, a senior official from the state disaster management authority said.

“In 3,177 camps, there are 846,250 people,” the official told Asia Times.
On August 17, the Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan had tweeted that 324 lives were lost between May 29 and August 17.

While water levels are receding in many places, people in emergency camps have faced a shortage of food, medicine, clothes and even lamps.
Road, rail and air networks are been hit hard.

With roads flooded and cut off in many places, it became difficult for supplies of relief collected by the government and civil society groups to reach many camps and locations.

“There is even a shortage of sanitary napkins for women in some camps. What to do? They all ran for their lives with rescuers. The situation is worsening,” Madhu M, one of many stuck in camps in Aluva, told Asia Times.

Aluva city, on the banks of Periyar, was totally submerged after days of rain, which caused the river to overflow. Meanwhile, the Pamba River also burst its banks and caused an unprecedented situation in Chengannur in Alappuzha district.

30,000 stuck on rooftops

Saji Cherian, the MLA for Chengannur, said that around 30,000 people still needed to be rescued from marooned houses.

“Navy boats and helicopters are helping a lot. However, fishermen and their boats have been successful in entering every nook and cranny in the area. We were able to rescue thousands today. However, still, there are around 30,000 stranded on rooftops of the houses waiting for help,” the MLA said.

In addition to government rescue forces, help was sought from fishing crews from different coastal areas.

In Chengannur itself, there were 65 fishing boats, four helicopters, five military boats and four 100-member strong army teams deployed for rescue work. Meanwhile, there were unconfirmed reports coming that people saw dead bodies floating in the area.

Saji Cherian told a TV channel on Friday night that the situation would get worse and the death toll in the town would reach 10,000 – nearly half the population. Food had to be supplied via helicopters.

But rescue worker Roy John said they had been able to access remote areas as water levels started receding.

“For the last three days, it was quite hard. We were not able to reach many places. We may have attended around 5,000 calls in the last three days. We were only able to locate and rescue a dozen, but we were able to transport food to camps and coordinate with other rescuers. The fishermen from coastal areas who came with boats did a great job in Chengannur,” Roy said.

Some fishermen traveled 200 kilometers with their boats and helped with rescue operations with government personnel. Those who went to Chengannur three days ago have not gone back. Saji Cherian said he pleaded them to stay as they were playing a vital role in rescue work.

57 NDRF teams

In addition to volunteers, 57 teams from the National Disaster Response Force – about 1,300 personnel – were deployed with 435 boats for search and rescue work.

Five companies of Border Security Force, Central Industrial Security Force and Rapid Action Forces were also deployed to carry out rescue and relief measures.

The Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard all sent teams, with a total of 38 helicopters for rescue and relief work, while 20 aircraft were being used to ferry resources.

The Army deployed 10 columns and 10 teams from the Engineering Task Force – around 790 trained personnel, while the Navy provided 82 teams and the Coast Guard a further 42 teams, plus two helicopters and two ships.

Modi announces $72m in aid

On Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew down to Kerala from New Delhi and to assess the crisis. He announced five billion rupees (about US$72 million) in immediate relief for the state. This was on top of a billion rupees announced by Home Minister Rajnath Singh on August 12. Modi also assured Kerala that relief material such as food grain and medicine would be provided, as requested.

However, the PM had yet to declare the Kerala floods a national disaster, which would put the onus on New Delhi to provide 100% assistance if the state government’s disaster funding is unable to meet requirements.

However, Modi said the next of kin for all of the people killed would get ex-gratia payments of 200,000 rupees (US$2,866) from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Funds, while there would be 50,000 rupees ($716) for those seriously injured. He also directed the National Highways Authority to repair the main roads damaged by the floods as a priority.

Other states have are also sending aid – 200 million rupees from Maharashtra, plus 150m from Uttar Pradesh, 100m from Gujarat, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, and 50m from Jharkhand. And while Tamil Nadu was at loggerheads with Kerala on lowering the water level of the Mullaperiyar dam, the neighboring state said it would send 100 million rupees of aid in two phases.

Currently, people with access to vehicles are rushing relief to different camps. Mini Mohan, a social activist who has been involved in relief operations from the first day, said Kerala could overcome the crisis if everyone pitched in.

“Nobody has seen such a disaster. Property loss is huge. But let’s forget that now. Let’s take the basic needs of stranded people. Many are still stuck in remote areas. In two days, the situation may better,” she said.

Meanwhile, a senior official with the state health department, said an elaborate action plan had been prepared to prevent the outbreak of communicable diseases when the floodwater recedes. “It will help people to remain safe and avert health emergencies for people residing in relief camps or when they are ready to return to their homes,” he said.

(This is the first in a three-part series on the devastating floods in Kerala.)

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