Sixteen months have passed since a deadly landslide hit Puthumala in Kerala's Wayand district.
The quick fall of huge rocks, trees and mud from the top of Pachakkad Hill on a heavy rainy day on August 8, 2019, had killed 17 people and rendered 83 families homeless. Five bodies could not be recovered at all.
The landslide had washed away a temple, mosque, post office, a canteen run by a tea plantation company and two line houses – or Padis – where plantation workers lived.
The hilly Puthumala village lies 20km south of district headquarters Kalpetta and is a fertile land for tea plantation. It is the Ward No. 9 of Meppadi gram panchayat.
Many residents have themselves abandoned Puthumala and moved out to different parts of the district after the landslide.
The government lower primary school on top of a hill has since been relocated to an Anganawadi building after fears were raised about its safety.
Puthumala is in election mode now as people are all set to choose their Ward representative to the gram panchayat council. The three-tier local body elections are underway in three phases in Kerala. Wayanad goes to the polls in the second phase on December 10.
Candidates of three major political fronts – CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – are busy canvassing votes.
In the last two local body polls, Puthumala residents had voted out the incumbent. In 2010, it had elected UDF. But in 2015, it had gone with the LDF.
Homelessness is the major election issue in Puthumala this time. Of the 83 families who lost their houses in the landslide, 55 are living in rented homes these days. Because the government has not fulfilled its promise of constructing new homes for them.
Non-governmental organisations and philanthropists have built houses for the remaining 28 families.
Government officials said title deeds for the land have been given to 55 families and the house construction is in progress in the nearby Poothakkolly estate.
‘Home is my only concern’
Fifty-year-old Prasanna is a tea leaf plucker in the plantation owned by the Harrisons Malayalam Limited. She has been working there for the past 35 years. The landslide had first hit her house in Puthumala.
“It rained heavily on August 8 in 2019. All of us were at home. We ran out when we heard a loud noise from the hill. Our house was not there when we looked back after a few seconds. I don’t want to remember that day,” she recounted as tears welled up her eyes.
The home that was washed away was built with Prasanna’s life savings. “It was my blood and sweat. I had spent all my 35 years’ savings to build that house. I lost everything,” she said.
Prasanna recently got the title deed for the land from the government. But she said house construction is yet to begin.
She has been living in a rented building for the past 16 months . The government had paid her the monthly rent of Rs 3,000 for the first six months.
Prasanna earns a daily wage of Rs 300. So she finds it difficult to pay the huge rent. “My children are jobless. I am the sole breadwinner of my family. I don’t know how long I have to pay the rent,” she said.
Prasanna said she would vote for the political party that gets her a home at the earliest. “Home is my only concern at the moment,” she said.
‘My vote is for those who helped me’
Fathimath Suhara had a miraculous escape from the landslide.
“We ran away from our house after our neighbour alerted us about the landslide. Had we stayed inside for a few more seconds, 10 of our family would have perished,” Suhara recounted.
Her house went under the rocks and mud in a few seconds. Since then she has been living in a rented home. “I am living in Kunnamangalam Vayal in Meppadi now. I am paying Rs 2,500 as rent every month. It is a huge burden for me,” she said.
The state government had offered to pay the rent for all landslide survivors for six months. Suhara said she received rent for just five months. “I did not get one month’s rent. My pleas for it went unheard. I don’t know who took it,”she said.
A philanthropic organisation is building a house for Suhara at the Poothakkolly estate. “I hope the construction will be completed in February next year. Till then, I have to pay the huge rent,” she said.
Suhara said she would favour the political party that helped her during the crisis time. “I will vote only for them.”
Election issue is rehabilitation
LDF candidate V K Souda and her UDF counterpart Sukanyamol Ash agreed that rehabilitation of the landslide victims is a major issue in Puthumala.
Souda said Puthumala residents would not forget the help given by the LDF government during and after the tragedy.
“The government gave Rs 10,000 to all affected families. House construction for those who lost homes is progressing. The title deeds for the land have already been given to them,” she said.
Sukanyamol countered this. “People have not got anything from the government after the ex-gratia of Rs 10,000,” said Sukanyamol, who escaped from the landslide.
“I had lost my house. Now I am staying in a house built by the Church. Seventeen people who lost their homes were not even included in the government list for rehabilitation,” she said.
Sukanya says people in Puthumala have only one demand at the moment. “They need houses.”