Renjini, the caretaker of the Poomala Dam, was the first woman to engage in rescue work during the devastating floods witnessed by Kerala last year. This year too, the employee of the Tourism Department has been at the forefront of relief activities. Renjini recalls her experiences during the floods of 2018.
How it all began
Renjini received a directive from the District Collector to make available the boats of the Tourism Department at Poomala to rescue patients stranded at Daya Hospital in Thrissur. As caretaker of the dam, Renjini and her team took the boats to the hospital. She could then return, but decided to continue at the spot to take part in the rescue mission.
“We all live in an age of uncertainty, and so I did not think twice before joining the efforts to shift the patients out of the hospital surrounded by dirty flood waters,” she says.
There were patients in the operation theatre, intensive care unit and even those with oxygen masks. There was polluted water everywhere as the hospital was flooded. “We were well aware that the unclean water would cause serious harm to the patients. So, extreme caution was exercised in shifting them. But I did not hesitate at all to step into that water to rescue the patients,” says Renjini.
The current was very swift and the patients had to be carried over a distance of 150-200 m from the hospital to the road. “Rescue workers tied a rope along the middle of the path from the hospital to the road. Patients were brought on stretchers, which were placed on the boat. Rescuers held on the rope and without losing balance, took the boat to the road. Some patients sat on wooden planks in the boat,” she informs.
A young mother's plight
There are some patients whom Renjini still remembers well. One among them was a young mother. “We had brought her to the road in the boat. But she did not step out. I asked her why. She told me that she could not as her delivery had taken place barely a couple of hours earlier. ‘My baby is with my mother,’ she said,” explains Renjini.
“I considered how I could help her. Then I saw a vehicle of the Revenue Department. I told two rescue workers to carry the young mother to the vehicle. She should be allowed to lie down all the time, I instructed the other rescue workers,” adds Renjini.
She feels that as a woman rescue worker, the young mother could reveal her difficulty to her. “Now I feel proud about the incident,” adds the state's first woman rescuer of 2018.
Another woman for whom Renjini proved to be a saviour was crying out aloud with labour pain. “She was shifted to the boat from the labour room. I felt she would deliver in the boat itself and something had to be done quickly. Then I saw an ambulance heading that way and rushed to the road. I stood right in the middle of the road and blocked the speeding ambulance, which was full of patients. I asked the ambulance staff to take the pregnant woman also. Initially, they refused but I asked some persons in the vehicle who were not patients to get down and accommodate the woman in labour. Then they noticed my ID tag and maybe thought that I was some senior official and agreed. The woman was taken to another hospital in that ambulance. When we reached the road with the next batch of patients from Daya Hospital, I heard that the young woman's delivery had taken place at the other hospital,” remembers Renjini.
The useful whistle
Renjini's tag had a whistle attached to it and she used it frequently; mainly to stop onlookers from clicking pictures on their mobiles. “The place was surrounded by slushy waters and when big vehicles like a Taurus truck passed the waters almost submerged rescue workers like me. I thought that clicking photos in such a situation was not at all appropriate,” she explains.
“The people who crowded around watching the rescue probably thought that I was a woman police officer,” she adds.
Renjini's presence was a big relief for many women. “As a female, I could understand their health issues and many of the patients could open up about their problems to me. I organized the rescue in such a way that they were least inconvenienced,” she says.
Apart from Daya Hospital, Renjini had taken part in the rescue mission at Pullu last year. “The water level had reached the wiper of the Taurus truck when were arrived there. I had spent two days at Daya Hospital before heading to Pullu, where I joined the rescue for a day. Often, rescuers hardly notice whom they save. Similarly, the victims of calamities rarely remember their saviour. However, I have a different experience to share. Residents of Pullu contact me even now with invitations to various functions in the locality. I feel proud and happy then,” she says.
One day, a young man met Renjini. “He asked me whether I recognized him and added that it was I who had rescued his mother from Daya Hospital. I felt touched,” says Renjini.
On Thiruvonam day last year, Renjini had relished the feast at the relief camp in Pullu. “Many people expressed their gratitude on that occasion also,” she adds.
A difficult issue
At Pullu, Renjini was helpless in one situation. A teenage girl approached her for a sanitary napkin or at least a piece of cloth. “She was desperate. But the rescue mission had only started and items like sanitary pads were yet to reach the camps. I can never forget the girl's sad face and plight,” says the rescuer.
Bane of caste
Yet another incident too sank Renjini's spirits. “We reached a submerged house where a 70-year-old woman lived. She came out of the house but approaching the boat, she shouted, ‘Don't touch me’. We all felt sad as the upper caste woman did not leave old beliefs behind even amid such a tragedy. She was finally taken to a camp barely 200m from her house,” she recalls.
A family of rescuers
Renjini's family not only gave her full support during the rescue mission, but also joined the efforts. Anil, her husband, belongs to Kadavalloor House, Kadavalllor Desom in Elavally. The couple has two children, Vysakh and Vaishnav. “My husband took part in the rescue mission at Guruvayur, while my son, a plus-two student, and a brother were with me at Daya Hospital and Pullu,” she says.
According to Renjini, her role model in social work is her father. “Every day, I reached home by midnight during the rescue efforts and slept only after giving a report to my superiors over phone. I have two other brothers too, but no one objected to my activities,” she says.
During the first days of the rescue efforts, food was an issue for Renjini. “Even a hot cup of tea was a luxury at that time. It was given to us from the house of the Deputy Commissioner, who is a friend. It provided the energy for the rescue,” she reveals.
A deserving honour
As a Tourism Department official, Renjini had to report to her senior officer about the places the boats were taken, the number of people rescued and other details. “I reported to Deputy Director Bindumani even at the midnight hour. Similar reports were submitted by other rescue workers belonging to the Tourism Department in other districts,” she adds.
Renjini has a divinity and a long list of persons to thank for being selected as the first woman rescuer of last year. “I express my gratitude to Lord Guruvayoorappan, my family, Sarojni Teacher, Annie, Ramachandran Perimbidi, Collector M S Jaya, Kudumbashree coordinator Abdul Latheef, Deputy Director Bindumani, Crime Branch retired SP R K Jayarajan, my colleagues and media persons,” she adds.
The honour of being the first woman rescuer was, in fact, a surprise for Renjini. “I went to Thiruvananthapuram along with other rescuers, boat owners and others for a felicitation function on September 3, 2018. At the event, Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran announced that I was the first woman rescuer. I was active on August 16, 17, and 18, 2018. But from August 19, several other women had joined the rescue missions,” she elaborates.
After the floods subsided and relief camp inmates went home, Renjini did a follow-up and found that a family remained in the camp at Manalur as their house had washed away. The news had appeared in a TV channel. Renjini collected details from the reporter, met the family and started an account seeking aid. Among those who helped was Joy Alukkas, the jeweller and a man named Firoze who contributed Rs 3 lakh. Finally, a four-cent plot was bought for the family and house construction started. “The family will shift to the house before Onam this year. Unfortunately, the father of the family, who was suffering from liver cirrhosis, is no more,” says Renjini.
This year's mission
During this year's floods, the first place Renjini rushed to was Peringavu. She helped shift people to relief camps. Meanwhile, she received a call from a relative near Nilambur, where a massive landslide had occurred at Pothukallu. “I went there with undergarments and sanitary pads. We had some difficulty finding the camp. There were 1,800 people there, including 582 women and 85 kids,” she says.
At Murukanjiram camp, there were 164 inmates, but the local people had allowed the women and children to sleep in their houses. “In some houses, around 15 women were staying,” she says.
Now Renjini is planning to collect books and bags for children who return to their houses from the camp. “These people have lost everything,” she says. Renjini also remembers people who have donated generously for the cause. “Some of them gave everything in their house to the rescuers so that they could not feed their own children. Such people too need help,” she feels.
A caretaker of Poomala Dam for the last five years, Renjini is active in social work over the last 18 years. She is a member of Snehasparsam, an organization helping senior citizens, Kunnamkulam palliative care society and the library movement.