Nine-year-old Muhammed Rishal does not want to go back to Makkimala, his home village in Kerala's Wayanad district, any more. "I don't want to go there. The hill in our village kills people," he said.
Rishal's parents Abdul Razak and Zeenath were killed in a massive landslide that hit Makkimala in the early hours of August 9, 2018. Boulders and debris from the hill fell on them before they could get up from their sleep. Rishal and his two elder brothers – Muhammad Rajmal, 18, and Muhammad Rajinas, 16 – who were sleeping in the same house escaped unhurt. "We mustered all our energy and ran to safety. It was a miraculous escape," Rishal recounted.
Makkimala village in Tavinhal panchayat lies 40km north-east of Wayanad district's capital Kalpetta.
An eerie silence envelops Makkimala as it gets ready to observe the first anniversary of the landslide. The remains of Razak's house, almost fully covered with mud, stands a memorial to the tragedy. Portions of concrete, stones and metal lay strewn on the ground.
Living to tell the tale
The three orphaned boys live under the care of Razak’s sister, Asmabi.
Rishal's elder brother Rajinas said he feels a shiver down his spine whenever he recollects the incidents of August 9.
"Our parents were sleeping in the room close to the hill while we three were in the other room," he said. "Rishal and I got up from bed when we heard the sound of boulders rolling down the hill. I woke up our eldest brother (Rajmal). We tried to wake up our parents, but we did not get any response from them."
As more boulders and trees began to slide the mountain, Rajmal clung on to the roof, "I lifted Rishal. Rajmal pulled him up. In a few seconds all of us were on top of the roof. We ran to safety when the roof began to crumble."
They woke up the entire neighbourhood and pleaded them to rescue their parents. "We went back to the place where our house stood, but it was fully covered by earth by then," he said.
After the tragedy, the boys were sent to the government-run relief camp. "Those were the difficult times in our lives. We spent each day thinking about our parents," Rajinas said.
Counsellors from Kozhikode helped them tide over the crisis. "The counsellors told us many motivating stories. They urged us to concentrate on our studies," Rajinas said. And just seven months after the incident, Rajinas wrote the Class 10 examination. He scored 47 per cent marks to qualify for higher studies. "Classmates and teachers at the Government Higher Secondary School in Thalappuzha gave me the confidence to write the examination," said Rajinas. "Now I can try to realise my dream of becoming a police officer," he said.
Rishal said he misses his parents badly. "They gave us all the love and affection. They used to correct us when we made mistakes."
The government has allotted Rs 10 lakh for them to buy land and build a new house.
Tavinhal panchayat president P Anisha said the construction will begin soon. "The panchayat will ensure that the boys will get a new house as early as possible," she said.
Wayanad district had experienced 247 landslides, landslips and land subsidence or cave-ins on August 9, a few days before the rest of Kerala was hit by the century's worst floods. This is quite unusual as the hilly district – part of the ecologically fragile Western Ghats – did not register a single landslide since 2016 while the last reported case of land subsidence was in 2008. Makkimala was one of the worst landslide affected areas in the district.
Landslides are the mass movement of rock, debris or earth down a slope. During landslides, the earth breaks as it cannot withstand the pressure exerted by rain water.
District soil conservation officer P U Das said the reason for landslides in Makkimala was soil dissociation. "During heavy rain, earth dissociates into gravel, clay and fine particles. This disintegration weakens the earth. This happened in Makkimala," he explained.
After the tragedy, 21 families had deserted the village fearing further landslides. They are now settled in different parts of the district.
All is not well
Those who stay put in Makkimala – around 30 from six families - have been complaining that the government has not addressed their grievances.
Since the onset of south-west monsoon in June, government officials have been persuading them to move to relief camps as a precaution to avert another tragedy. But the villagers are not convinced. "It is a government ploy," claimed Vishwambharan. "The government wants to drive us out of Makkimala. Hence they are adopting such tactics. We will not budge unless we get enough money to buy land and build new home," he said.
The government has offered Rs 6 lakh to buy land and Rs 4 lakh to build house. "The amount is not adequate to buy agriculture land. How can I make ends meet without farming," asked Vishwambharan, who grows coffee and cardamom.
Fear gripped the village when the monsoon gathered momentum in the second week of July this year. The villagers told this correspondent that they are living in constant fear.
"Another tragedy looms large over Makkimala this monsoon. We ask for immediate government action," said P Shameer, a daily wage labourer.
Government officials believe the situation is not that bad in Makkimala. "There are no imminent dangers," said P U Das. "The hill will settle in a few years. Only a heavy rain will change the scenario," he said.
But Makkimala residents are not satisfied. "We know Makkimala better than the government officials. The hill will burst this time too when monsoon picks momentum," said Parameswaran, 62, who lost his right hand while working in a quarry two decades ago. "The government has the duty to protect us," he said.
Back in his rented house, nine-year-old Rishal too echoed Parameshwaran's concerns. "I am afraid of Makkimala. It will burst during the monsoon. So I will never go back there."