Year after Kerala floods, they are refugees in their own land


A savagely wild rain-triggered green has masked most of the wounds of the tropical hills surrounding Kerala's Idukki district. The land seems to have moved on after the tragedy last August, but not its people.

They look terribly unsure. When Onmanorama visited Idukki district a month after the deluge in September 2018, we saw traces of a defiant comeback. We found a people – farmers, traders, tribals – determined to brush aside the debris and somehow get on with their life.

When we returned almost a year later this July, we found the broken roads and buildings in better condition, but it looked like the people have given up. The defiance is still there, but it is as if they have realised that the odds are far bigger than what they thought it was. They seem to be struggling to get the measure of the beast they are up against.

Onmanorama re-visited the same set of people we had come across last year in some of the most devastated spots in the district. Their reality has altered so much that old tools of survival are simply not enough.

A small bakery shop owner has realised quite late that borrowing money and reopening his popular 24x7 shop will not be enough to see him through. A young tribal couple who had miraculously escaped a landslide last time are finding it increasingly difficult to live in the only piece of land they own. A trader of Ayurveda products before the floods has now to work as a marriage broker and send his wife for MGNREGA (rural employment guarantee scheme) work to make both ends meet. A small farmer who had lost all he had in last year's landslide has been provided a new plot for a house but he has also been told that his old land is unfit for agriculture, his only source of income.

Year after Kerala floods, they are refugees in their own land
Cheruthoni resident Surendran in front of his shuttered shop in July 2019.

Surendran, bakery shop owner | Cheruthoni

Year after Kerala floods, they are refugees in their own land
(Left) Cheruthoni river a month after the floods. (Right) The river during the 2018 August floods. File photos

(On August 13 when all the shutters of the Cheruthoni dam were open, a lean sickly Cheruthoni river suddenly swelled into a massive mythic beast that roared through the bustling Cheruthoni town like a crazed being. The northern part of the town, its bus stand and its numerous shops, including Surendran's, were smashed to nothing.)

Last time when we saw Surendran, he symbolised resistance. It was before sunrise on September 6, 2018, almost a month after the floods. Surendran had put up a table on the roadside right before his ravaged shop, arranged a stove, an emergency lamp, glasses and some steel and brass utensils on top of it and started selling tea. A fairly large group had gathered around him.

It was the first time Surendran was selling tea after what happened on August 13. By then, he had shelled out Rs 22,000 to plaster and rewire his small shop. All that was inside the shop – his fridge, shelves, bakery items, the grinder and even some money – were taken away by a hulk of a river. "I will soon put up the name board," he had then said.

Year after Kerala floods, they are refugees in their own land
Surendran works at his tea shop on the banks of Cheruthoni river in September 2018, a month after the floods.

This July when we reached Cheruthoni, a neatly done board announcing 'KRS Bakery' was there above the shop. The shop but was shuttered. We were told that Surendran had closed down the shop two months ago. Surendran, who lived on the other side of the Cheruthoni river, came down to his shop when we called him. He looked weary, and leaner. "I tried to keep my shop open for some months but I was running losses," Surendran said.

The District Panchayat that owned his shop had upped the rent to Rs 16,500 from Rs 13,000. "I would have found it hard to pay the rent even if it was Rs 13,000," he said. "Business had fallen sharply. There is no bus stand here now," Surendran said. It was the Cheruthoni bus stand that had provided Surendran the chunk of his business. His was a bakery in the morning and a 'thattukada' by night to cater to the night travellers who got down at the bus stand after midnight.

The bus stand had stood on the banks of a lean Cheruthoni river on encroached land. It will now be shifted far up, at least two kilometres away from the river. "I don't know what to do now. I have been out of work for two months," Surendran said. All the money he had received from some NGOs went into reviving his business, which has now gone defunct. He is thinking of a mobile night thattukada so that he will not have to pay rent and invest much.

Year after Kerala floods, they are refugees in their own land
(Left) Cheruthoni river a month after the floods. (Right) The river during the 2018 August floods. File photos

It is not just Surendran who has been hit hard. Business has generally come to a standstill in Cheruthoni. "We used to say that this was a town that never sleeps," said Latheesh, a young bakery owner whose 'Central Bakery' was bang opposite Surendran's and, like Surendran's, was fully destroyed. Latheesh has now opened a new shop further up the town, investing nearly Rs 15 lakh.

Year after Kerala floods, they are refugees in their own land
The floods in August 2018 severely damaged the Cheruthoni bridge. File photo

"Before the floods, I used to leave the shop only after 2.30 in the morning. The bus stand gave us lots of business. Now the town feels like a ghost town even by 9 in the night," Latheesh said. "Buses do have a stop near the river but those who get down don't come to the shops. People have lost their land and have no income these days," he said.

Likhi, a young truck-auto driver, said that he was planning to sell his vehicle. Before he used to get at least 10 trips a day, carrying cement or bricks or other household articles, even goats. "Nowadays I would be lucky if I get three. After the floods, no one has money and the poor have stopped doing even maintenance work for their homes," Likhi said.

Read more from Deluge Diaries

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.