Idukki: At least 26 people were killed and over 40 others are feared trapped under the debris after a landslide triggered by heavy rains flattened a row of dwelling units of tea estate workers at Pettimudi near Rajamala in Kerala's Idukki district early Friday.
A massive search operation, using man and machine, is underway on Saturday to find missing people as soon as possible.
According to the Tata Tea Company, where theses people were employed, there were 81 people in the housing units. However, the district authorities said a total of 78 people were in the area at the time of the tragedy. As many as 12 people were rescued from the site on Friday.
The incident occurred in the wee hours when a huge mound of earth fell on the "row houses" and two children and five women were among the deceased, most of whom were plantation workers from neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
Efforts are underway amid continuing rains to locate the missing people in the first major rain-related mishap since the onset of South West monsoon last month that brought back memories of devastation caused by floods and landslides in the previous two years in the state.
Teams of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel, Kerala Police and Fire and Rescue personnel along with local people are searching for survivors at the site, despite the unfavourable weather conditions.
The state government has also sought an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter to assist in the mission.
Defence sources said a helicopter was ready at the Southern Air Command in Thiruvananthapuram, but was waiting for the weather to clear.
Crime Branch IG Gopesh Agarwal has been appointed as special officer for coordinating the rescue and rehabilitation operations in Pettimudi.
There were thick fog in the area early Saturday morning, which delayed the rescue efforts.
The state health department has dispatched 15 ambulances and a special medical team to provide medical assistance to the victims of the landslide.
The injured have been admitted to a private Medical College Hospital in Kolenchery in Ernakulam district and Tata General Hospital at Munnar.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi expressed anguish at the loss of lives in the landslide.
Cooking utensils buried in mud, asbestos and tin sheets strewn around were all there to be seen at the area, which was the habitation of around 80 odd workers at the picturesque area near a tea plantation, about 30 kms from the tourist town of Munnar. Big boulders are also scattered around the site.
The tragedy came to light after a forest watchman informed authorities about the landslide. The communication lines have been down in the area since the past three days.
Relief package announced
Condoling the death of workers in the tragedy, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has announced initial solatium of Rs 5 lakh each for the kin of the dead.
Treatment expenses for the injured will be borne by the government, he said on Friday.
In view of the Pettimudi incident, the district collectors have been directed to ensure safety and security of the workers staying in dwelling units in the tea estates.
The Prime Minister's Office said in a tweet that an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each from the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF) would be given to the next of kin of those killed in the landslide.
Rs 50,000 each would be given to those injured.
"Pained by the loss of lives due to a landslide in Rajamalai, Idukki. In this hour of grief, my thoughts are with the bereaved families," Modi tweeted. Praying for the early recovery of the injured, he said.
Home Minister Shah in a tweet said an NDRF team has reached Idukki to assist in the rescue and relief operations.
Rahul Gandhi, who represents Wayanad in Lok Sabha, in a message said "This is a terrible tragedy. I urge all our Congress party workers and leaders to lend a helping hand at this time and do whatever they can to mitigate the suffering of our brothers and sisters who are in need of help."
The death toll in rain-related incidents since June 1 this year has risen to 51. One person died in a house collapse in Palakkad on Friday, officials said.