The victims of the Pettimudi landslide, which killed at least 70 people on August 6, are still grappling with loss and a glaring lack of means to subsist.
Most of them are cramped in small houses, mostly of relatives, and living in sub-human conditions by sharing food and ablution utilities during this COVID times.
Living with injuries
Saraswathi has a metal rod implanted in the leg. The 50-year-old suffered deep injuries when she was almost buried in the landslide that killed her husband. A month after treatment at the Pushpagiri Medical College, Kozhancherry, and later at the Tata General Hospital in Munnar, a bed-ridden Saraswathi was asked to go to her ‘non-existent’ home.
The place she used to call home was buried under mounds of slushy earth which came tumbling down in what experts call a ‘channelised flow,’ during the landslip.
This week, her relatives took Saraswathi to their crammed ‘line house,’ the accommodation given to estate workers, at the Neymakkad estate in Rajamalai. She now lives with 10 members of that family.
A nick of luck
The family of Karthik P in Pettimudi is among the only two which did not report a single casualty among the 22 families affected by the disaster. However, Karthik, a driver, does not count himself lucky. A jeep and an autorickshaw, the only source of his income, were washed away.
“I have nothing left except some clothes and rice donated by people. No relatives are there to support me and my family. Among those killed, 30 are my relatives. Sometimes, I feel death would have been a better option,” he said.
After the number of casualties rose at Pettimudi, the Kerala government offered Rs 5 lakh each to the families of the deceased. The Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company Private Ltd (KDHP) offered as much to each family, too. The Tamil Nadu government offered Rs 3 lakh.
Despite all these offers, the survivors are left with nowhere to go. The compensation hasn’t come by yet.
After visiting Pettimudi on August 13, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had promised proper rehabilitation of the victims. He said that the government was ready to construct houses for them. However, the district administration is yet to get a positive response from the KDHP over the land.
Idukki Sub-collector S Premkrishnan told media after a meeting with the KDHP representatives this week that the company refused to provide land but offered Rs 1 crore for constructing the dwelling units. The company also promised job security and other facilities for those affected, he was quoted as saying.
The government was giving priority to the rehabilitation of eight ‘worst-hit’ families.
“Since most of the land belongs to the KDHP on lease, it is difficult to find government land for rehabilitation. The KDHP will have to find land for these eight families. Concerns are also being raised over another 13 families whose houses and properties were damaged in silt accumulation following the landslip. KDHP has been asked to provide alternate accommodation for those families too,” sources said.
The government had constituted a 12-member special committee headed by Munnar special Thahasildar Binu Joseph to assess the damage and find out measures to speed up the rehabilitation process.
The government was finding it difficult to identify the legal heirs of the victims. As per a report submitted to the District Collector on September 4, 14 of 22 families lost all members. Among the dead, there were 14 children, including 8 girls. The landslides killed 26 men and as many women. Dinesh Kumar, 22; Karthika, 21; Priyadarshini, 7; and Kasturi, 26; are still missing.
The report said the state government would need to spend Rs 3.51 crore for compensation. The loss in terms of damage to vehicles and loss of livestock was put at Rs 88 lakh. A team of officials from the Local Self-Government Department (LSGD) will assess damage to property.
“In order to speed up the distribution of compensation, we have collected all details. We completed the entire work in 15 days,” Binu Joseph said.
The survivors are more concerned over their stay and many felt some immediate solatium would be a great relief. Most survivors have found refuge in their relatives' houses while the KDHP has provided accommodation for the rest of its employees at available locations.
Owning a piece of land in Munnar, known for its idyllic hills, is an unachievable dream for most people, especially estate workers who earn around Rs 300 per day.
Karthik got to stay in the line house as his mother Malayammal was an estate-worker. “She earns around Rs 6,000. Apart from my occasional driving work, we live on that paltry sum.,” Karthik said.
A search for his son
There is another person who visits the disaster site each day without fail. P Shanmukhanathan, a cashier at the Kerala Bank at Marayoor, has been visiting the spot since August 7 in the hope of recovering the body of his sons. On the fateful day, they had gone to their relative’s house at Pettimudi to attend a birthday party. While the body of 19-year-old engineering student Nitheesh Kumar was recovered on the second day, his elder brother Dinesh Kumar, 22, is still missing. The district administration wound up official search operations but Shanmukhanathan, his brother Aanandha Rajan, and some local people are continuing the search with two earth-movers provided by the grama panchayat and the Revenue Department.
(Jisha Surya is an independent journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram)