Outside Rexon Joseph’s house in Chellanam, soggy pages of a Bible, a clay model of infant Jesus and some damp medical certificates spread out in the sand glistened brightly in the hot afternoon sun. These are some of the few valuables the family is holding on to after Joseph’s death.
A stone’s throw away from the sea, Joseph’s house was inundated on Friday morning in the aftermath of Ockhi, a severe cyclonic storm that swept through the Arabian Sea last week. At the insistence of the local police, Joseph’s family had moved to a relief camp set up at a nearby school. But the next day, Joseph was back to check up on the condition of his house, his family said.
“That’s when it happened. He (Joseph) must not have seen the deep sand pits around the house. Neighbours found him collapsed in the water a few hours later,” said Joseph’s father-in-law. “If there was a sea wall, water wouldn’t have come in. He would have been alive today,” his neighbour Raju chimed in.
This need for a strong and stable sea wall remains the focal point of the agitation by residents of Chellanam, a coastal village 20 kms off Kochi. They believe that only a strong sea wall, constructed by boulders, would stem repeated sea incursions and avert tragedies like Joseph’s death.
On Monday, parts of the existing sea wall lay crumbled and broken as huge waves crashed into it. Concrete walls that some families had built to protect their backyards also lay in tatters. “We only want a strong sea wall. Nothing else. We don’t want any government compensation or free ration. We will not settle for anything else,” said Kunjumon, who operates a fishing boat in the sea.
In the absence of a sea wall, rising waters have partially or completely damaged nearly 600 houses in Chellanam, according to reports. “There’s nothing left at home. We don’t even have clothes to change. It will be months before we can enter our houses,” an emotional Kunjumon added.
Several houses in the area, the Indian Express visited on Monday, lay desperately crying for repair. Heaps of sand filled bedrooms and drawing rooms, with black marks of water visible on the walls. The toilets are clogged and a putrid smell filled the house. Appliances like fridge and washing machine were either gone floating in the water or lying in shambles. Many families fear that important documents have been washed away.
Mariamma, who lives near Joseph’s house, remembered being panic-stricken as she saw water entering her house on Friday morning. “Around 7 am, I was boiling water to make tea. Suddenly my son shouted and I saw water gushing into the kitchen. Within minutes, water had risen till the knees. I left everything and I ran out of the house,” recalled Mariamma. “Even during the 2004 tsunami, water hadn’t risen so much. I have never seen the sea like this. We built the house with so much difficulty. Now it’s wrecked,” she said.
About a kilometre away at the St Mary’s High School, which has transformed into a large relief camp, several men and women sat on a hunger strike on Monday, demanding immediate government attention. For hours, they sat listening to members of the Church, holding banners and occasionally shouting slogans.
Mary Jacob, among the protesting women, is determined not to leave the relief camp without their demands being accepted. In her 50s, she is not supposed to go on a fast. But Mary said she had to register her protest this time for it’s her life and that of her children at stake.
“Our children haven’t slept at night peacefully for years. They are very scared. They have a right to live in peace,” a frail Mary said.