It has been a week since Kuttanad — known as Kerala’s granary and for its backwater tourism — has turned into a ghost town. The flood water from the eastern hills and towns of central Kerala have submerged the region twice this monsoon, flushing out 2 lakh people from their houses.
While flood-hit people elsewhere in Kerala have begun to pick up the pieces, the residents of Kuttanad remain refugees in the mainlands of Alappuzha and Changanassery in Kottayam district, where they have been lodged in camps since August 15.
As all houses, situated beside paddy fields and backwaters, remain flooded, no one is living in the 80 affected villages spread over 880 sq km in the districts of Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta. During the day, some of them paddle their kothumbu vallam (tiny country craft) to villages to check whether their houses have survived the flood.
Flood is not new to Kuttanad, which is 2.2 metres below sea level. The region’s water bodies have to bear the discharge from rivers Pampa, Achankovil, Manimala, Meenachil and Muvattupuzha. This monsoon, along with the heavy flow from the rivers, the poor discharge through two regulators has resulted in the floodwater staying in the region.
“Water would flood our paddy fields. But never has it submerged us like this. In the first bout of flood last month, we lost our entire cultivation. We stayed in camps within Kuttanad. But last week, we were completely uprooted as there was no safe place in Kuttanad,” said farmer A D Raju, who is now in a relief camp.
According to official data, paddy cultivation spread over 8,500 hectares has perished, as has 80 per cent of the livestock. There is no power supply in Kuttanad. All transformers are in flood water, as are hundreds of pump sets that drain the fields for cultivation. “We don’t know how people will begin cultivation even if water recedes,” said Thankachan M, a farmer at Mithrankary village.
Kuttanad had been surviving on backwater fishing, paddy cultivation and tourism. The flood has hit the houseboat/resort tourism sector too. High-end resorts were submerged, twice this monsoon. The 2,000-odd houseboats, which make a windfall in this festival season, remained anchored. When schools and other institutions could not accommodate the displaced, the government converted the houseboats into camps.
Few houses in Kuttanad have a second storey. The houses erected on mud banks were sitting precariously in flood waters. Several such mud banks have collapsed in the flood.
At one of the relief camps in Changanassery, S Lineesh, a 32-year-old farm worker, was worried about his hut in Mithrankari. “It must have collapsed by now. Last month, too, I had to move to a relief camp within Kuttanad. We were just starting life again when last week’s flood destroyed everything. ”
Lanya A, a fourth-standard student from Muttar village, is among thousands of students in Kuttanad who couldn’t attend school since June. “I went to school for only two weeks due to the flood. My books and uniforms are lost in the flooded house,” she said, while staying at a relief camp in Changanassery.
Mujeeb A, a boat driver, said there was nothing left at his house. “The house is flooded for a month. I had 12 goats. As the water level rose, we kept lifting the cage. Finally, I had to abandon them in the flood,” he said.
Anil Kumar of Kainakari village said people had adequate food at relief camps, “but how long will it continue? Loss of agriculture and milking animals will make us impoverished in the coming days.”
Athmajan A R, who stays at Nehru Trophy ward which comes under Alappuzha municipality, said he had never faced such a situation. “The flood water has destroyed septic tanks in many houses. So we fear epidemics,” he said. Athmajan, a fisherman, said that fishing in the backwaters had stopped 45 days ago. “We can’t venture into the water due to strong currents. My family is completely dependent on the free food supply from the government,” he said.
Soumay Joy, 34, a farm worker from Changankary in Kuttanad, said she and her husband Joy, 46, had been jobless for two months. “We had taken loans, for which we have to pay Rs 2,000 a week. The financier’s men came to this refugee camp and asked us to pay,” she said.
The water level in Kuttanad is regulated by two structures, Thaneermukkam bund and Thottappally spillway. When the bund was renovated recently, there was a huge deposit of sand, which was not removed due to a dispute between the contractor and the civic body over ownership of sand.
Congress MP K C Venugopal, who represents Alappuzha, said, “There is total failure of the system. For the last two months, I have been demanding removal of the sand to ensure outflow of floodwater from Kuttanad. After the flood, we demanded a barge to remove the sand. I hope it will reach today or tomorrow.” He said it would take a long time for Kuttanad to come to terms with the situation. “The entire region will have to start from scratch,” he added.