Koncilal Mary sinks into her chair on hearing the news: the previous day, August 12, the body of 10-year-old Nadhia, Mary’s student at the Little Flower Girls High School in Munnar, had been fished out of the river adjoining the site of one of the worst landslides to hit Kerala’s Idukki district.
“I couldn’t believe it… She was a good child, good at studies, had beautiful handwriting. The last I saw her was in March, when the lockdown had just been announced and she was leaving for home. Her mother had come to pick her up and she was so happy,” says Mary, who was Nadhia’s class teacher last year.
Three other children from the school too died in the landslide.
Fact Check| A look at how the Idukki landslide occurred
Around 10.45 pm on August 6, amid heavy rains that lashed the state, rocks, slurry and sludge had crashed down the slopes into Pettimudi, a hamlet in Rajamala ward under Munnar village panchayat in Idukki district, crushing the four rows of ‘layams’ or residential quarters where workers of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company (P) Ltd lived with their families.
By Friday afternoon, search and rescue agencies had retrieved 56 bodies, including that of 10 children, Nadhiya’s among them. But the worst isn’t over: 14 people, around eight of them children, are still missing.
The school nearest to the hamlet is the one in Rajamalai, a government lower primary with classes up to Grade 5, after which most children enroll in government and aided schools in Munnar and beyond. But the journey to Munnar, around 20 km away, is a long and difficult one and most children in Pettimudi and nearby hamlets prefer to stay back in hostels in the town. Around 11 of the 16 children who studied in schools in Munnar and beyond stayed in hostels; the others commuted to the town every day in shared autos.
Hepsi Christinal S, a programme coordinator in Munnar with the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, says she heard of the landslide from a WhatsApp message the following morning. “I just prayed, ‘God… let there be no children among the dead’,” she says.
But Christinal knew that casualties of children, especially those of school-going age, were inevitable. After all, with the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, most children from the settlement had left their hostels to go home. “I couldn’t help wish they hadn’t gone home. If it weren’t for Covid and the lockdown, they would have been in school and their hostels… they would have probably been around today.”
Mary, who lived close to the pre-metric government hostel where Nadhiya stayed, says, “These children would want to go home at the slightest opportunity. So every weekend, they would get ready early morning, wear nice clothes and wait patiently for their parents. And then, on their way home, they would stop at Munnar to eat snacks or biryani. Little things… but meant a lot to these children.”
Back in Pettimudi, such accounts of children and their dreams are hard to document, considering most of their parents and immediate families were killed that night. Of the 82 people who lived in the settlement, only 12 were rescued. Among the survivors, some are still undergoing treatment at the Tata Hospital nearby and the Medical College in Kolenchery.
At the site of the tragedy, notebooks of children still lie in the slush, amid mangled remains of vehicles and what were once homes. A long brown gash on the side of a hill indicates the path of the landslide, believed to have originated at least five kilometres above. A week after the landslide, earthmovers and rescue personnel continue to dig the earth, looking for bodies. Government officials, however, believe there is little chance of recovering any more bodies and that many may have been washed away into the river and possibly into a dam further downstream.
Idukki landslide| Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan promises land, homes for those affected
Velmurugan, whose settlement close to Pettimudi escaped the landslide by a few metres, was inconsolable on the phone. “I cannot even switch on the TV to look at the news. These people were all so close to us and so full of love. I would see their children every day, playing between the layams. They would come to me often, calling ‘mama, mama (uncle, uncle)’. That night, I could hear their screams, but because of the heavy rain, I couldn’t do anything. The next morning, I saw all four rows of layams had vanished.”
These days, says Velmurugan, his daughter Hema, who was Nadhiya’s roommate in the hostel, begins to sob uncontrollably as the sun sets. “She is wide awake at night… says she can’t sleep. This pain won’t go away.”
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