The elders in Nilambur have unnerving memories of the kind of devastation that befell the town this week. In 1961, one of Kerala’s wettest years, the town, although not as developed and popular as now, was said to be submerged for days by the floodwaters from the mighty Chaliyar river. Fifty-eight years later, the memories have come back to haunt them.
On Saturday afternoon, as monsoon showers eased up, the swollen waters of the Chaliyar receded from the heart of Nilambur to leave a town under a wrap of brown sludge and muck. The town, hidden in the Nilgiri range of the Western Ghats and loved by the British for its beauty and more so for its abundance of teak and rosewood trees, has been left broken by the floods, its shops and commercial establishments plundered and its people wanting for relief.
As the waters receded into the drains, shopkeepers and locals came out of their homes on the streets to inspect their shops and converse in huddles on the way forward. Their shops plastered with thick layers of brown sludge, retailers spent their afternoon, furiously cleaning with large mops and brooms. Schools, banks, ATMs, hospitals, salons, grocery stores, jewellery stores, water had forced its way in everywhere. On the outskirts of the town, there were distressing scenes of entire homes and acres of arecanut and banana plantations submerged under turbid floodwaters.
Ashraf, who runs a store selling inner garments for women, showed photographs of when the water entered his shop. “Look at the water. It was more than a man’s height. I’ve never seen such water,” he said.
“When we saw the water reaching up till 500 meters away, we began packing our stocks and keeping it on higher shelves. But within minutes, the water sped towards us. We had to shut shop and run,” he added. Ashraf tallies his losses at Rs 2 lakh, since he could move out some stocks. Others, including some which sell expensive phones and gadgets, are staring at much bigger losses.
What has added to the misery is that power and communication lines are still disrupted in many parts. The staff of the Kerala State Electricity Board, otherwise spirited, have been stretched to their limits across the state. For the past four days, Nilambur has been blacked out and its people unaware of developments around them. Big and small hotel staff warn their customers that power would be turned off in the night hours to cool the generators.
Even at relief camps, set up at schools in the town to accommodate people whose homes are partially or completely submerged, the generators are deployed only at night. Till late Saturday evening, the men and women at the Govt UP school, turned into a camp, sat silently in classrooms around a candle as a few men rushed to the neighborhood ration shop to procure kerosene to run the generators. In the school’s midday meal kitchen, a few of the inmates prepared to chop vegetables to cook for dinner.
“We have now received orders from the government to procure all essentials including rice, vegetables and kerosene from the ration shop. I think we will be okay,” said Sheeja, a school teacher and regional president of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, a voluntary organisation aiming to develop social and scientific temper among the masses.
Till Friday, Sheeja herself couldn’t come to help out at the relief camp as her home, a few kilometres away, got marooned by floodwaters. The waters threatened to come very close, but receded after a while without entering her home.
She argued that the flooding of the town could not just be attributed to the accumulation of rain water this week. “It has to be the landslides in Kavalappara, Mundakadavu and Meppadi. When the debris slides into the Chaliyar, naturally the river cannot hold it. The debris has mud and uprooted trees. So naturally, the river will flow in spate and changed its course also,” she said. Her colleague added, “The water was rising as fast as the height of a man in just a single hour. You can imagine.”
At the relief camp, 60-year-old Ambujakshi is emotional when she talks about her home. “We lived there for 40 years. Today, it’s gone..,” her voice trails off as her mouth tightens.
“Our house was nowhere near the river. But still, the river came into our house and swept into it. Today we went to see it. People asked us not to go there. How can we not go? I think there are snakes inside,” she said.
Behind Ambujakshi, there is a queue of women waiting to update this reporter about the state of their homes. Somehow, a mention about their home in the paper is all they need. Pramod Kalaparambil, Nalini, Thayanna, Ajitha, Krishnan, Chandrika, Vineetha, all of their homes in ward number 1, either partially or fully submerged. “Son, have you written Chandrika’s name? She’s not here, but we’re all neighboUrs. We’re all in this together,” Ambujakshi, a slight grin on her face.