The death toll in the landslide at a tea plantation in Rajamala in Kerala’s Idukki district rose to 49 on Monday after six bodies, mostly of children, were retrieved from the river bank adjacent to the accident site.
While 12 people have been rescued so far, 21 remain missing, according to figures provided by the tea plantation firm.
On the night of August 6, a landslide, precipitated by heavy downpour, buried rows of residential quarters or “layams” of plantation workers at the Nyamakad estate near the hill station of Munnar. Over 80 people are believed to have been living in those quarters at the time of the tragedy.
A top official overseeing the search and rescue efforts at the site told The Indian Express that the operations would be focused more on areas near the river bank as chances of victims having been washed away as part of the debris during the landslide are high. The discovery of more bodies on Monday from such areas also indicated the same.
“Till Sunday, we had focused most of our search efforts at the site of the landslide itself where we got around 14 bodies. There were a lot of huge boulders, so we have been blasting them to go deeper. But once we discovered bodies from the riverbank, we formed 10 units of 10 personnel each to scan those areas,” said Prem Krishnan, sub-collector of Devikulam that encompasses the Pettimudi division where the landslide was reported.
“We have not been able to find bodies from the landslide site for many hours. That means, either these bodies could be buried very deep. Or they could have been washed away. Bad weather certainly has been a big problem (affecting search operations). But our policy is that we will continue the search until the last body is recovered.”
Dean Kuriakose, the Congress MP from Idukki who visited the site on Monday, concurred with the decision to nudge search operations towards the river bank.
“Since we have searched most parts of the landslide site, there are doubts whether we would find any more bodies there. Rescue agencies are now operating in the lower reaches of the river. We have around 500 personnel engaged in these efforts,” said Kuriakose.
Meanwhile, the threat of Covid-19 had briefly halted the works of relief operations after personnel of the Kerala Fire and Rescue Services from Alappuzha tested positive for Covid-19.
“We sent the entire team back to Alappuzha. As part of precautionary measures, we plan to subject some of the rescue personnel to rapid antigen tests at the site itself. In yesterday’s 10 samples, all results were negative. But we don’t want to take any risks. We banned the entry of the public to the landslide site to prevent crowds,” said Krishnan, the IAS officer.
With hopes of finding survivors nearly dim, emotions ran high at the disaster site all through Monday as grieving relatives waited to find their loved ones, even if to bury them and find closure. The landslide has wiped out entire families of tea plantation workers who lived in rows of close, tiny quarters. For example, at least 12 members of the family of former Munnar panchayat member Ananda Siva including himself are believed to have perished in the tragedy.
“We have only retrieved remains of his wife and son. His body along with those of his brothers and their kids are yet to be traced. All of them lived in the same “layams” or quarters,” said Karuppasamy, president of the Munnar panchayat, adding that there were similar landslip-prone plantations where such workers continue to live and work in hazardous conditions.
“Relocating them now suddenly from those quarters is not going to work. We may have to discuss with the tea companies and the government to set up permanent homes or apartments for them to stay,” he said.
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