For a few days, almost every year during the monsoon, the Junior Basic (JB) School in Desom, on the far edge of the city of Kochi in Kerala, would turn into a virtual flood-relief camp. Positioned just 300 metres from the national highway on a higher surface, the school, believed to be over 125 years old, was always marked as a safe zone by the people of nearby villages like Purayar and Puthuvassery, prone to regular flooding from the Periyar.
Every year, when the river seizes their homes, the families, mostly belonging to the SC community, would gather what they can and run to the school at Desom. Except, this year, when the Periyar flowed in spate, even the JB school failed them. For 72 hours, the upper-primary school, its offices, classrooms, kitchen and anganwadi remained under water.
On Wednesday, as per government directions, the school reopened after a fortnight of raging floods and the subsequent Onam-Bakrid vacation. But of the 53 students enrolled at the government school between LKG and grade 4, just about ten students turned up. Headmistress Ramlah Beevi and four staff teachers were present to welcome them with chocolates and biscuits, but it was evident that neither the school nor its staff faculty was ready to start anew.
“Except one, all the staff’s homes were flooded this time, including mine. My husband and kids are all out there cleaning. I’m a very healthy woman, but today, for the first time in my life, I felt my head spin. I had to sit down. This is our mental state,” says Ramlah Beevi, who took charge as a headmistress at the school just two months ago.
For the past one week, after the flood waters receded from Desom and nearby areas, Beevi says, she and other teaching and cleaning staff had to devote an equal amount of time to the sanitation of their own homes and the school. If the damage to their homes was extensive, so was that of the school. Despite a week of cleaning works, heaps of mud and filth lay scattered around the front yard of the school. Inside the school office, tonnes of files and important documents, partially drenched in floodwaters, were hung out to dry. Instruments of critical school infrastructure like laptops, desktops and a printer sat in a corner, waiting to be drained. Inside classrooms, wooden benches and desks lay in disarray.
From the school’s kitchen, used for cooking the mid-day meals, several important utensils had floated away. In one of the rooms, a teacher was horrified to find a small slithering sand boa resting in a corner. Perhaps the most wrenching sight was a dirty brown line, a sort of an indelible mark left behind by the flood waters, running along the walls of the school corridor, painted with images of Kerala’s classical dance forms like Kathakali and Mohiniyattam.
“After a lot of English-medium schools came up in this area over the last few areas, the enrolment of students went down considerably. Today, we have students only from the poorest communities coming to study here. Their homes have been washed away. Their books and bags have all been lost. The government has promised to supply us with essential books within two days,” the headmistress said.
A man, employed as a cleaner at the school over the last 14 years, said it made him sad to see the institution like this, wrecked by the most calamitous floods Kerala has ever seen. “Three-fourth of the school was flooded. We never thought the water from the river could rise all the way here,” he said.
Jaffer, an assistant sub-inspector with the state special branch (SSB) of the Kerala Police, visited the school as part of his duty to oversee the cleaning works. “This is one of the badly-affected schools here under our station jurisdiction. I have spoken to the panchayat officials. I will wait till 5 pm to see whether the cleaning work is completed. If not, I will send a report to my superior which will be forwarded to the chief minister’s office,” he informed.
Inside one of the classrooms, Veluppandi, a student of class 1, and his elder sister, Pandiamma, of class 3, sat around munching biscuits. Wearing clothes given to them from the relief camp, they were delighted to be welcomed with goodies on the first day in school after Onam vacations.
When asked if they missed being in school, Pandiamma smiles sheepishly, looks towards her younger brother and says, “But he was very happy. When there was no school, he would play at home all day.”