The community hall, owned by the village panchayat, at Cheranallur still bears the scars of the calamitous floods that shook Kerala in August this year. About five feet high, a dirty brown line, indicating the height of the floodwaters, runs all along the four walls of the auditorium. This large hall, used mostly for wedding and birthday ceremonies, was the first refuge for the people of Cheranallur when raging waters of rivers, streams and canals began encircling them. A day or two later, with no respite from non stop rain, they realised to their horror that the very hall they took shelter in could itself be flooded. Large groups of families were thus ferried to schools and colleges at higher locations as the community hall was overrun by the floodwaters.
While 99 per cent of those who had flocked to relief camps have returned home after several rounds of sanitation works, a fraction of the state’s population is still spending their days and nights at large community halls like this one in Cheranallur. The auditorium, which can easily seat up to 500 people, continues to be a shelter home for 18-odd people from seven families. At the state-level, a disaster management official said a total of 1840 people, whose homes have been partially or completely destroyed in the floods, continue to languish across 69 camps. At the height of the disaster in mid-August, more than 10 lakh people had trooped into the camps.
Sajitha (34), her two children studying in class IX and class XI, her sister Sandhya (33) and their aged mother Pushpa (60) have been shuttling from one relief camp to the other since August 9 when the water entered their tiny home, located on the banks of a stream, for the first time. They returned home in the last week of August, after the floodwaters had completed receded, to stare in dismay at the damage wreaked by the calamity. Large cracks had developed on the roof and walls of the building, the interiors damp letting out a putrid smell and the floor covered in thick, dry slush.
“It seemed like it could come down any minute. We had lost everything. The house where we spent our entire lives just wasn’t fit to live anymore,” says Sajitha.
For Sajitha and her family, the community hall in Cheranallur is the fourth such shelter in the last two months. Every week, they say, they watched with moist eyes as families, one after the other, packed up their belongings and returned home. The hall, once brimming with hundreds, is down to just 18 people — three men who go to work during the day, and the rest comprising women and children. A police officer stays at the camp round-the-clock ensuring there are no law and order problems.
“The people are mocking us. Naanam ille ivde nikkan? Veetil pokkude? (Aren’t you ashamed to still live in the camp? Can’t you go home?),” Sandhya, who’s pregnant, cuts in.
“Sometimes we think it’s better to go home even if it falls down on us one day. At least we don’t have to listen to such people,” she adds.
For the two sisters, life had become a tragedy much before the floods arrived. Three months ago, their father succumbed to blood cancer, a condition diagnosed in its terminal stages when nothing could be done. While Sandhya’s carrying, she says she receives almost no support from her husband who she claims loves his mother and sister more than her.
“My doctor has advised complete rest for me. He (husband) knows that I am suffering here at the camp. He doesn’t do anything,” she sighs.
The local anganwadi supplies Sandhya with essential nutrients for the intake of pregnant women. At present, the seven-odd families at the camp cook food by themselves, with regular LPG, food and water supplies being given by local revenue officials.
The oldest at the camp is Rukmini, 85, whose home beside Sajitha’s was ravaged in similar fashion by the floods. With her daughter Saraswati and her grandson Sandeep for company, Rukmini would spend most of her days, sitting in a plastic chair and looking out the window onto the main street. Like the others, Rukmini, too has been on the run from one shelter to the other for the past two months. She says she doesn’t understand the nitty gritties of government compensation, but hopes she could move out of the camp soon.
“I want to go back home soon,” she says, her voice barely audible, her eyes wet.
Under the state government’s compensation rules, a family is entitled to Rs 4 lakh if their house has been completely damaged by the floods. This is significantly higher than the compensation prescribed by the Union government for the complete damage of a house in a hilly area (Rs 1,01,900) and non-hilly area (Rs 95,000).
Sajitha doesn’t know when her family would be able to leave the camp to a new home, but she spoke of being promised by revenue officials that the papers for her compensation were in the stages of being cleared.
“Two weeks ago, I received the initial assistance of Rs 10,000 that the CM had promised to every family who stayed at the relief camps. We got it in the last minute. As for the Rs 4 lakh compensation, I was told that it was under process for clearance,” said the 34-year-old.
Mallika VR, secretary of the Cheranallur village panchayat, said the state’s revenue department were taking care of the compensation package. “We have no role to play in this. We have simply given out the community hall for them to stay for the moment. The collector will take the decision on when to close the camp,” she said.
“There are private sponsors who want to rebuild homes for them. Three houses are already under construction, the fourth one will begin tomorrow,” she said.