The Malayalam year 1099 (ME), or what was 1924 in the Gregorian calendar, is often considered to be a landmark moment in Kerala’s history. That year the much endeared season of rains in the state transformed into a disaster of monstrous dimensions. The current state of deluge in Kerala is reminiscent of that monsoon, almost a century back, when ‘God’s own country’ transformed into a calamity zone. “It seemed as if the skies had been ripped apart as the waters burst out endlessly, transforming the bountiful scene into one of catastrophe,” writes historian Manu Pillai about the ‘great flood of 99’ in his book, ‘The Ivory throne’.
The great flood of 99
“The significance of the flood was such that many old people in Travancore used to anchor their memories in relation to the flood,” writes historian Meenu Jacob in her article ‘1924 flood of Travancore: A literary representation’. The disastrous nature of rains had its most severe impact on Travancore which was transformed into a massive swamp in the course of the few weeks when it kept pouring. Other areas of present day Kerala were also affected including Trichur, Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam and also the road leading up to Munnar. These are the same areas affected in this year’s floods.
Though the rainfall recorded in 1924 was far lesser in comparison to what Kerala has received this year, the impact of the deluge was no less. As opposed to the 2344 mm of rain that the state received this year, back during the great flood of 99, it had received approximately 650 mm of rain. Records show that thousands of people lost their lives and property, flora and fauna were destroyed and several parts of the Malabar region were submerged in water. “It was one of the greatest natural disasters to occur in South India,” writes Pillai, adding that “grandmothers would for long tell grim tales of the collective sufferings of 1099 ME”.
Several records of the flood provide a glimpse of the gruesome conditions in which people of Malabar were caught. “The current set up by the river overflowing its banks was so powerful that many boats engaged in rescue are reported to have capsized,�� wrote executive engineer K Thanu Pillai in his report on July 19, 1924. In the same report he mentioned that the flood reached its zenith on July 17, when water levels rose as high as 6 feet. In another report, the sub-divisional officer of Aluva wrote: “The uprooted trees, roofs of thatched houses and other articles and carcasses that came down by the river were innumerable.” The report of the Mannar Flood Relief Deputation noted that 500 houses, 200 coconut gardens, 1000 acres of land and 6,40,000 kilograms of grain had been lost in the vicinity of one village in Travancore alone.
One big loss was the Kundala Valley railway near Munnar, known to be the first monorail system in south India, was destroyed during the flood and never rebuilt.
The relief work
The Travancore government was swift to start relief work as soon as the crisis set in. A Flood Relief Committee was set up by the government. Devan T. Raghavaiah, a civil servant deputed by the Madras presidency, played an important role in the relief work, sending in large amounts of money to areas which were affected by the floods. “By early August, thousands of refugees and displaced families were being fed at different relief centres: 4000 at Ambalapuzha, 3000 at Alleppey, 5000 in Kottayam, 3000 in Changanassery, 8000 in Parur and so on,” writes Pillai. Representatives of the state travelled across to every affected locality as a means to boost public morale and did everything possible to ensure that starvation of people is minimum.
Further, upon taking account of the monumental loss incurred on agriculture, the government announced that in the worst affected regions, taxes would be remitted for that financial year. A sum of Rs 4 lakh was also set aside to provide agricultural loans. The forest department was issued orders to supply free bamboo and other housing material in order to provide provisional residential arrangements for the poor. The government also set aside a housing reconstruction fund and took a number of measures to ensure that food price stability was maintained.