On the night of August 6, when his village of Pettimudi in Kerala’s Idukki district was in the throes of heavy downpour accompanied by gusty winds, 32-year-old Karthik was not anxious about the possibility of a landslide. Rather, he seemed more nervous about the rise in water levels of the Kanniyar river that flowed by his settlement. During last year’s monsoon, several residents of Pettimudi had to be shifted to relief camps after the river swelled.
“So that night, around 11 pm, I was talking to my uncle about the condition of the river. After he returned to his quarter, I went near the kitchen, flashing a torch to see if the water was rising. I couldn’t sleep. Suddenly, I heard this big sound, as if a plane had crashed. In the blink of an eye, that sound seemed to rush past us and our house began crumbling. I tried the front door and it was jammed. So I somehow got my mother, my younger sister and her six-month-old son to sneak out through the kitchen door at the back,” Karthik told The Indian Express earlier this week.
“When we came around, we saw all four ‘layams’ (residential quarters) had been crushed. We walked across the chest-high sludge to the other side somehow. By then, a person from one of the layams uphill came rushing down to help us. I also rescued a girl and her mother from a room near to ours. I couldn’t help anyone else because it was dangerous out there.”
Karthik, who drives a jeep ferrying tourists to the Eravikulam National Park, is one of the 12 lucky survivors of Kerala’s worst-ever landslide believed to have killed 70 people. The news of the accident took almost eight hours to reach the outside world as power and communication lines were snapped in Pettimudi. So far, 56 bodies have been salvaged from the debris. Rest of them are believed to have been washed away by the force of the landslide into the Kanniyar river and possibly into the Bhoothathankettu dam.
But the relief of survival for Karthik, his mother and sister is offset by the loss of nearly 40 members on his paternal side. While he lost his father last year, the landslide has claimed three of his father’s brothers – Ganeshan, Mayilswami and Anantha Siva – and their families including wives and children. A fourth uncle’s two sons have also died as they had come to Pettimudi that day to attend a birthday celebration.
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“Imagine, they didn’t even live here. But that night, they had come for a child’s birthday and died,” he said, standing on one side of the landslide site keeping an eye on the earthmovers engaged in search operations.
“Three generations of my family have been wiped off in one stroke of fate. This place is like a graveyard now. We don’t want to live here anymore.”
In the far distance, he pointed to a heap of asbestos, concrete and wood – his home. He had a jeep, an auto and a motorcycle, all of which are nowhere to be seen. “They are all in the river. There’s no point looking for them. I lost my home, my family and my means of livelihood.”
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has promised Rs 5 lakhs compensation, land and a home for families of the deceased. Others affected by the landslide will be rehabilitated too, he said.
Like the 32-year-old standing at the crossroads of life, dazed over whether to be relieved that he’s alive or anguished by the loss of his extended family, The Indian Express found many others, waiting patiently for news of their loved ones at Pettimudi. Some had travelled from far districts of Tamil Nadu, where the ancestral roots of many of these plantation workers lie. A small building, near the settlement that operated as a creche, has been turned into a post-mortem room, the smell of bleaching powder emanating from inside. When a body is retrieved and whisked in a black bag into the room, the families huddle around to get a confirmation. If the load of the bag seems lighter, it’s always a child.
A few feet away, 54-year-old Karuppayi, her wrinkled face covered partially by a cloth mask, is whispering to local ward member Santha and her husband. She wants rescue agencies to focus on a specific portion of the landslide site where she believes her husband may be buried. In the initial days of the landslide, such insights of survivors had helped them detect several bodies. But now, a week in and two rounds of focused searches yielding nothing, chances are high that the missing bodies may have been carried by the river. Efforts are on in that direction.
Explained: A look at how the Idukki landslide occurred
That night, Karuppayi had gone out to relieve herself when her house got washed away. She is survived by a daughter who’s under treatment in a critical condition at a hospital 120 kms away. Thirteen of her family, including husband, sister who’s also a step-wife, two daughters and six grandchildren, are believed to be dead. Eight bodies have been found so far. Five missing.
The enormity of the tragedy for people like Karuppayi is intertwined with the general disbelief among the population about the chances of a landslide there. With no hills directly hovering over them and mainly surrounded by tea estates, a landslide of this magnitude seldom crossed their minds.
Mukkaiah, a retired forest driver who was born and raised in Pettimudi, said, “We had always imagined our village to be safe. Even during the big deluge of 2018, we were okay. But this has come as a shock to us. Now, we are unsure if it’s safe anymore.”
But Selvakumar, a jeep driver from a neighbouring estate who lost his friend in Pettimudi, said he has reasons to stay back. “This land was shaped by my ancestors who migrated from erstwhile Madras state during British rule. They planted the tea here and struggled all their lives to make the area hospitable for us. So me and my children will still be here. We cannot go anywhere.”