Thirteen-year-old Vishal's body was one of the first to be retrieved by rescue workers who frantically swept through mounds of rubble in Pettimudi area in Kerala's Munnar. But it isn't just Vishal, 16 other children like him are among the victims of the massive landslide in Kerala's Pettimudi tea estate settlement. While 10 bodies of children under the age of 15 have been found, many are still missing. A massive chunk of earth with rocks and boulders came tumbling down on their houses in Munnar, in the late hours of August 6. Since it was raining heavily, the debris and slush buried them alive for hours and, in some cases, for days. Most of these children would have been away at their school hostels. However, they were at home as schools were shut due to the pandemic.
Boulders, rocks and debris fell over a portion of Nemakkadu Estate Lines at Pettimudi in Rajamala hill station (Munnar, Idduki district), where several houses (or quarters) of tea plantation workers were located. Soon after the landslide occurred, residents in 12 single-room quarters were rescued and 70 people were reported missing. At the time of writing this story, 55 dead bodies were recovered, including 10 children. While 15 are still missing, seven among these are children â€” almost all of them, schoolgoing children.
The children whose bodies have been retrived and identified are:
1) Vishal, age 13
2) Lakshana Sree, age 7
3) Sanjay, age 14
4) Vinodhini, age 14
5) Rajalakshmi, age 12
6) Joswa, age 14
7) Vijayalakhsmi, age 8
8) Gayathri, six-month-old
9) Nadiya, age 12
10) Lakshanasree, age 9
Among the 32 schoolgoing children living in Nemakkadu Estate Lines with their families, who are mostly Dalits from Tamil Nadu, 17 were studying in residential schools and some were living in hostels attached to schools. Around this time of the year, these children are usually away from home due to classes. However, this year, unfortunately, they were at home as the schools were shut due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
â€śThat was the greatest tragedy,â€ť said S Hepsi Christinal, Munnar block programme co-ordinator, Samagra Shiksha Kerala project, an education programme by the state government.
â€śAlthough the schools were more than 20 kilometres away, two children used to commute to Carmelagiri CMI Public School daily as their father is a driver. Many parents enrol their children to schools that had hostel facilities. Two children, who were studying in Tamil Nadu, had also come home due to the lockdown,â€ť she told TNM.
According to Hespi, although 12 houses were buried in the landslide, they had just enough time to get out. As a result, eight children in such houses escaped. â€śHowever, the children from two other lines of the estates, which were not affected, witnessed the landslide and rescue operations, and are traumatised,â€ť she added.
â€śIn one family, while the parents died in the landslide, their children, Class 12 and college students, survived. In another family, two sisters, who were at their grandmotherâ€™s house at the time, did not survive,â€ť said Hepsi.
Among these children, Rajalakshmi and Vinodhini were sisters studying in Class 9 and Class 10 respectively at Little Flower Girls High School, Munnar. The two sisters and Nadiya (Class 7), who died in the landslide, always went to school together, reported Nejma Sulaiman of The New Indian Express.
Apart from school-going children, there were students studying in various colleges. They, too, were at home this year due to the pandemic.
Hardlee Ranjith, a rescue worker in Pettymudi, told TNM that the search operation is being carried out at Gravel Bank area near Pettimudi, where Nadiya's body was reportedly retrieved from. â€śFog and heavy rain have been obstructing the rescue operation for the last three days. Since it is a pleasant weather today (Wednesday), we have intensified the search operation near the river banks,â€ť he said.
According to Devikulam sub-collector S Premkrishnan, poor visibility was the main hurdle in the rescue operations. â€śThe area has been experiencing nearly zero degree climate and that is why the bodies did not decay. Normally, the bodies start decaying two days after such incidents,â€ť he said.
(With input from Sandeep Vellaram)
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