Since the devastating deluge in 2018, Kuttanad has seen intense floods two or three times a year impacting normal life. Many residents have left, either renting or buying a house in less flood-prone areas.

Jyothi a native of Kuttanad who lost her house in flood against the backdrop of backwaters.
news Kuttanad Sunday, July 25, 2021 - 16:13

Their eyes look bleak, their faces strained. Their houses – built on either side of the deep, broad backwaters – are dilapidated, thanks to the constant floods and heavy rains. For the people of the 13 villages that comprise Kuttanad, a delta region in Alappuzha district in central Kerala, life has not been the same since the devastating deluge in 2018. They have been forced to either flee – renting or buying a house in less flood-prone areas – or continue to live in Kuttanad, fearing a flood every time it rains.

The wetland agriculture system in Kuttanad is the only one in the country that supports rice cultivation below sea level on land created by draining delta swamps in brackish waters. The complex system is divided into three areas: wetlands used for paddy activities and catching fish, garden lands used for coconut, tuber and food crops plantation, and water areas used for inland fishing and shells. The rice and fish cultivation provides livelihood to a majority of the people while tourism, using houseboats, has ensured a new form of livelihood in the past few decades.

It all began with the 2018 floods

In Kuttanad, known as Kerala’s rice bowl for its rampant paddy cultivation, flooding was a part of life. Residents lived with water all around them, for them proximity to water was a normal thing. Their houses faced the backwaters, they washed their clothes and bathed in the backwaters, and almost every house has a boat for commuting to other places. Even before 2018, when the state witnessed one of the biggest floods in a century, floods would occur every year during the monsoon month of June. The floods and waterlogging were part of the people’s lives. In 2018 too, Kuttanad was affected by two floods – one in July and the general flood in August. In the July floods too, people in several villages were shifted to relief camps while some preferred to live on boats converted into temporary homes.

Read: Ground report: In flood-hit Kuttanad, boats and ferries act as makeshift relief camps 

This year too, the state has been witnessing heavy rains intermittently caused by different cyclones. However, the southwest monsoon, which usually starts in June, was mild this year. There were heavy rains even in May, which is usually summer.

“My eight-year-old younger son is worried about the rains now. He is scared of the rains, winds, flooding, because he saw how our house got damaged in the rains in May. We quickly shifted out of there,” says Jyothi, who now lives in Kuttamangalam village in Kainakary panchayat. She used to live in her ancestral house with her husband and two children for years. The family would temporarily move to a rented house whenever they were hit by floods. But this time, they left never to go back because their home was totally destroyed in the May rains.

Jyothi’s family, like scores of other people, is waiting for the compensation announced by the government to shift to a safer locality. In August 2018, the government had declared that Rs 4 lakh each will be provided to families who lost 70% to 100% of their house and Rs 10 lakh each to families who lost both their house and land.

“My sisters live in Edathua, I’m planning to move there. It’s tough for me to leave the land where I was born and where I lived all these years. This is the place where my parents were cremated. But now our land has become unliveable,” Jyothi tells TNM, breaking down.

Vinod, a former ward member of the Kainakary panchayat and part of a group named Kuttanad Vikasana Samithi (Kuttanad Development Council), elaborates, “Floods have always been a part of our lives. But it was only after it affected Alappuzha in 2018, surpassing all the 13 panchayats of Kuttanad, that the outside world began giving more attention to the floods.” While people like Jyothi are waiting for the government compensation, those who moved into rented houses elsewhere find it hard to survive as they have to commute to Kuttanad for their livelihood.

People who were forced to leave Kuttanad

Asokan, a hairstylist, lost his house in the 2020 floods. While the floods in 2018 and 2019 impacted most parts of the state, in 2020 the floods hit some parts. In August 2020, Asokan moved to a rented house in Nethaji Nagar in Alappuzha, 7 km from Kuttanad, but commutes daily to Kuttanad for work. It’s the only place where people know him and give him work. He walks to find work – like his father and grandfather did. “Post-2018, I couldn’t sleep on rainy days. I’d sit guard checking if the water level rose to more than normal while my wife and 7-year-old grandson (who lives with us) slept. It was on such a night that the water level increased suddenly and my wife and I fled, carrying our grandson. All those years we managed to live there, but it isn’t possible anymore,” Asokan recollects.

                                                  Asokan

“We couldn’t take anything when we fled, we were just keen to save our lives. It was the house (in Kainakary) where I was born and where I lived. But now there’s no place to go back, because to get the government compensation we have to give on record that we abandoned the house. Also, there’s not even a stone left from my house, it was totally destroyed. We never thought one day we’d be forced to leave our home,” he says. Asokan and his family stayed at a neighbour’s place for a few days before shifting to the rented house.

No government compensation yet

However, the government has not yet paid the promised compensation. Like Asokan, Shiji Mon too had to leave his home in Kainakary and now lives in a rented house in Muhamma. “It has been a year since we lost our house in the floods, but we haven’t received the compensation from the government,” he says. Shiji bought land with borrowed money, hoping to repay it when the government gives the compensation. “When we ask about the compensation, the collectorate and village officials say they don’t have any information. Now that I have borrowed money to buy the land, it has put me in more trouble,” he says.

Shiji used to work on tourist boats. But since the boats are not functioning due to the pandemic, he has been forced to do other jobs. “For that, I have to stay in Kuttanad looking for some random jobs. It’s not possible to commute every day from Muhamma as there are not many boat services (government-run boat services that connect different places in Kuttanad),” he tells TNM. The residents had staged a protest in June for the speedy disposal of the compensation amount. 

                                                                    Unnikrishnan's House 

It was only eight years since Unnikrishnan, who used to work as a postman, renovated his house and added more rooms. But the house was partially damaged in the August 2020 flood while a grocery shop he built adjacent to it was totally damaged. “The house was damaged after the bund collapsed. The agriculture officer, village officer and tehsildar visited the place and offered Rs four lakh as compensation. But nothing has been given so far,” he says. He is entitled to Rs 4 lakh as his house was partially damaged. 

Speaking to TNM, Kuttanad Tehsildar Vijayasenan says, “It’s for those whose houses had washed off in the flood that the government declared Rs 10 lakh compensation – Rs 6 lakh for buying land and Rs 4 lakh for building a house.” He adds that compensation has been given to those who lost houses in 2018 and 2019. But the 2020 compensation has not been dispersed yet. 

People who leave Kuttanad temporarily

Since the 2018 deluge, scores of people temporarily move out of Kuttanad from June to August. “We stay in rented houses for a few months and then go back home. Each time we have to find a house for rent,” says Lekha, who lives in Kainakary with her husband Shabu. They plan to build a house on higher ground. “We have agricultural land in Kuttanad… yes, we’re upset that we have to leave our native village. Since 2018 we’ve been anticipating a flood every year, the land in Kuttanad is sinking,” Shabu says. Once employed in Saudi Arabia, he now works as a manager in a furniture showroom.

                                                               Shabu and Lekha 

People stuck in Kuttanad

However, there are many who can’t afford to build a new house outside Kuttanad and so are left with no other option but to continue living there. “We make a living by farming and leasing out land. We stay with relatives during the floods every year, but this time we decided to manage here itself because of the COVID-19 situation. We don’t have any savings and so we’re not able to move to higher ground (by buying land or house),” says Kanakamma, a native of Pulinkunnu panchayat.

Kanakamma’s family would place sand-filled sacks on the edge of the lake so that water wouldn’t enter the house. She has two daughters, both of whom are married. “But they don’t even visit us often for fear of floods. My elder daughter, who has three kids, has moved (from Kuttanad) to a rented house on higher land even though she can’t afford the rent. My son’s wife also doesn’t live here as she is scared for her children. We don’t have a road, if we need to rush with our kids to higher ground the only option is by boat. The government has promised us a road and we’re willing to give our land to construct the road. We want to come out of this situation somehow,” Kanakamma says.

The rains have impacted the residents’ livelihoods too. Last year, they didn’t earn anything from paddy farming due to the bund collapse. But those who had leased land needed to pay landowners. People like Kanakamma are not eligible for the government compensation as their houses were not fully destroyed in the floods.

Those who have stayed back have made modifications inside their houses so that they won’t be forced to leave if there is a sudden gush of water. “The land is sinking and each time a boat passes by the ripples causes water to enter the compound. Our suffering can’t be expressed in words… The toilet would soon become unusable once the water enters the house, then the rooms would get flooded, making it impossible to cook or change clothes. We manage by placing things above the ground on bricks,” Vasumathi, another native of Pulinkunnu says.

                                                      Vasumathi's House 

Inside her house we could see home appliances and even the bed is placed on bricks. She goes to stay with her parents or her daughter when the flooding becomes intense. 

Kuttanad residents live on land and houses inherited from their ancestors over generations. Now, no one wants to buy their property because of the floods, hence selling and moving out has become impossible. “We tried to sell a couple of times but the price we were offered was too low. We won’t be able to buy land in any other place with the sale amount,” says Vasumathi. Another Kainakary resident Viswanathan says, “I have two acres of coconut farm. I don’t mind selling it for a throwaway price, but even then there are no buyers. The land is blessed with natural beauty, but for the past few years life here has become miserable mainly because of the continuous floods. They occur not once but twice or thrice a year. If it rains anywhere nearby, Kuttanad would be flooded.”

He blames the authorities for not implementing the Kuttanad package – envisaged by renowned agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan – in its true spirit. The Rs 1,840 crore package was launched in 2010 to deal with flood threats. “What I believe is that there is no mass migration yet from Kuttanad. The generation that now lives in Kuttanad consists of those who had migrated to the region in the 60s. They lived through all the complications in the region. This is the generation that moulded Kuttanad and hence for them leaving is an emotional subject. But their children, some who even migrated abroad for jobs, find the floods a problem and will never come live here,” Deepak Dayanandan, an environmental activist, tells TNM.

“Kuttanad is the only region where water flows from the lower to the upper area. The backwaters here are one of the deepest in Asia. The areas that hold water are higher and have less depth and so cannot contain water, causing the water to stagnate in the bottom/lower level, resulting in flooding. Now we’re eager to somehow leave the land, already so many have left. Life is like hell, we don’t feel secure. We continue living here as we’re helpless, my children have no plans to settle here,” he adds. His house too gets damaged in every flood, he would repair it only for it to be ruined in the next flood.

Radhakrishnan, another native of Pulinkunnu, faces the same predicament. “Our house got damaged in the 2018 floods. Every time it rains, it’s nerve-wracking. We keep our clothes and essential things packed so that we can leave immediately if a flood occurs, which we fear will happen in August or September. We too want to move out, but leaving our place of birth is heartbreaking. Also, if we move to higher ground localities, life would be more expensive. The authorities need to chalk out a comprehensive plan to address our issues,” he says.

Some residents, however, have found a way out by building houses on large pillars, with the inhabitants occupying the first floor. But again, not everyone can afford the expensive construction. “The Rs 4 lakh compensation offered by the government is sufficient to construct only the pillars, we’ll have to raise the rest of the amount,” Unnikrishnan says. Vinod says that only if the authorities wake up and act can Kuttanad and its residents be saved. “It will take at least 10 years to envisage a plan to address the issues of the region. If that’s not done, Kuttanad will vanish… that’s our fear,” he says.

Telhsildar Vijayasenan who himself is a native of Pulinkunnu said that he is aware that a lot of people are leaving Kuttanad as the land has been sinking after the 2018 floods. “There should be a scientific study on this. I feel the land I was born and lived is not the same. The change after 2018 was sudden, not a gradual one. The number of people leaving Kuttanad can be assessed from the decline in the numbers attending prayers at places of worship… it has become half of what it used to be,” he says.

“Kuttanad was a land of beauty, a land that used to give livelihood to people. But the situation is sad now. It’s high time to save Kuttanad,” he adds.

According to Deepak Dayanandan, most people who migrated are from places like Kavalam, Edutha and Pulinkunnu, and were able to afford it. “Even in this case, the older generation who do farming and similar livelihoods will try to continue in Kuttanad. But it is doubtful if anyone from later generations will settle here as there is no scope for urbanisation, to build multi-storeyed buildings,” he adds.

Post 2018, he says, some people raised their land so it wouldn’t get inundated and cause flooding in nearby regions. “Flooding will keep occurring, but its duration can be reduced with a proper drainage system. In many streams, there are water supply pipelines that have made the drainage system defunct. The government can first correct the drainage system, next they can build secondary canals. This will all take time and prove to be a herculean task for Lower Kuttanad, which is the region that gets flooded not Upper Kuttanad. Any plans to reduce the impact of the floods should consider the region’s ecosystems too,” he says.

“A major government intervention is needed, not on a small scale, it’s a long process. We may need to go back to the concept of development at a panchayat level,” he adds.

Read: How the floods have worsened Kuttanad's water pollution crisis

 

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