On one side of the indoor stadium of the Regional Sports Centre in Kochi, a group of volunteers sat in a line. The first few took two biscuit packets each and put them into a bag, and passed the bag on to the next set of volunteers. After bread, jam, milk and water were put inside, the bag was then placed into a carton. Two rounds of plastic cling-wrapping later, the carton was added to a stack of similar boxes. A first time volunteer of Anbodu Kochi, Guruvir Singh Chawla supervised each stage, giving instructions to ensure that the packaging was as per the Indian Navy’s directions.
"These packages are meant for air dropping. The Navy told us that every package should have two biscuits, one packet of rusk, bread and water. They told us that it should be sealed well so that it won't be damaged whether thrown on land or on water," says Guruvir Singh, who runs a raw rubber business in Kochi.
In just about a week, Anbodu Kochi had prepared 500 tonnes of relief material to be air dropped by the Navy and Coast Guard.
It was in December 2015 that a nine member team came together on a Facebook group to organise and send relief to the city of Chennai. Sumesh Soman, a banking professional, actor Muthumani and yoga expert Nuthan Manohar were part of this group that called themselves ‘Anbodu Kochi’.
"Many of our friends were stuck in the Chennai floods and they knew others who needed water and food. Anbodu Kochi was formed then, it was a movement purely based on help that was needed at that time," says Sumesh Soman.
With popular Malayalam actors Poornima and Indrajith (a married couple) also joining the core team from day one, the group started co-ordinating with their friends in Nadigar Sangam, like actors Vishal and Karthi. They also worked in tandem with Chennaimicro that was managed by RJ Balaji, actor Siddharth and others.
Sumesh (on the left) with Noby and Sreejith of the social media team
While during the Chennai floods Anbodu Kochi sent around 23 trucks of relief to Chennai, between August 11 and 20 this year, as Kerala reeled under the worst floods in a century, the group sent more than 5,000 tonnes of relief material to thousands of people, including the last phase in which the remaining relief was distributed to three taluks in Ernakulam district. Managing such a huge quantity of relief materials was a mammoth task and with it came rules, regulations, accolades and a fair number of controversies, too.
Everyone had a duty to perform
On August 18, a group of volunteers stood guard at the entrance to the stadium, allowing only volunteers, people from relief camps and officials to get inside. Jeremiah Coelho, an operations manager in a multinational company, one of Anbodu Kochi's core members, says the influx of people wanting to donate relief materials was unprecedented. "Literally everyone wanted to contribute. We have had corporates, restaurants, residents' welfare associations, clubs, schools, colleges and others donate stuff. There were serpentine queues in the first few days and it was a tough task to sort all the material," he says.
Jeremiah on the extreme right
Though Anbodu Kochi had begun its operations this year by sending relief materials to Kuttanad in Alappuzha during the month of July, things became frantic in the second week of August. By then, the Ernakulam administration had joined hands with Anbodu Kochi, and using the hashtag #DoforKerala, the district administration started routing relief to Anbodu Kochi's collection centres in cities across India. G Rajamanikyam, former Ernakulam District Collector, was appointed as the Special Officer dealing with Disaster Management. Though initially he was working out of Wayanad, the officer was stationed at the RSC Centre as Aluva, Kochi and other parts of Ernakulam district hit by flooding.
With tonnes of material flowing in, Anbodu Kochi knew it was time to streamline their operations. Fourteen teams were set up internally, with each team looking after one crucial segment. There were teams in charge of packaging, medicines, household items, perishable goods, hygiene related materials, loading and unloading, among others. The stadium was divided into sections from which each team operated. The Ernakulam administration and Anbodu Kochi were clear on one thing, no cash or cheque would be accepted. People or organisations could donate materials and everything will be accounted for.
Till August 15, the team was mainly sending trucks to Idukki and Wayanad. But as Ernakulam district saw massive flooding, their mode of operation had to change overnight.
"Till then, we had to sort materials and load trucks that went to these districts. But as Ernakulam floods started, everything changed. We were required to make small packets for people stuck in camps, we had to improvise and change everything we were doing in a matter of hours," Sumesh says.
One of the first trucks for Ernakulam left on August 15th evening to UC College in Aluva. The college had become the biggest relief camp in the state, with thousands including the Aluva MLA and his family shifting there. But the truck that carried food for people at the camp got stuck in the strong currents at a place called Companypadi. With the help of the Fire Force, the materials were shifted onto two boats. Shahabas KH, a young block panchayat member in Ernakulam district, who managed the camp, told TNM that if not for that food, people would have starved that night and the next morning.
"We were thankful that they took the risk to bring the food. It was still not enough as the numbers kept swelling. We had to give one packet of food for four people and saved a few hundreds for breakfast the next day," Shahabas said.
Even as volunteers who left to relief camps with the supplies had to improvise on ground, it was also a tough task managing the eager ones who had come to the stadium to volunteer.
Students, homemakers, doctors, bankers, engineers, actors and many others, took charge of things on a daily basis. “It was not like people had the expertise in relief management. For example, none of us knew how to do loading and unloading efficiently, but we learnt new things each day,” says Indrajith.
Lakshmi Varma, a sports physio from Australia, was in charge of the RSC floor along with Jeremiah. Their job was to ensure that the volunteers who walked in on a daily basis were distributed between the 14 teams working inside. Though she had landed in Kerala for a holiday, Lakshmi had devoted all her time to Anbodu Kochi. After days of shouting out instructions loudly, Lakshmi's voice had turned hoarse. "When we started, only a small portion of the stadium was given. By the fifth day, we were given permission to occupy the full stadium. And still the space wasn't enough," she says.
A video by a woman named Minu Pauline, a restaurateur in Kochi, had gone viral during the floods. Among other accusations, Minu had said that though people were ready to volunteer, Anbodu Kochi had, at one point, said that they could not collect any more relief materials.
Though there was an express counter that dealt with autos and small vehicles that wanted to ferry material to a few hundreds, there was only one loading-unloading station for the big trucks. “One truck would bring water bottles, the next one may have only biscuits and so on. All this had to be unloaded, then laid down on carpets and sorted into new packets. Sometimes it would take time but I believe that we managed as efficiently as we could,” Indrajith says.
Many others too pitched in. The Truck Owners Association in Ernakulam gave trucks free of cost, hotels nearby cooked fresh food for camps, while the police managed the traffic flowing in and out of the stadium.
"There was space constraint and everything had to be sorted into boxes. We have had 5000 volunteers work with us in two weeks. But at some point, we also had to refuse and choose our volunteers carefully as many would come to the stadium and click pictures. Productivity was getting hampered," says Sumesh.
Productivity was the keyword at the stadium. No long breaks, no chit-chat, everyone was asked to finish their work briskly. As Lakshmi took the microphone to guide the next set of volunteers, three men approached Poornima Indrajith, one of the most prominent faces of Anbodu Kochi. The three of them had a paper in their hands, with a list of relief materials that they needed. While Poornima directed two of the men to the requisition team, she politely informed the third man that she could not give him materials unless an official from the village or panchayat had signed on the letter. The man was initially taken aback, perhaps unsure of how to react, but soon he started raising his voice.
“This was expected. Considering the situation people were in, we can't blame them. We had guidelines from the administration to only accept letters that had an official signature and seal. Incidents where relief materials were being resold or diverted had already caught the attention of the administration and they had to streamline. Many of us core members had to be on the receiving end of such complaints but rules were rules and we had to abide by them," says Poornima.
In one instance, the police had tracked down materials packed by Anbodu Kochi being resold in the ‘Onam chandha’ or Onam market. “In the first four days, we gave relief to whoever came to us. But after the administration discovered that things were being diverted, they introduced the rules,” says Sumesh.
Other volunteers confirmed that they had witnessed many ugly scenes in the past few days and often people like Poornima would bear the brunt of it.
But Poornima didn't want to dwell on it further, there was much work to do, she said. "I have learnt one thing from all these experiences. There is so much humanity around. People wanting to help, and it is good to have a platform through which they can channel their humanity," she says.
On an average, Anbodu Kochi received 100 to 120 applications per day and the team ensured that at least 80 to 90 of these were dispatched that day itself. In a span of 15 days, around 500 trucks of relief material had been sent to various camps and residential areas. It was back-breaking work. The inside joke was that if someone was already drooping while walking, they may not turn up the next day.
And as Poornima was going through request after request, Indrajith was on TV channel Mirror Now, impatiently asking when the show would end. Though the team's meeting with Ernakulam District Collector Safirulla and Rajamanikyam was slated to begin soon, Indrajith knew it was important to appeal for relief materials through whatever mode was available to them. Poornima says her entire family had been almost living out of the RSC complex, only going back home for a few hours every night. Their younger daughter Nakshatra, impatient that she had not been assigned any duty, decided to pick up garbage on one of the days.
"And that became the new team, the garbage collection team. Other kids who had accompanied their parents became part of the team and they started collecting garbage. Everyone here has a duty," chuckles Poornima.
Indrajith and Rajamanickam IAS
Sarayu, an artist based out of Kochi, was in charge of the loading section. "We need to load for relief centres, houses and packages for air dropping. A set of volunteers go through the papers meticulously and decide the vehicles that will take the materials to the destination. Another team then loads it on to the vehicles," she says.
The celebrity quotient
As Sarayu was looking through her sheaf of papers, actor Parvathy walked by. She was making arrangements for dropping cooked food at a relief centre the next day. She then recorded a small video telling people across India what relief materials they were looking for and where the collection centres were located.
Indrajith says it didn't matter whether one was a celebrity. "Everyone works here and frankly I don't think anyone cares anymore about who is a a celebrity. Some new volunteers ask us to pose for a picture and I think it's the least we can do for them," he says.
Ramesh Menon, who lives in Mumbai, had come to Kerala to meet his family, and decided to join Anbodu Kochi's efforts. He believes that the celebrity quotient has helped the group.
"They bring with them the ability to communicate to a million people. For example, when Parvathy does a Facebook Live asking for help, she brings in her audience. The same with all the others like Poornima, Indrajith, Rima or Remya," he says.
Parvathy at Anbodu Kochi
Actors like Rima Kallingal and Remya Nambeeshan too had volunteered at the RSC Centre, and had also ensured that there was a steady outflow of information.
Sumesh says the celebrity quotient was never a planned one, but it helped the cause. "Poornima and Indrajith have been here from the first day. They have been our pillars of strength," he says.
Controversies and lessons learnt
One of the biggest criticisms that the Ernakulam administration received was that they had failed to decentralise the relief efforts and too much was being controlled from the RSC complex. The administration has also got brickbats for being too strict while distributing materials.
"We understand why the government decided to bring in the rule. But we also saw genuine people lining up asking for help and we were running from pillar to post thinking how to accommodate them, though they did not have proper documents. We need to streamline these processes better," Sumesh says.
According to him, preparedness has to become the buzzword. “A flood like this may not happen in the next 100 years, but we cannot be complacent and need to be prepared,” he adds.
Indrajith says what he has learnt is that if a group of motivated people come together, the biggest of tasks can be accomplished.