During the Kerala floods in 2018, a harrowing photograph went viral. It showed a policeman carrying an ailing child across the Cheruthoni bridge in Idukki, just minutes before it was flooded by the gushing water released from the Cheruthoni dam in last August. As the state buckles under rain and flooding almost exactly a year later, there is a bright spot through the gloom â€” the child in the photo, Sooraj, is happy and healthy.
Sooraj is now four years old and studies in LKG. With schools closed as a result of the rain and â€˜Kochu TVâ€™ (the Malayalam cartoon channel) playing on the television, Sooraj is enjoying his time away from classes with his family in Cheruthoniâ€™s Gandhinagar colony.
But his father and mother, Vijayaraj and Manju, still ache with grief over the events of last yearâ€™s floods.
"All of Kerala knows Sooraj now because that photo, but very few know that he lost his house and the land where it was situated in last year's flood," Vijayaraj, 35, said.
The small one-bedroom house was the place they had called home. Sooraj was born there and up until last August, he had spent the first few years of his life in that house. But after the raging waters battered their house and land, all that remained of theirs were two small jackfruit trees.
Speaking to TNM, Manju and Vijayaraj recalled how they lost their home on August 10 last year and what really happened to Sooraj on the day he was carried across the Cheruthoni bridge.
"Our house was situated on the banks of this Cheruthoni river. It flowed like a small canal then. We had been living here for the past five years and had no idea that this was a big river until that fateful day," says Vijayakumar, who has now shifted to his ancestral house in Gandhinagar colony, situated uphills but not far from town.
"Just like today, Sooraj had a slight cold and fever on that day. But his temperature kept on rising and he was showing signs of breathing difficulties. That was when we decided to take him to the hospital. I carried him and ran to cross the Cheruthoni river to get to the town. But we had no idea that the shutters of the dam had been opened. When I reached the bridge, I saw hundreds of people standing there, waiting to see the waters flow. Though the police officers initially did not allow us to cross the river, on learning that the child was suffering from a high fever, they agreed. A rescue official took Sooraj and ran across the bridge. I followed him. Water had already started flowing through the bridge then, I could feel that. And just about five minutes or so after crossing the river, the bridge was flooded," said Vijayaraj, recalling that day.
Sooraj was taken to hospital and his fever subsided. But the fierce waters that gushed from the shutters of the Cheruthoni dam swept away 30 houses along the way, including Sooraj's.
Sooraj has been living with his father and mother ever since that day in their ancestral house in Gandhinagar colony.
'Only party sympathisers get government assistance'
Despite the state government's claims that most of the flood-affected families have been given financial aid, Sooraj and family, who lost their land, house and all their belongings, have so far only received a mere Rs 5,000 as aid. The family has not even received basic financial assistance of Rs 10,000 which government claims to have distributed to all flood victims.
"Everyone else who lost their houses and land along with ours received the aid. But we have not received a single penny apart from Rs 5,000, which we are not sure where exactly we got it from. We had applied for many schemes, including loss of animals, so we are not sure from where it came," said Manju.
"We hadn't received a house number from the Panchayat when this disaster happened. But then how can that take away the losses we incurred? Many families here who did not face major damage in last year's flood received aid. They all have connections to political parties or some of the members in the house work for the party. But look at us, it has been a year, and yet our condition is the same," says Vijayaraj.