Kerala floods: The economic cost of rebuilding lives in Wayanad
After spending 22 days at the Mananthavady government school, which was converted into a relief camp, Shailaja returned to her home, cleaned up the clay that had caked the floor, counted her losses, sat down and cried her heart out.
Shailaja’s home is located at the bank of the Kabini river, a tributary of the Cauvery. On August 10, about 80,000 cusecs of water were released from the Kabini reservoir that flowed downstream, taking away everything she had built since her husband's death in a fire accident in 2003. In the fire, she suffered burn marks and an injury to the right arm that has since prevented her from taking up any labour-intensive work.
There is food in the house, for now, thanks to the kindness of those who have donated generously. However, the mother of two is clueless about how to rebuild her life. With a bank loan, Shailaja had bought one cow and four goats, who were the only source of income for the family. The cow and two of the goats have died in the floods.
“I used to be arrogant about Sulu (the cow) as she used to give me 15 litres of milk a day. The money I earned from selling her milk was enough to run the house. It’s all gone now,” says Shailaja, who had pawned wherever little gold she had to buy the cow and three goats and to build a shed for them.
She is now worried about the Rs 1.5 lakh loan that was taken from the bank. “The bank officials have come to assess and take stock of the damages, they say the interest for the loan may get waived off but I have no idea how to pay off the principal amount,” she adds.
When the river swelled, Shailaja’s and nine other houses that stood along the river bank got inundated. Three of these houses have been washed away and its residents have since moved out of the relief camp and the locality. All these houses were located barely 2 meters away from the Kabini river and were built by the Panchayat who provided these residents with the land.
A world bank analysis on natural disasters titled, 'Unbreakable: Building the Resilience of the Poor in the Face of Natural Disasters' points out that poorer people often have to settle in risky areas as they may be more attractive in terms of economic opportunities, public services or direct amenities, higher productivity and income, despite the risks involved.
As 70-year-old Gopala Pilla points at all the cracks that have developed on the walls of his house, the work bank analysis holds true for him.
Pilla bought the house five years ago from the previous resident for Rs 1.2 lakh, using all of his life savings. “This was the only place I could afford; I used to be at Pallakad but I found the place expensive so I bought a home here,” says Pilla, who has not been able to get his house back in order since his return on September 1.
“There is no point rebuilding this house again because if it rains one more time, this house will collapse. The front portion of the houses stand stronger but the back portions of all the houses have developed cracks,” he rues.
He now lives with his wife on the front veranda of their home on a cot their couple managed to salvage. “I came here with nothing, looks like I will leave with nothing too,” he laughs.
Pilla, a former accountant, had turned tea seller 20 years ago after his retirement. An injury on his foot that refuses to heal due to diabetes has restricted his movement.
“I used to sell tea and earn Rs 500 a day but for the past three months I have been unable to work, so there is no income anymore. It’s ok, I am old, people are kind to me and give me some money if need anything, its ok, its ok,” Pilla keeps repeating.
“They gave us a lot of things at the relief camp – mats, pillows, blankets, clothes, rice, some sugar that I can't use and a lot of biscuits, like some 3 kilos of biscuits, do you want some?” he offers.
Everything Pilla owned was washed away by the river. He was, however, able to salvage the radio he had bought for Rs 300.
“I dried it the sun and it still works like a charm,” as the radio plays a local FM station in the background.
On August 24, the Kerala state government had decided to disburse Rs 10,000 to each family leaving relief camps. Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan at a press conference had stated that an amount of Rs 242 crore had been sanctioned for this from the state disaster relief fund and Rs 6,200 crore from the chief minister's distress relief fund.
All the families TNM spoke to along the river bank said they have provided the details at the local revenue and Panchayat office and waiting for the relief amount. They are all expecting the Panchayat to allocate them new land parcels and grant Rs 5 lakh for the construction of new houses. The state government estimates that about 7,000 houses were destroyed completely and over 50,000 were partially damaged in the worst floods that ravaged the state in a century.
Shailaja, too, is hoping for that relief package to get her life back on track. So far, she has managed to salvage her mixer and the second-hand television set, both of which needed repairing. A part of her home has also developed cracks and she hopes the government will allocate new land so that she can rebuild her home.
“I managed to get the TV and mixer repaired but they are not going to last too long. I’d taken them for repair and I was told that their components will begin rusting soon and it's better to buy new ones. But at this point, even if I find Rs 10, I will only try to save it,” she adds.
Two of Shailaja’s goats that survived the floods have been tethered at the cowshed where Sulu the cow previously stood. “These goats will die too, they are sick. There is some sort of infection and they have pimples all over them. I bought medicine using money that I borrowed from a private veterinary medical store. But I don’t know how I will pay the debt back,” says Shilaja.
Her son who has finished 12th grade is presently in search of labour work and her daughter in the ninth grade is studying at Kozhikode. “There is nothing I can give them any more,” she adds.
The families are now waiting for aid from the Chief Minister's and are hoping that the relief money from the state government will be enough to restart their lives from scratch.
This article has been produced in partnership with Oxfam India. In the last 10 years, Oxfam India has delivered over 36 impactful humanitarian responses in India. Oxfam India is providing critical relief to the affected families and communities in Kerala: clean drinking water, sanitation, and shelter kits. Click here to help #RebuildKerala.