While the government doles out standard amounts as relief for flood-hit houses, residents in Kuttanad wish that labour charges and geographical constraints were factored in.

In Keralas Kuttanad new homes planned for 2018 flood victims lie unfinished
Delve Rural Issues Wednesday, August 21, 2019 - 17:15

On either side of the backwaters of Kainakary village in Kuttanad, lonely houses stick out of the clay bunds. These earthen bunds separate the green paddy fields from the Marthanda lagoon, which borders the houses on block C of Kainkary’s ward number 5. The sparsely populated settlement has a few houses, most of which wear a similar look – partially constructed, with shabby cement walls and iron rods poking out of the roofs.

One of the 14 villages in Kuttanad taluk that was badly affected during the 2018 floods, Kainakary holds the distinction of having zero road access. Here, water is the only means of transport that residents have ever known. Most households own private boats. Taxis or public transport – in the form of state-operated ferries – ply the length of the channel all the way to the scenic Vembanad lake daily. An idyllic life that, however, comes at a great cost to the residents here. Strangely, this also explains the half-repaired and abandoned houses in the village following last year’s deluge.

Back in August 2018, when the floods were at its worst, Kuttanad was reeling under water. At its peak, the whole of Kainakary, comprising 8,000 plus residents, was evacuated on an emergency basis, along with those from other flooded villages. As the water swallowed most buildings next to the backwaters, the gruel centres set in this region to extend relief during the July floods were shut down and residents shifted. Kuttanad’s people had not witnessed a flood of this intensity in over a hundred years, they say.

Reports published back then state that at least 30 passenger boats of the State Water Transport Authority were pressed into service to rescue stranded residents. Several private houseboats were also used by the government for rescue operations and much needed help came in the form of NGOs who lent boats and the fishermen federation which deployed fishing boats for rescue activities in Kuttanad and other parts of the state.

A year post the disaster, the government’s updated data says that a total of 2,751 fully damaged houses have been verified and approved for relief in Alappuzha district. Out of this, 874 houses have already been completed. Only 124 fully damaged houses in the district, located in and around Kainakary, have received no compensation so far. Difficulty in transporting raw material and other factors have been cited as reasons for the delay. But the rebuilding measures bring little relief to residents here.

High cost of ferrying building material

“We can’t do anything with the money that the government doles out. The labour charges here are extremely high,” says Jainy Sabu, a resident of block C.

Jainy, along with her husband CK Sabu, have laid the foundation of their new house after the flood destroyed their old house completely. However, the compensation of Rs 4 lakh, which the state government transferred to their accounts, comes as little relief for the family, thanks to the exorbitant labour charges in this part of Kuttanad.

The couple began laying the foundation of their 720 sq feet house back in June, and they have already spent Rs 4,79,000. A chunk of this expense was spent on ferrying in construction material, they say.

“If you spend Rs 8,000 to bring in material by road to build a house, here you will need to spend at least Rs 13,000. The additional Rs 5000 includes the cost of ferrying building material in a standard vehicle with a carriage of 210 cubic feet,” says Harikumar, a boat-taxi driver plying from Kainakary panchayat to the inland settlements. It is at least 15 km from Kainakary panchayat to ward 5, which can only be accessed via boats.

Jainy and her husband have ferried in cement, iron rods, brick and other construction material three times so far. And they have many more rounds to go before completing the house. 

“We have taken small loans from people we know and I have even pawned my jewellery to see this house completed. We are in a spot now as we do not know how to raise the rest of the money,” Jainy adds with a look of concern.

For those applicants who are eligible to build new houses post-floods, the state government allots Rs 4 lakh in 3 instalments for the project. While the first instalment of Rs 95,100 goes from the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF), the second and third transfers go directly from the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF). The CMDRF funds are only transferred after the foundation of the house is laid.

The relief amount for housing remains uniform across the whole of Kerala, which sees a whole range of terrain that comes with its own accessibility issues and geographical constraints. For Kainakary’s residents, labour charges due to lack of road access remains their biggest problem.

“Doling out standard amounts of relief based on the damage level of the houses might seem fair to the government. But what about factoring in concerns such as accessibility issues and geographical constrains of residents living in difficult terrains? In this part of Kuttanad, any activity we undertake requires more finance and more effort. We have to walk at least 2 km to visit the nearest post office. If we want to rebuild our house, we have to pay thousands of rupees more due to labour charges. How can these concerns be simply ignored by the government,” asks Harikumar. 

Hari adds that these concerns have not reached the district administration as getting the flood compensation on time itself is a huge relief.

“We can’t complain as this is government policy. The current relief amount itself comes after massive delays,” Harikumar adds.

State allotted budget of Rs 4 lakh not enough

Forty-four-year-old Maniamma, a paddy farm labourer in ward 5 of Kainakary, faces a different problem. Her partially constructed house, which was commissioned under the State’s LIFE Mission programme in March, has been abandoned for months together.

Launched by the Kerala government, the LIFE (Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment) housing scheme aims to provide houses for 4.3 lakh landless and homeless people within the next 5 years. For flood victims who opt to get houses constructed under the LIFE mission, the state commissions contract workers to build a 420 square feet residence within a budget of Rs 4 lakh. However, it is amply clear to Kainakary’s residents that they have to spend a few more lakhs to see the completion of their house. The contractors and labourers too agree that that no decent house can be made within the state allotted budget.

“I don’t even blame the workers. They too are struggling to make money. If my house stands abandoned today, there is actually no one to blame. I have not been able to raise funds and the contractors cannot work with all money dried up,” says Maniamma.

Maniamma admits that she would have moved out of this locality if she could afford to buy a plot of land accessible by road. Today, she has spent Rs 10 lakh, after pawning assets and taking loans, to build a house that has no doors or windows.

“I have received the first instalment of Rs 45,000 under the LIFE Mission. This amount did not suffice to even lay the foundation of the house, and I will not get the second instalment unless the foundation is complete. This has become a roadblock,” explains Chandran, a fisherman based in Kainakary.

Most residents also prefer to build their houses at an elevation, using stone pillars to prop up the structure, to ensure that water does not enter their house when Kuttanad floods every monsoon.

Exorbitant labour charges

CK Vijayan, a daily wage worker based in the village, is busy building a house for his daughter Sarithamma and son-in-law Baiju. To avoid additional transport charges for labourers, Vijayan has devised a unique plan for his workers, all of whom hail from Edathua in upper Kuttanad – quite a distance from Kainakary.

“I have 10 workers who are building the house. They go back home only on Sundays. Rest of the days they sleep at the construction site,” he says.

On asked why he made the workers stay, Vijayan says that it would cost him Rs 2,000 everyday if he had to ferry the 10 labourers in and out

“I have to pay them the minimum wages and take care of their additional charges. With the transport cost, it would become double of what I am paying now, which I cannot afford,” he says. Vijayan, who is also a construction worker, admits that Rs 4 lakh to build a 420 sq feet house in Kainakary almost never cuts it.

Meanwhile, Baiju shows this reporter around the house where his family, including 3 children, currently live. The tiny space, right next to the construction site, is almost entirely filled with water from the surrounding channels. Wooden slabs over the water provide a space for the family to keep their belongings. An asbestos sheet with a bed over it and water reaching till the edge of the cot is where the family of 5 sleeps every night.

“We are waiting for the house to be completed. My children and I can’t wait to use a proper toilet. But funds are an issue and I see my father-in-law struggling to raise them,” Baiju says as he tends to a steaming pot of freshly caught mussels.

Incidentally, officials of the Alappuzha district administration too are aware of the accessibility issues in Kainakary. Among the reasons cited for the delay in compensating the 124 flood-hit houses, the main point highlighted was that rebuilding material could not be transported on time due to the lack of roads.

“During monsoons, the area experiences flooding. Now the water levels are high and residents are facing trouble transporting all the material. Delays have also been recorded due to some overlaps and corrections from the residents themselves,” an official from the Collectorate who is tracking data on the rebuilding activities told TNM.

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