Renjesh and his family were asleep when a landslip ravaged his sister's house on the night of August 8. Water, mud and rocks tumbled down from the Banasura hill – one of the tallest mountains of the Western Ghats running through Wayanad – and drowned the tiny concrete hut located in Kaapikalam, a tiny hilltop settlement in Padinjarathara, filled with coffee, pepper and ginger plants.
"We heard rumbling sounds and assumed it to be thunder and lightning as it was raining heavily. When we found out it was a landslide, me and my brother Ranjith carried my sister, who has disabilities and cannot walk, out of her hut to my house further uphill. It was 12 am. We all had some tea and decided to sleep," the 34-year-old electrician recalled.
But the night was not to end so soon. When Renjesh's wife Jinitha went to keep the tea cups, she saw that the kitchen at the back of the house was entirely destroyed thanks to another landslip that happened meanwhile.
Realising the risk of staying on, the families soon put all the kids in a jeep and sent them to a kin's place further away. They then decided to move to a relief camp in the morning of August 9, once the revenue officer arrived to inspect the damage.
Twelve days later, the families are now back home and their houses have been cleared of the mud and rocks. But now, all 22 families of Kaapikalam have now decided to move out of their homes.
"We have appealed to the revenue department to find us another place downhill so that we can shift from here. They asked us to write to the Collector," said Renjesh's brother Renjith.
A landslide after 26 years
Landslides are not uncommon in the hilly areas of Wayanad. But not having experienced one in 26 years, the residents of Kaapikalam were not entirely prepared for one this monsoon.
"The last time a landslide occurred here was in 1992, in a region further uphill. It claimed 11 lives and those living on the higher ranges of the Banasura moved to other places after this," Ranjith added.
Following this incident, the revenue department started warning families to move to relief camps every monsoon. However, most of them decide to stay on in their homes every year, hoping for the best.
"Our father bought three and a half acres of land here 60 years ago. The land was split between us 10 siblings after our father's demise. The house where I stay now was built 40 years ago and never have we witnessed a landslide here in all these years. There was no reason to move out," Renjesh added.
Following the deluge of rock and mud, the families have lost the land they tilled and farmed for years.
"I lost the pepper, ginger, coffee, betel nut and turmeric that I cultivated in 20 cents of my property. Most of these plants are permanently damaged and I will have to buy seeds from the agriculture department, till the plot and begin from scratch," said Renjesh.
Besides the agricultural losses, rebuilding their houses is a mammoth task that lies ahead for the affected families.
"Social service group and kind hearted neighbours helped us clean our house when we came back. However, rebuilding the broken parts are still to be done," he said.
Today, the families here are scared of the rains, lest landslips occur again and consume their lives, the primary reason for them wanting to move out. However, this decision comes with lots of scepticism.
The families asked the government to buy their land and provide them with equivalent land in a safer location downhill. However, authorities ruled this proposal out and instead agreed to provide a few cents of land (3 to 5 cents) for the families to build their homes.
But the problem doesn't end here.
"You saw the kind of havoc the floods created downhill. Hundreds of families living close to the dam have lost their houses. Staying on will mean that we have to brave landslides. And if we move out, there's the flooding downhill to worry about. It's a tough choice," Renjesh added.