Seventy-six-year-old Prabhavalli and 65-year-old Kunzhikaali huddle next to each other on a wooden bench, their faces hinting at a smile while their eyes remain vacant.
The duo are in the verandah of a school-turned relief camp in Paravoor, near Aluva in Ernakulam district where the rising waters of the Periyar, due to the opening of the Idukki and Idamalayar dams, have forced thousands to relocate to relief camps in the district.
The yellow building with tiled roofs that these ladies now call home is KEM Higher Secondary School, also known as relief camp number 75 of the 500 plus camps set up in Ernakulam and Idukki.
On Thursday afternoon over 65 families were swiftly relocated to this school from Naalu Centu Colony in Mambra, Karimaloor Panchayat, when it was announced that more shutters of the Idamalayar dam would be opened due to heavy rains filling up the reservoir. They were told that the water in the Periyar would inevitably swell up, flooding their houses.
“Our colony is next to the Mambra-Periyar, a branch of the Periyar flowing through Aluva. Several canals carrying the waters of the Periyar flow near our house. When these started overflowing yesterday, we were picked up by the panchayat officials and immediately moved to the camp,” says Mukesh, a co-operative bank employee who now lives in the camp.
Residents were alerted to take their valuables and documents including ration cards, Voter IDs and Aadhar. Everything else, the panchayat promised to provide them.
“Mats and pillows have been provided for the people to sleep on. The nearby temple has provided us with steel plates and spoons. Provisions including rice, salt and chilly powder are bought from the Neerikode Cooperative Society here and food is then cooked and served in the school,” says AM Abu, member of the Karimaloor panchayat who monitors the affairs of the camp.
In the relief camp, living as a community
In the backyard of the school, a separate block functions as the camp kitchen. Here Sakina (43), Indira (58), Shailaja (56) and Shaila (46) - all residents of the camp - have taken charge of chopping onions, boiling rice and making curries to feed the 160-odd people in the camp.
“We boiled 15-20 kilos of rice and made sambar yesterday. This morning we made upma and fried papadams for everyone. We are expecting more people to come and we’ll increase the food being cooked accordingly,” Shailaja said.
“Children in the camp are not allowed to enter the kitchen as the food is being cooked in big containers and using firewood. It’s dangerous,” Abu adds.
In another block, teenage boys pass time by playing a game of soccer. They are joined by a panchayat member who kicks the ball right back at them.
The school can accommodate its current residents and even more if need be, according to Abu.
“With the Idukki dam shutters opening, we are expecting to bring in a 100 more people into the camp. We’ll open more classrooms and get more mats and extra food for everybody,” he adds.
The camp has 10-12 bathrooms for women. The living quarters of women and men are separate, with the men put up in another block of the school.
One room is allocated as the health centre and 3 nurses and a doctor are working round the clock to take records, provide medicines and checking for illness among the kids and elderly. Those who are ailing from illnesses are put up in a separate part of the school which serves as a well lit and ventilated clinic.
Workers from the panchayat are sent to the camp to sprinkle bleaching powder to sanitize it’s premises.
As the afternoon lunch is being prepared the nurses, panchayat members and residents congregate by the kitchen, taking in the aroma.
For most of them here, going back home is a distant dream, with the 5 shutters of the Idukki dam opened to release water. Perhaps this is why all of them seem to be in good spirits at least on the outside. For now, they are making the most of what they have.