“It’s been years since I felt terrified of cyclones. The last time was in 1966, when I was really small,” begins Perumal of Mandagapattu village in Marakkanam. He is sitting on a culvert on the side of a newly laid tar road that made transportation bearable to his little village. He and his friends have lived in Mandagapattu since they can remember.
Though Cyclone Nivar’s landfall officially began around 11 pm on Wednesday, for the 40-odd families in this village tucked away in a corner of Villupuram district the nightmare began early on Wednesday afternoon. Mandagapattu, located around 150 km south of Chennai and 30 km north of Puducherry, is a hamlet with around 40 families whose primary occupation is agriculture and cattle-rearing.
“The winds here have been crazy since yesterday afternoon. We were terrified that the few coconut trees would be uprooted by the winds. But thankfully, there was no big damage and we lost only 3-4 drumstick trees,” he adds. His worst memory is the cyclone of 1966, which caused almost all the trees in his village to be uprooted.
Marakkanam is close to the spot where Cyclone Nivar made landfall on the night of November 25-26. The Very Severe Cyclonic Storm crossed the Tamil Nadu-Puducherry border around 30 km north of Puducherry. Along with winds, the cyclone brought copious amounts of rainfall, causing flooding in low lying regions and also causing river banks to breach.
The village is connected to Marakkanam town and thereby to the East Coast Road (ECR) through a couple of ground level bridges across a branch of the Palar river and a smaller stream that runs parallel to the said branch. These two bridges are around 500 metres long together and save the villagers a considerable distance when they need to travel to Marakkanam town.
“We usually walk or take our vehicles over the bridge to go to Kanthadu (nearby village) or to the (Marakkanam) town. But every time there is heavy rain, the river overflows and submerges the bridges. Then we have to travel an additional 20 km to reach Marakkanam town. Our children’s school is in Kanthadu, when it rains and the bridge is submerged, they are forced to skip school,” says 50-year-old Nataraj. He adds that this is the first good rain the village has seen this year and that usually the water runs through the village when there are heavy rains.
Since Cyclone Nivar brought heavy rain with it, the river overflowed early Wednesday morning, thus cutting the access to Mandagapattu and two other villages from Kanthadu.
The villagers in Mandagapattu were instructed to prepare for Cyclone Nivar a couple of days back, says Perumal. “The Tahsildar and his team visited us a few days ago and told us to not come out during the winds. They said they’ll send a vehicle to take us to a safer spot. But we refused and told him that we will stick together here and take care of each other. We have so many cows and goats. What will happen to them if we alone go to relief centres? So we stayed back,” he explains.
The administration officers reportedly supplied the villagers with essential items like rice, oil and pulses beforehand and also ensured clean water supply.
“They brought bags of rice, dal and oil and kept it in a hall belonging to the temple. They gave the keys to one of us and told us to use it as and when required,” adds Santhanam, another resident.
For 70-year-old Perumal, their village getting cut off due to the river overflowing is nothing new. It is as regular as the monsoon itself.
“A few years ago, a couple of others and I met the District Collector with a request to build an overbridge across these rivers, so that we can travel freely even during the rainy season. Our children are also losing classes because of this problem. But nothing came off it. One person who accompanied me back then has passed away too. This morning, several officers including the sub-collector visited us and assured us that a bridge will be built here at the earliest,” he explains.
Before the bridge is constructed, however, the villagers want the main river and the parallel stream to be desilted. “Only if it is desilted can the soil absorb excess water. Without doing that if they construct the bridge, what’s the guarantee that the water will not breach the banks and enter our fields again?” 27-year-old Jaisankar asks.
Jaisankar, like many other villagers, is engaged in agriculture full-time. It was only recently that he and several others had sowed paddy in the fields around the river.
“The damage we have suffered now is to our paddy crops. We’ll sow again once the water recedes, but our loss is not negligible. We hope the government considers our situation and gives us some compensation,” Nataraj says.
Speaking to TNM, Villupuram MP D Ravikumar said that he would definitely bring the issue to the attention of the Chief Minister. “I’ve been touring my constituency since this morning and I’ve compiled a list of grievances shared by the people. I’ll definitely add this issue to my report and send it to the Chief Minister, since these things are under the purview of the state government. I’ll definitely do my part,” he says.