Out of the 80 tea plantation workers and their families who lived in four ‘layams’ or line houses in this high-range area, only 12 survived after the August 2020 tragedy.

Burial ground of Pettimudi landslide victims
news 2021 Kerala Assembly Election Saturday, March 20, 2021 - 10:34

On August 6, 2020, Teepen and his wife Muthulekshmi, who was nine months pregnant with their first child, had packed their bags as they were set to go to the hospital the next morning for the delivery. As they went to sleep, a landslide hit Pettimudi in Kerala’s Idukki district, washing away houses and lives in one night. Twenty-seven-year-old Teepen is one of the few survivors of the Pettimudi landslide disaster. He sobs inconsolably as he stands on a wayside in Munnar town in Idukki, recalling that fateful night when he lost his wife and 12 other relatives, including his father.

While most of Kerala is in the thick of the upcoming Assembly polls, Teepen and the few other survivors of the tragic disaster are miles away from joining the ‘festival of the democracy’, still grappling to bring their lives back on track. Out of the 80 tea plantation workers and their families who lived in four ‘layams’ or line houses in this high-range area, only 12 survived. Many have still not recovered from the grievous injuries they sustained in the landslide.

TNM visited Pettimudi at Rajamalai in Munnar to understand what they seek from their leaders as Kerala gears up for the Assembly election on April 6.

A respectable burial ground

As Teepen drives his jeep through the Eravikulam National Park Road in Idukki crossing the limits up to which tourists and sightseers can enter, the roads get dingy, often resembling off-road tracks. A few kilometres before the landslide-struck spot in Pettimudi, one can spot rows of placards with names printed on it erected on a piece of land amid the forest.

This spot, which has no semblance of a cemetery, is the resting ground of 71 people who died in the tragic disaster. And this, the lack of a respectable burial ground for their loved ones, is one key issue that the survivors of the landslide want to highlight to authorities, to the contesting candidates from the Devikulam constituency, and to the next new government.

“I have lost everything -- my three children, my husband, father, sisters and their three children. What good can money do for us now? We want the authorities to build respectable tombs for our dear ones and to erect a memorial,” says 35-years-old Seethalekshmi, who is bedridden due to injuries from the landslide.

Seethalekshmi’s house in Pettimudi was the most active houses in the village, with six children playing around. But the disaster did not spare them. “Three were my children, and three my sisters', if any one of them was alive...,” says Seethalekshmi, sobbing before she can complete her sentence.


The six deceased children 

Pallaniamma, Teepen’s mother, is another survivor who goes about her days remembering the memories of the once-vibrant layams of Pettimudi.

“It was rare that we did not sit together and eat dinner. We were a big joint family. There is nothing left for us now, except the memories. We would be indebted for life if the government could erect a memorial for all those who left us,” 57-year-old Palaniamma says, holding on to two silver anklets of her deceased granddaughter and the wedding saree of her late daughter-in-law. These are some of the few articles Palaniamma managed to retrieve from the mounds of debris that the landslide left in its wake.


Palaniamma


The anklets of Palaniamma's granddaughter and saree of daughter in-law

The people who once lived as close-knit families are now scattered across the Idukki district.

Ensure rehabilitation

As part of the rehabilitation package, the state government built new houses for the survivors of the landslides and gave Rs 5 lakh to the families of each of the deceased. However, according to the few survivors, only eight surviving families, so far, have been given the newly constructed houses as part of the government's rehabilitation in Kuttiyar Valley, which is around 10 kilometres away from Munnar. The houses were constructed by Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company Private Limited (KDHP) in the government land.

Twenty-two-year-old Saravanan is the lone survivor in a family of six. His parents and three brothers were killed in the tragic landslide. Saravanan is one of the few survivors who has not been rehabilitated. With no house or a job, Saravanan now lives in his cousin’s house in Munnar. “But I cannot continue to live with my relatives for long. I need a house and a job. I have studied till Class 12,” says a soft-spoken Saravanan.


From left: Saravanan, Teepan

Resume efforts to find remaining bodies

There are also a few survivors like Teepen and Saravanan, who occasionally go to Pettimudi with earth diggers and other tools they can source to dig dried up slush in hopes to find traces of four residents whose bodies have still not been retrieved.


Teepan and Saravanan at the spot where their houses once stood

Standing in one of the line houses in Rajamalai, a few kilometres away from Pettimudi, 55-year-old Karupai urges the government to continue their search for the missing four people, which includes one of her daughters and granddaughter.

Why they need psychological support

The few survivors of the Pettimudi village, all of whom with roots in Tamil Nadu, had been living in Pettimudi for up to five generations. These survivors say they have witnessed what most people even dread to imagine. Some of them have witnessed the horrors of the landslides, of losing their loved ones and waiting for hours on the night of August 6, 2020, to dig them out of the debris.

“My husband was just a hand’s distance away from me, stuck in the slush and ruins. None of us could reach him. He was alive till the dawn of August 7, when all of a sudden, he went into a seizure and died. I could touch him with my fingers, yet could not save him but only watch as he slowly lost his life,” says Seethalekshmi, breaking down again.

“However, we try to move on, but are haunted for the rest of our lives,” says Teepan. “There is never a day when I don’t cry,” he says as he struggles to glance at his wedding photo.

“A relative framed and gifted these wedding photos after the landslide. But I do not have the courage to look at these photos,” says Teepan, as he unwraps the photographs for the first time.

For Palanniamma, it is the screams for help that continue to haunt her. “I can never those screams out of my ears. For hours, people were screaming for help; but no one came,” she says. Palaniamma still believes that many people could have been saved if there had been a timely intervention.

Although a few plantation workers in the region managed to rescue a few from the debris by dawn, it was only hours later that the rescue operation team reached the spot. There was allegedly a delay in relaying the information to the officials concerned. The heavy rains and slush were hampering their efforts.

“We had problems, we had financial constraints, but amidst all those, we were happy. Life was beautiful. And life would not be the same ever again. If we had also gone together with them...," Palaniamma says, her voice trailing off.

For these surviving residents who witnessed and survived the disaster of a magnitude that probably others cannot fathom, there is a lack of professional mental healthcare support. This, the authorities and local leaders in power ought to provide them.

(All images by Neethu Joseph)

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