Voters in disaster-hit areas lament ‘political apathy’
Shanmuganathan P, a worker of Kerala Bank, still visits the disaster site sometimes after losing his two children in Pettimudy landslide in Munnar last year. Amid a flurry of promises being made by political parties in the poll-bound state, Shanmuganathan has just one wish - getting what the ruling CPIM promised them after the flood.
“I got a compensation of ₹5 lakh announced by the government initially. Since my second son’s body was not recovered, I failed to get any relief in his case. Some of the survivors are still running around for legal heir certificates,” Shanmuganathan said, repeating a common complaint of the people in the area of not having received what the ruling CPIM promised after the flood.
The body of one of Shanmuganathan’s sons was not recovered. His sons went to a birthday party in Pettimudy when the flood fury washed them. Among 70 people who lost their lives in the disaster, rescue officials could locate only 64 bodies from the slush strewn around six kilometres. A carved hill and mound of dried slush stand testimony to nature’s fury that decimated a settlement of poor tea plantation workers.
Since both his sons were visitors to a relative’s house, they were not entitled to the house or the land as announced by the government. Shanmuganathan said more than half of the victims’ families are yet to receive even the initial compensation, a claim not denied by local officials who blame the delay on lack of documents.
Another disaster took place in the same month last year when an Air India Express aircraft slipped from the tabletop airport in Kozhikode while landing. The incident claimed 22 lives. The initial relief offered by the state government for crash victims was ₹10 lakh. Later, the Union government and Air India also announced compensation.
Locals say the victims of the airport mishap got ₹20 lakh, while the landslide victims received only ₹5 lakh. When asked about this disparity, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said for landslide victims it was only the first instalment. The families of the landslide victims, however, feel what they received was the first and the last instalment of compensation.
“We don’t expect to get anything more. Most of the victims claim that they have no title deeds of land where they stayed and others are making umpteen rounds to government offices to get legal heir certificates. All this is taking a lot of time,” he said.
For the last three years, Kerala has been witnessing a series of disasters. The worst among them was the flood of the century in 2018 monsoon that claimed over 400 lives. Most of the flood victims are still on the long road to recovery. Amid another election, there is no end to tall promises and many see poll exercise as a hollow ritual.
About 150 kilometres downstream of misty getaway from Munnar is Pathanamthitta, where three major rivers - Pambha, Manimala and Achankovil - overflowed in the monsoon of 2018 and took different course submerging many settlements.
Many victims are yet to receive any compensation. One of the residents in flood-affected Ranni, Sunil P, said some of the voluntary organisations helped him build his house that was washed away in the flood. But in his neighbourhood, a relatively wealthy family got a fresh house and piece of land due to their alleged political affiliation, he alleged.
“In our area, charity organisations chipped in to piece our lives together more than the government machinery. Shameless political parties are even taking credit for this. Politics is the best way to fool people and loot them,” said another resident Narayanan Thampi (62), a retired government official. Thampi said he is yet to decide whether to cast his vote in the upcoming assembly polls.
Indignation and despair are quite visible on the ground and many admit they have lost interest in politics. A senior revenue official of the district, who did not wish to be named, admitted the government machinery was slow and many deserving people have been left out.
“Even in wild dreams, I never thought my house, situated on a small cliff, will be affected. Gushing waters came to my roof. I spent five days in a relief camp for the first time in my life,” said Alex Thomas (60), a planter in Konni. He said his wife was yet to come out of the trauma.
Amid the high octane poll campaigning, the 2018 flood figured prominently in some areas of the state. Former chief minister Oommen Chandy said if the UDF comes to power the government will announce a detailed probe into circumstances that led to the flood.
“It was a man-made disaster. Dams were not de-silted properly and allowed to fill eying hydel power. When all dams were submerged, they panicked and opened the dams simultaneously,” said Chandy.
Two years ago, Metro Man E Sreedharan had also approached the High Court with a plea stating poor dam management and planning behind the disaster. Sreedharan wanted to fix responsibility on those who erred. The plea is before the court till now.
Though natural disasters are not uncommon in Kerala, none of the political parties mentioned them in their manifestos.
“All are after free food kits and doles. Some of them even promised they will not implement ecologically sensitive zone plans. Kerala is yet to learn a lesson from natural disasters. Many hilly areas are still sitting ducks,” said Dr VS Vijayan, one of the members of the Madhav Gadgil Committee which prepared a report to save fragile areas of the Western Ghats in 2012.
Wayanad, a mountainous district in north Kerala, witnessed a shutdown last month due to protests against the Environment Ministry’s draft notification on ecologically sensitive areas. In 2019, a massive landslide in Puthumala claimed 24 lives.
“Nobody is there to speak for nature. Political parties want votes and don’t bother if people live or die. No point in shedding tears when a mishap takes place,” said N Badusha, an environmental activist from Wayanad. He said the Gadgil report has pointed out that unmindful quarrying and deforestation have affected the green district