With 83 people dead and 15 still missing, The Lede heads out with a search party from Pettimudi near Munnar
Around 13 kilometres from the entrance to the Eravikulam National Park, past the last view point run by the forest department is the small hamlet of Pettimudi.
Pettimudi falls within the Rajamalai division of Kannan Devan Hill Plantation, a tea plantation owned by the Tata group.
Pettimudi is not open to the general public in the best of times. It is through the forest lands that the road leading to the hamlet runs. To reach Pettimudi, one thus has to gain entry through multiple check points put up by the Forest department.
As fate would have it, the devastating landslide this past week has brought unending traffic to Pettimudi. Fancy cars whiz past and politicians of varying hues alight to take stock and give interviews to expectant media teams.
Search and rescue operations on ground in the middle of the pandemic hold its own challenges. The large crowds make physical distancing an impossibility in a scenario such as in Pettimudi.
Not surprisingly, one officer of the Fire and Rescue team who had reached Munnar on August 09 turned positive for COVID-19 first. This was followed by two media persons and an NDRF officer turning positive.
At ground zero, search teams are an ensemble of officers who belong to the Kerala Fire Force, Kerala Police, Kerala Forest Department and NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) officers.
“The initial challenge here is the terrain,” said VP Shashi an officer of the Kerala Police Crime branch who was also a crime scene photographer.
The landslide had followed the rough contours of the steep mountain stream above the line houses of Pettimudi. But downstream, on either side of the banks, was a mix of thick forest lands interspersed with marshy outlands.
For as long as the search teams were squelching through the marshes, the main concerns were the small rivulets which were waist deep at most places, holding possibilities of slipping into unknown depths of the tricky marsh. The grasses all around were infested with leeches.
“These are not the normal leeches,” said Shyam S, a local businessman from Munnar, who frequents Pettimudi. “These leeches suck on wild animals usually so they suck deeper. One has to be careful. We should be searching for bodies at the gravel bank. Given the terrain here, there are high chances that they could settle there,” he said.
Gravel bank, as the sandy deltaic structure midstream is called, lies a bit downstream of Pettimudi and upstream from where the search team began.
The stream by the banks of which the search teams progressed eventually drains to the Periyar river. It originates further uphill.
The smaller stream running through Pettimudi joined it perpendicularly and was a much smaller tributary which saw strong flows during the monsoons.
“But we never had any landslides here,” says Kabilan, a guard with the Forest department and part of the Eravikulam National Park holding a temporary position.
Kabilan was the guide for the team and knew the terrain. “Otherwise we would have known.”
“Earlier there used to be excess flow during heavy rains,” says 41-year-old Kuttiraja C, who works as a daily labourer and lives in one of the houses at Pettimudi, allotted to his wife who works in the plantation. “But nothing like what was witnessed this time. We have never had such massive flash floods either,” he says.
Kuttiraja lives less than a hundred feet away from the ill-fated line houses. His wife earns Rs 402 a day for plucking tea leaves, work that starts at eight in the morning and goes on till five in the evening. This is similar to what the others earn, according to Kuttiraja.
The line houses themselves are as old as Kuttiraja can remember.
“I was born and raised here. These lines have been here for as long as I can remember. I am 41 years old now,” he says.
“My father too worked and retired here. After retirement he went back to our village in Tirunelveli and now earns a pension of Rs 700 every month,” he says.
It is a story shared by many in Pettimudi and it is Tirunelveli and the neighbouring Sankarankoil where most in Pettimudi hail from. The security of the salary, free housing and pensions have been the attractions which kept these plantation workers in the tea estates around Munnar over generations.
“She gets her payment in the form of salary after deductions for PF, electricity etc,” says Kuttiraja.
“It isn’t much.”
But enough to keep generations wedded to the plantations, many choosing to pass on the batons to the next generation.
For Kuttiraja, marriage with Muthumari, a tea plucker meant that he did not have to leave his birthplace even after his father’s retirement, an arrangement which explains how more than 30 lives lost in the landslides and flash floods belonged to the same extended family, related one way or another.
Pettimudi is in many ways, a Tamil village from Tirunelveli, neatly transplanted into line houses amidst the tea plantations of Munnar.
“There aren’t any job opportunities there. So from earlier times people from Tamil Nadu have been working here, mostly from Tirunelveli,” says Kuttiraja, when asked about the common origins of the people in Pettimudi.
“It is a very small area where the landslide began,” says Kabilan who claims to have been to the top since the landslide. But the people of Pettimudi were caught unawares on the night of August 06.
“This stream has been here right from my childhood. There was never anything like this,” says Kuttiraja. “We ran outside when we heard the loud roars. The stream was wild. There were stones, rocks and uprooted trees coming down with the flow. This continued for about 40 minutes,” he recollects.
“The line houses stayed in place for around two hours more. People were screaming loudly for help. We couldn’t do much. It was impossible to reach them through the water,” says Kuttiraja.
“There had been no power supply for the four previous days,” says 27-year-old Maheshwari, who like Kuttiraja, was brought up in the estates. She is now a young mother with a 2-month-old child.
“We had got mobile towers just this January, but without power, they were not working,” says Maheshwari. Both her parents, as well as both her in-laws, are permanent employees at the estate.
“The closest way to go ask for help was to walk 3 km uphill to reach the satellite station. But the rains and the water flow over the bridge prevented that,” says Maheshwari.
Her husband Anil Kumar, who did his engineering in Tamil Nadu works with the Kerala Forest department. Maheshwari, a BBA graduate, worked as an accountant in Coimbatore until her pregnancy. They got married in what is common practice amongst people living in the plantations - finding suitable matches from those within the plantations.
But luck would have it that Maheshwari and her two-month-old baby were not at her in-laws’ quarters when disaster struck.
“Because of my delivery two months back, I was living at my mothers’ house.”
Her parents too lived in a line house in Pettimudi, a bit further uphill. It was her husband’s younger brother who was home when disaster struck.
“Our line was the one closest to the stream,” says Maheshwari. But her family survived.
“Usually during heavy rains, overflow of water from the streams enters our line first. So this time when it began entering, my father in law started clearing the dirt and water from inside of our houses as usual. But soon the flow increased. There were loud sounds while my father in law was still outside. My brother in law, having heard the sounds, pulled him inside and closed the door.”
They were not able to open the door after that.
“In no time, dirt entered the house through the back and the house got flooded. My brother in law sensed the danger and broke the upper half door open and got everyone to exit by the side.”
Since her husband was away, her brother-in-law saved his father, mother and sister.
“After coming out, there were cries from the other houses in the line and he broke open their doors and got them out as well. No one in our line lost their lives,” says Maheshwari. There were six houses in Maheshwari’s in-laws’ line which still stand, all of them filled with dirt.
“There were cries from the lines below is what he said. But he couldn’t reach them,” says Maheshwari.
“Those who escaped, sat by the road, unable to do anything to save those still stuck inside the line houses below,” rues Kuttiraja. “We used tree branches to reach out to those we could when we could,” he says.
“There was no light and we were reduced to seeing in the night. There was no way for us to get help as the bridge was flooded too. We saved four people using the trees that came with the flash flood. Three others broke open the roofs and escaped by themselves,” he says.
Most others remained helplessly stuck.
“Within two hours, the structures gave away and got washed away towards the stream. Sometime after two hours the flow reduced in intensity. What remained is what remains standing now.”
“There it is! Body number one!”
Kabilan shouted an hour into the search as the team reached the other side of the gravel bank. Having slipped and wrestled for balance in the mush, boots were wet and the first wave of leeches had drawn blood.
From across the right side of the bank, the body was difficult to miss once spotted.
The bloated belly stood out from the crushed rotting grasses on either side littered with debris which had accumulated.
“There is one more!” Kabilan shouted in excitement again. The delight in his voice was ironic. Many of his colleagues were amongst those who had gone missing.
As the more experienced eyes started scanning the gravel bank intently, Kabilan led the team towards the rising forests ahead, towards the crossing, into the gravel bank.
The forest, though drier compared to the marshy slush, was filled with many more leeches and had no open areas through which to move across. As the search team cut their way through the vegetation with machetes, another body was spotted, this time nearer to the right bank, in the water.
While Kabilan and Pradeep, an officer from the Fire and Rescue department, Trivandrum, walked across the narrowest point in the stream to the gravel bank, those left behind looked for ways to make a crossing using a rope.
In their attempts to secure the rope across the river, and in between the multiple throws, the rope head with a stick tied to it got stuck under the same tree trunk beneath which was the body of an unknown person.
While attempts to retrieve the rope head were still going on, Ranjith Israeli, a member of the search team who calls himself a rescue operator, plunged into the fast-flowing stream and latched on to the tree trunk with some daring and retrieved the rope head.
Seeing a way to retrieve the body underneath the tree trunk, Shaheer, a Fire and Rescue officer jumped into the stream, holding Ranjith’s hand and secured the dead body by tying it around the waist. Once he and Ranjith were back on the shore, the team pulled the body out of the water, shore-wards.
The pulling caused skin around the waist to come apart, revealing brownish pink flashes of the skin further underneath all across where the rope had swayed. Turned grey in the cold, the body had no clothes on. While it lay belly down in the water, once ashore, the body was turned over, revealing its gender. The pressure from turning over caused a fresh rush of blood through the nose and mouth.
With the body bag laid on the ground, the officers zipped secure the what was now clear to belong to a middle aged male and carried it through the forested area; towards the waiting tractor which had been called to a more accessible location to carry the body a few kilometres further uphill, to Pettimudi where the media, the politicians, the senior officers and the ambulances waited.
Once the body had been handed over, the search team spread themselves on either side of the gravel bank and carried the other bodies that had been spotted and three more which had been found on the gravel banks.
The team recovered six bodies in all that day.
Two more would be recovered the next day and three the following day.
15 still remain missing.
On the way back to Pettimudi, Kabilan informed the search party that the first body had been identified.
“It belonged to Pratheesh. He was a jeep driver.”
“In total four lines have been lost,” says Maheshwari. “The first line had five houses. The second and third line had ten houses each, while the last line had six houses, a canteen and the club. The club was where people would play carrom. Ours is the only surviving line. People in our line have all survived with very small injuries. The others have all perished,” she says.
“We saved four. Three escaped by themselves and someone saved another girl. That is all I know about the survivors from the lines,” says Kuttiraja. “Amongst those we saved were 27-year-old Deepan, his mother Palaniamma and two women.
The girl who saved herself is Karuppayi. Deepan is admitted in the GH hospital in Munnar. His wife has still not been found. Deepan was a jeep driver. His brother was one too. His name was Pratheesh.”
“The search operations will go on till Sunday at least, is what we have been told,” says Kuttiraja.
“Until then at least I am going to Pettimudi every day. Everyone from Pettimudi has moved out. 18 families are staying in Kannimalai estate while 15 families are putting up in Nymakadu estate,” he says.
“No one will go back there. We are all scared of further landslides. Only one small part of the hills has come down. There is more which will come loose still. If they all come down, everything will be buried,” says Kuttiraja.
“There is no going back there,” agrees Maheswari.
“We knew each and every person there since our childhood. We have lost everyone we knew. With all of them gone how can we live there in peace?” she asks.
While bodies of those missing are still being recovered, it is the ones who are alive who need care and attention more than ever.
Pettimudi for the many survivors is now a haunted memory they have to live with.