Unusually high rainfall and unscientific land use cause landslides year after year in the hill districts of Kerala. Giji K. Raman and G. Krishnakumar report on the plight of the tea estate workers and the government’s disaster management plans
It had been raining incessantly in the lush green Rajamala hills of Munnar in Kerala’s Idukki district since August 1. The downpour was especially heavy on August 6. But the tea plantation workers of the layams (labour lines)of the Kanan Devan Hills in Pettimudi, a small idyllic valley, did not find any reason to be worried. Pettimudi conjoins the rolling slopes some 11 km from where the Eravikulam National Park ends for tourists.
“When rainwater flooded the labour lines, it seemed like a repeat of last August,” recalls Anil Kumar, a resident and daily wage earner at the national park famous for the Nilgiri tahrs. “Around 10:45 p.m., the water began to get muddy and we thought a stream nearby had breached the banks. Suddenly, my brother looked out and hollered. Through the noise of the rain came a loud thud. Boulders came crashing down. He said something dangerous was happening. We all rushed out. Where four housing lines stood at some distance below ours, there was only debris,” he says.
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A massive landslide that originated from a spot in the shola forests 2 km uphill from the labour quarters had sent down a torrent of sludge, rocks and fallen trees that pulverised to dirt four of the six tin-roofed structures in the neighbourhood. The wreckage was strewn over a large area and spilled into the river on the lower side of the Raj-era settlements. Sixty-five people, most of them estate workers, were killed, while five were missing as on August 27. Rescuers could only save 12 people. The search operation has been temporarily called off in view of the rising water levels in the river and is expected to resume when the situation improves.
A long, dark night
A few had a close call. With water gushing into his dwelling unit in one of the two lines in the upper reaches that housed 16 families, Suresh Kumar, a daily wage earner, was thinking of taking shelter in his cousin’s house in one of the ill-fated lines below. “It was pitch dark thanks to the persisting rain and we had suffered a power outage for several days. By 11 p.m. or so, we decided to move to my cousin’s place. That’s when we bumped into a frightened Doraisamy, a friend, who told us about the calamity, though we did not know of its scale then. He took us to his house,” says Suresh Kumar. Thankfully, his housing line and the one next to it survived.
Doraisamy, who quit working in the plantations but whose parents were still employed in the fields, was probably the first to sense the gravity of the situation. He trudged back to the site of devastation along with Suresh Kumar. They heard a voice, barely audible, from within the massive heap of rubble. “It was Mayilsamy calling for help, but we couldn’t locate him. So we returned to collect more people before going back again. As the rain subsided a bit, we were able to pull out four people who were trapped underneath mounds of debris. But Mayilsamy wasn’t among them. His frail cry still rings in my ears. We couldn’t save him,” laments Suresh Kumar.
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As the night thickened, the showers resumed. Fear gripped them as they heard the sound of rocks crashing down. They returned to Doraisamy’s home. There was no way they could communicate with anyone outside: the phones had long been dead and connectivity had ruptured.
Difficulties in rescue operations
It was only when the day broke that the magnitude of the catastrophe came into full view. The survivors alerted the Kanan Devan Hill Plantations (KDHP) officials and those manning the forest check post 10 km uphill in Rajamala.
“A distraught man, who survived the ordeal, reached the check post at 7 a.m. The checkpost official informed me soon after,” says Job J. Neriamparambil, assistant wildlife warden of Eravikulam National Park.
Neriamparambil was among the first to reach the site with a team. “We left in two vehicles but a minor landslip had washed away a portion of the road in front of the Rajamala hospital. We got down and resumed on foot negotiating through two more mudslides. There were uprooted trees along the way and water was flowing over a wooden bridge across a stream. When we finally reached Pettimudi by 10 a.m., there were two KDHP officials and around 15 workers from the two surviving layams. We were able to rescue three people from a collapsed tea stall in a corner of a partially destroyed building. In view of the magnitude of the devastation, we sent for reinforcements,” he says.
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It was still raining, which made rescue efforts difficult. Chances of further landslips were high as the stream that ran down the hill to the river below had changed course and looked menacingly swollen. Even after 10 hours of the disaster, it had a strong current, Neriamparambil recalls.
The debris flow, he says, wasn’t straight down from the point of origin. The slurry zigzagged, depositing downhill huge rocks, boulders, tonnes of soil and fallen trees. “It was this winding motion that saved the two housing lines located above the destroyed ones,” he says.
The hour of the occurrence and poor communication infrastructure apart, the region’s remoteness and continuing bad weather delayed rescue operations. Pettimudi is where the blacktopped road from Rajamala in the Eravikulam National Park to the Munnar Forest Division, a part of the Western Ghats bordering Tamil Nadu, ends. The only access to the area is through the national park, which was closed, and a temporary bridge at Periyavarai. The bridge, which links Pettimudi to Marayur, only partially constructed, had been washed away in the floods a few days earlier, making it difficult for rescuers and rescue gear to be transported to the spot.
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“It’s as if luck had eluded Pettimudi. Built by the British, the Periyavarai bridge was destroyed in the 2018 floods. The construction of a new bridge was still in progress,” says M.J. Babu, a native of Munnar who has authored a book on the Kanan Devan Hills.
While BSNL restored cellular communication, the forest department reactivated official communication channels the next day. Connectivity to Marayur was also temporarily re-established. A contingent of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) reached the site by the evening of August 7. The rescue efforts were carried out by personnel from the Kerala forest, police, fire and rescue services besides scores of volunteers.
“Debris had accumulated over the destroyed buildings at a height of 20 ft and there was water-logging. Even if we had arrived early, the chances of us finding anyone alive beneath the debris would have been remote,” says Rekha Nambiar, senior commandant of the NDRF Fourth Battalion that led the rescue effort. At least 16 bodies were fished out from a four-km stretch in the frenzied river below.
There was fear of COVID-19, but locals like Hadley Renjith, a resident of Munnar, along with the police and forest officials, scoured the river banks from Anakkulam in Mankulam village some 12 km downstream all the way back up to the landslide site at Pettimudi, for bodies. The scenes at the site were heart-wrenching. Nineteen children died in the disaster. Among the casualties were 13 members from an extended family with a grandmother being the lone survivor.
A disaster replay
The disaster looked like a replay of the calamitous landslides of Kavalappara in Malappuram and Puthumala in Wayanad on August 8 last year. In all, 76 people had been either killed or termed missing in those landslides. This time around, a red alert for extremely heavy rainfall was sounded in Wayanad and Idukki districts on August 6. The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA) recommended evacuating people in landslide-prone areas to safety during the day itself. But the labour lines of Pettimudi remained teeming with hapless people.
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Rainfall data from the gauging station at Eravikulam National Park suggest that Rajamala received 195 mm rain on August 4 and 309 mm rain on August 6. “Extremely heavy rains of 30 cm or more can trigger landslips,” explains K.S. Sajin Kumar, Assistant Professor of Geology at the University of Kerala who had studied the landslide susceptibility of Munnar in 2017. “Two factors contribute to landslides: static ones like the slope of a hill or its shape and triggering factors which include anthropogenic activities like deforestation, construction or land use. In the case of Pettimudi, the flat-topped hill would have caused all the rainwater to collect in a ravine before bursting through the topsoil. The sensitivity of the soil and the pattern of rock formation in the Munnar region came into focus following widening works on the Kochi-Dhanushkodi National Highway along the gap road stretch, where over 20 major landslips have been reported since 2018,” he says. Sajin Kumar wants real-time rain gauging systems to be set up in all landslip-prone localities so that people can be moved to predetermined safer locations when excessive showers take place.
Rescue workers look for survivors at the site of a landslide caused by heavy rains at Pettimudy in Kerala’s Idukki district. Photo: Special Arrangement
Sajin Kumar calls for developing an accurate landslide susceptibility map and deploying early warning systems based on rainfall thresholds as these are critical for safe and sustainable planning and development of Kerala’s ecologically sensitive regions.
According to KSDMA, the landslide susceptibility map was created by the National Centre for Earth Science Studies in 2010. The Geological Survey of India has completed a new landslide susceptibility map for all landslide-prone districts except Idukki, for which work is progressing under the National Landslide Susceptibility Mapping project. The State Revenue Department, on its part, intends to revise the State Disaster Management Plan once the battle against COVID-19 gets over.
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There’s an argument that setting up real-time rain gauges in all landslide-prone areas, about 15% of the State’s area, is unrealistic. But the government has identified 160 sites for the India Meteorological Department (IMD) to set up such a network. The IMD has already commissioned 15 such facilities in the State, according to the Revenue Department.
Meanwhile, the Director of the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, V. Nandakumar, says the Centre has updated its landslide zonation map based on satellite data for Idukki and Wayanad districts. “The work for the landslide zonation map for Malappuram and Kozhikode is progressing. But it will take three years to validate it through field visits and further research. We also need to map all the landslides in which there were no loss of lives,” he says.
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Land use management policies
Going by data collated by KSDMA, landslides claimed 177 lives in Kerala in 2018 and 2019. There were 1,362 landslides and 700 landslides in these two years, respectively. Idukki district, with 1,048 landslides, topped the vulnerability chart in this period. Except for the estuarine Alappuzha, all the 13 districts are considered landslide-prone. The Geological Survey of India has found that of Kerala’s 39,000 sq km area, hills having slopes of over 10 degree constitute about 19,000 sq km.
“Kerala has witnessed unusually high rainfall since 2018, which has destabilised the already vulnerable hill slopes in the high ranges. Some of them, which may not have seen landslides in the past, are now becoming potentially vulnerable to heavy sliding. The Pettimudi slide is a repeat of what happened in Puthumala. I understand that the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel led by Madhav Gadgil had designated the Pettimudi locality as a region of highest ecological sensitivity,” says C.P. Rajendran, geoscientist and professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru.
Human activity exacerbates the vulnerability caused by climate change, he says, and points to the need for formulation of appropriate land use management policies in vulnerable districts like Idukki and Wayanad – something that the government is looking at as part of its Rebuild Kerala Initiative. The researchers of the Geological Survey of India who had studied 10 landslides in Idukki between June and July in 2018 had cited human interference and unscientific land use among the ‘geo-scientific causes’ that triggered landslides. The man-made causative factors, they said, included construction of buildings with loose material, faulty cultivation patterns and defective maintenance of drainage systems.
The human factor played no role in Pettimudi, as the crest of the slide was deep inside the pristine forests, says A. Jayathilak, Principal Secretary, Revenue and Disaster Management, Kerala. “There were also no quarries or resorts nearby. Extreme rainfall triggered the landslide and it gathered high intensity as it came down the hill,” he says.
In a land-scarce State like Kerala, it’s impractical to demarcate land as habitable areas and strictly as no-go zones. “The people in the lowlands and the highlands cannot be relocated to the relatively safer mid-lands considering the large population that would require relocation. If we go by the maps, just about 20% to 30% of the land is habitable and it’s the mid-lands,” Jayathilak says.
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But that shouldn’t deter the State from formulating a land use policy, contends Harish Vasudevan, environmentalist and lawyer. “Just look at the sheer scale of land grab in these hilly districts. In Idukki alone, thousands of acres of land have been encroached on using fake land deeds,” he says. The Pettimudi tragedy has also exposed the class divide. The tribals, estate workers and the fishermen are deprived of their rightful ownership of habitable land. “The government should have put the taluk land boards in mission mode to identify areas for the safe relocation of the landless and the marginalised,” he says.
It’s an argument upheld by the plantation workers of Munnar who continue to live in the Raj-era labour lines on hill slopes without ownership while the managerial staff reside in posh bungalows atop hills. The plantation sector might have witnessed mechanisation and kept pace with the times, but the lot of the estate workers has remained unchanged, they say.
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An official of the KDHP states that the company has allotted accommodation to the families from Pettimudi that have lost their living quarters in the landslip. It’s also providing assistance to the few surviving kin of the deceased. “The layams remain one of the best models of safe living,” says Mohan C. Varghese, KDHP vice president. “It’s a solid structure and a safe building to live in. We have not had any such incident in the last 70-80 years,” he says, blaming the tragedy on the excessive downpour.
The company says it’s carrying out annual maintenance of the lines, which are electrified and with basic amenities.
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“But the workers’ lives will not improve unless there is a major revision of the labour laws,” says Gomathi, a member of the Devikulam Block Panchayat and leader of the iconic Pengal Otrumai collective, a women’s movement that led a strike against labour exploitation in the tea plantation sector in Munnar in 2015. “There’s been an increase in the wages earned by workers over the years. But in comparison with the rising costs of living, that’s a pittance. Climate change may have made landslides inescapable, but does that mean people should die? Unless the government acts, there are many Pettimudis waiting to happen in Munnar,” she says mincing no words.