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Rivers Of Sorrow

Rivers Of Sorrow

Depression is what I have been suffering from for the last few days. Every time I watch television or open my Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, I see images that haunt me. The most captivating image I saw was taken by a photographer of the New Indian Express. It showed a man with a cot on his head trying to cross a bridge which is about to be washed away by the surging flood waters.

Floods do not have an epicentre, only earthquakes have it. If the floods in Kerala had an epicentre, it would have been areas like Ranny, Kozhencherry, Chengannur, Pandalam, Aranmula and Vadasserikara in Pathanamthitta district. These are areas where I grew up and I know the places like the lines on my palm. It is there that many of my relatives live.

I was depressed to hear that one of them at Vadasserikara who had to undergo a dialysis could not go to Pathanamthitta because the roads were flooded. Imagine the condition of the patients who were in the Intensive Care Unit and on ventilator at the multi-speciality Muthoot Hospital in Kozhencherry which is under water. The condition of the NSS Hospital at Pandalam is not any different.

I do not know how deep the water is in the house where my wife grew up and which we visit every time we are in Kerala.  My maternal family name is Pulickal at Ranny and all the Pulickal houses are under water. Many of my relatives had to abandon their houses and move to high-altitude areas. I have been trying to contact in vain my friend CR Sukumaran Nair who lived close to the Achenkovil at Valanchuzhy in Pathanamthitta.

I do not know what happened to the Bhagavati temple situated in a small riverine island at Valanchuzhy from where my friend used to fetch for me payasam every time we went to take bath in the river. The priest would give him a larger share, as he knew that I was at the riverbank to partake of it. Nair was untraceable because his mobile phone did not work.

Millions of Malayalees, who took pride in the fact that the state had more telephone connections than its population, stood disconnected from the world because they had phones but did not have electricity to charge them. It was harrowing to hear a young man and his sister wailing over their plight at their house, somewhere between Puthencavu and Aranmula.

They had taken shelter on the second floor of their house but they showed a video which depicted water touching the parapet of the second floor. He said that within one hour the house would be submerged. There were dozens of houses where people waited for the rescue team to arrive from the sky. I do not know what happened to them as I write this piece on Friday morning.

As children, we enjoyed floods for it gave us an opportunity to swim in the water, stay afloat in the water clutching at banana stems or inflated car tubes. We also enjoyed the holidays the government would declare for schools and colleges in the flood-hit areas.

I also grew up hearing the stories of the ’99 flood which was considered the worst the state ever witnessed. In Kerala there are some houses which were flooded during the ’99 floods. They had marked the level of the water on their doors. It seems the floods this time have surpassed all the past floods in terms of the havoc they wreaked.

There is one fundamental difference between the floods of the past and the floods of the present. No state in India has as many rivers and tributaries in so small a geographical area as Kerala. 

Take the case of the Ranni-Pandalam-Kozhencherry-Vadasserikara-Chengannur belt. All the rivers flowing through the area like the Pampa, the Achenkovil, the Kallar and the Manimala are in spate and the area is pounded from all sides by these rivers.

I still remember my visit to my sister’s house at Kottayam. She lived on the banks of a river so much so that she could wash the utensils in the river. In fact, the location of the house was one reason why we chose my brother-in-law as her spouse. Today, the same sister has returned to our house at Kayamkulam for fear of being washed away by the Meenachil river.

The ’99 flood was caused by torrential rains in the upper reaches of the river. The rivers overflew inundating vast swathes of agricultural land. The people could watch the water level rising in the rivers and move to safer places. This time the floods were not caused by the rains alone.

Because of the rains, the water level in the dams in the state rose to dangerous proportions. This forced the authorities to release water from the dams which aggravated the flood situation. If the dams were not opened, they could have burst as depicted in the movie Dam. 

Take the case of the century-old Mullaperiyar dam, built essentially to irrigate vast areas of land in Tamil Nadu. If it was not opened, it could have collapsed leading to the wiping out of the whole Idukki district in Kerala. No school, no house, no church, no temple would have withstood the water that would have flowed down from the dam. Thank Goodness that a tragedy had been averted by the timely releasing of water.

Where did the released water go? It went to the Kakki and other dams in Kerala which were already full. So, the floods were caused more by the dams than by the rains. I still remember my visits to some dams in Kerala like the Malampuzha dam and the Kakki dam which were described to me by my teachers as temples of modern India. 

It was a beautiful experience walking on the Malampuzha dam and watching the huge reservoir on one side that swarmed with fish.

Today ask any flood-hit Malayalee and he would invariably say that rivers should never be dammed. Why were the dams built? They were built for two purposes — to generate electricity and to irrigate agricultural land. Canals were built to provide water to the low-lying Kuttanand area, known at one time as the rice bowl of the state. It is ages since the canals have remained dry because farmers have found that farming was uneconomical.

Nobody could have ignored the irony that the Keralites did not have electricity even to charge their mobile phones when the dams had the peak capacity to produce electricity. The floods brought everyone on a common platform — the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the healthy and the infirm for they could do nothing when their houses were flooded quicker than they ever imagined.

I remember visiting the bridge across the Pampa at Maramon which I saw as an engineering marvel at that time. Perhaps, more impressive was the Muthoot Tower erected on the river bank. Yesterday, I realised that they were not above the flood water. 

All those who are familiar with the Bible would have remembered the portion which talks about a time when people would realise that all their money was useless when calamities struck them.

There are many who believe that what happened to Kerala is the result of God’s anger. One of my friends even suggested that it was the result of divine justice to teach the atheists and non-conformists a lesson. If one reads the passages in the Bible which describe the great flood that occurred forcing Noah to build his ark to save mankind, one would realise that the period had become notorious for corruption of all kinds and debauchery.

It is tempting to compare modern-day Kerala where priests are busy seeking anticipatory bail with the Old Testament times when women considered beauty as a curse for the powerful among the menfolk considered them as their property to use and to be thrown.

Why blame my friend when Mahatma Gandhi had himself said that the Bihar earthquake in the thirties was part of divine justice. There are powerful arguments against taking such a simplistic stand. Yet, we cannot shy away from the fact that the floods are essentially man-made. A friend sent me a picture of a flooded river with the caption in Malayalam: “When the river was mercilessly killed, nobody knew that it had a secret lover in the form of rains”.

We do not realise that when nature is tampered with, it would react in the most unpredictable way. Rivers in Kerala are most of the time just streams. This is because the dams prevent water from flowing. The rivers have become deeper and deeper because people have taken away all the sand from the rivers.

There is a scientific phenomenon called metal fatigue. Similarly, all dams built with steel and mortar suffer from metal fatigue. They may last for 100 years or 150 years. After that they will collapse like a dam collapsed at Morvi in Gujarat a few decades ago killing hundreds of people. The quantity of water the dams can hold has been decreasing because of accumulation of silt in the dams.

Hence dams have limited utility. That is why in the US no new dams are built. Instead, old dams are broken in a controlled way to minimise the damage they can cause. In a few decades from now, the US would be free of dams. The rivers would once again flow as they used to flow, naturally and without any hindrance.

Of course, there would be floods but the floods would not last for long. Once the rain stops, the excess water the river received would be emptied into the seas. A rethink on dams would be in the fitness of things.

It so happened that I was travelling through Haridwar when Kerala was suffering from floods. What I noticed was that the Ganga and the Yamuna that I saw on the way were flowing in full. What it taught me was the folly of the project to link all the North Indian rivers with the rivers in the South under what is known as the Garland Canal Scheme.

Tens of millions of crores of rupees would be required to cut open the Vindhya Ranges to let the waters from the Ganga and the Brahmaputra to reach the Kaveri and the Pampa in the south. What the protagonists of the idea do not realise is that when the rivers in the North are in spate, the rivers in the South are also in spate. If a small river like the Pampa cannot be controlled, how can the Brahmaputra and the Ganga be tamed?

It was not for no reason that environmentalists protested against the Narmada dam. The Gujaratis would realise one day that the dam built at great cost was not a blessing as they imagined it to be. But at that time Narendra Modi would not be there to take the blame. The best that we can do to nature is not to play with it.

The floods in Kerala also brought out the strength of the state. There were hundreds of people who came out of the comforts of their homes to lend a helping hand to their fellow human beings. They risked their own lives to save the lives of their relatives.

It was not for want of a desire to help that many could not help. Their own situations prevented them from doing their best. The tragedy would have been greater if the people had not stood as one in their moment of crisis. Nobody considered himself a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian when he went out of the way to give food to the marooned or to help them reach a higher place. That is the greatness of Kerala where caste and creed did not play any role when the people stood together to face the fury of nature.

Water cannot remain at one place for ever. It will eventually find its level and reach the Indian Ocean. It may take a few years to rebuild the broken roads and bridges and bring normalcy to the state. Of course, the Keralites will do so with the song “we shall overcome” on their lips. After all, there is a Chingam of prosperity after a Karkadakam of adversity.

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(Published on 20th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 34)