On the rainy dark frightening night of August 8, 2018, the Tribal (Adivasis) people of Vaithiri in Wayanad shuddered in fear in the thirty major/mild cloudbursts in that single night. In darkness, it was difficult for people to know what was happening and they ran down the high mountains for shelter in the thick forest. Water was rushing down everywhere with great force carrying along with it big rocks, uprooted trees and huge chunks of soil. People were scared of encountering the wild elephants roaming around freely in the residential areas. As they heard loud noises of rolling of stones and falling trees people took shelter in the nearby areas. In the morning they realized what had happened and the authorities moved them safely to shelter homes set up by the government.
For hours SCNs Vandana Vellaringatt and Malini Manjoly traveled through deep woods crossing many risky wetlands over loose mud, streams and damaged roads to meet some of those who are severely affected by the cloudbursts. Cecily, one of the former employees of the Children’s home of Nazareth Convent, Kakkavayal accompanied them. The plantation area is known as the Chirapunji of Kerala gets the most precipitation in Kerala but this year the rain was doubled. In this place, a house was completely washed away and the area is leveled where their small plastic dwelling stood. And all their meager personal belongings are seen scattered around on both sides of the stream. Since many bridges are washed away the vehicles cannot go across and we had to do a lot of walking.
In Cecily’s village, ‘Fifty Acres’, (place name) Rajita and Girish had built a small concrete house with the help from the government and their relatives. They shifted all their belongings from their plastic dwelling to their new house during the day and that same night was the cloud bursts which took away all their belongings with the house. In fact, the course of the strong currents of water together with the trees, huge stones, and soil changed its course and saved a family of eight people. Rajita had mortgaged her gold chain for building the new house and kept the tali (sign of marriage) tied to a sari in the cupboard. When the water receded she found the sari with the tali stuck in the stream down. People were very grateful for seeing the providence of God in saving their lives though they lost all their material belongings and most of the land.
During the land reform, the government distributed five acres of land to the Adivasis who worked for years in its cardamom plantation in Wayanad district. For Centuries Wayanad has been exporting spices like cardamom, pepper and coffee and tea. Throughout the year Wayanad has a cool climate.
Though the Adivasis are settled there they cannot cut down trees and or kill any wild animals. It is a constant struggle for them to make a living under the tree shade since it is a restricted forest area. They live in thick forest areas. Wild elephants and boars destroy their crops in the nights and during the day the monkeys. People are extremely poor. The burden of huge debts overwhelms many. The problem of alcoholism among men is common. Five different groups of Adivasis are settled in the area. Education is very low among those who are at the lowest strata of the society.
In Anghara, Pozhuthana, two houses were completely washed away by the cloudbursts and four houses were severely damaged. There was an unearthed auto rickshaw. We also saw a house which was fully under the mud and later cleared.
The rebuilding of their lives will take years to come. With little education or any outside financial help, Adiviasis will take years to get back to their feet especially to make a decent living. Many of them lost most of the land. The topsoil is washed away left with huge rocks and fallen trees. The government is trying to do its bit to help the situation.
What is amazing is the resilience of the poor and their faith. All the people stood together regardless of caste and creed to help one another in the emergency need. As we were traveling we met the twins, Anusha and Anushri who stayed in our children’s home for studies and completed their matriculation with good marks. They are Tribal Christians. We found forty-eight Catholic families in this mountainous area. On Sundays, they walk for hours to reach the only Mass sub-station center. We found a group of religious women and lay teachers from Vaithiri teaching the young children catechism and bible. The small hall is full on Sundays. Though a few people shared with us their heartrending living conditions most expressed their gratitude that no life was lost in that fateful night given the difficult terrain of the place.
Malini Manjoly, SCN