Pettimudi (Munnar) Tragedy: Continuing Climate Change Disasters, Lack of Preparedness and Failures in Delivering Relief

THE catastrophic landslide of August 6 at Pettimudi, Rajamala, which is located 20 km from  Munnar town and about 38 km away from Painavu, the district headquarters of Idukki, is known to have claimed at least 83 lives of tea estate workers including their families compris-ing women, children, and the elderly. After more than ten days of rescue efforts, only 58 bod-ies have so far been recovered. A number of bodies were found at locations nearly 2 kms downhill  and perhaps many will continue to lie buried under the rubble.

Media reports citing local sources indicate that the number of casualties may be well over a hundred. A birthday celebration and a ‘bangle-wearing’ ceremony attended by nearly thirty relatives and guests visiting from other parts had taken place in two of the collapsed labour line houses. It is likely that some of these guests were in the two houses on that fateful night. However, Tata Consumer Products Limited, in whose possession the tea estate and the land  is, would acknowledge the number of dead and missing only on the basis of a list of author-ised occupants as noted in the estate records. The Kerala government too seems to be of the same view.

Relief announced by the Chief Minister:

Critical questions were widely raised about the inadequacy of the immediate relief an-nounced for the families of the deceased in Pettimudi. The discriminatory nature of the an-nouncement of relief amounts offered to families was also pointed out citing the example of the air crash in Calicut on August 7. In the former case it was just Rs 5 lakhs in respect of each deceased, whereas in the latter, relief amount was nearly double.  However, it was later clarified that the relief announced by the Chief Minister in the case of Pettimudi victims was just part of a larger package of rehabilitation to be undertaken by the government after tak-ing stock of detailed aspects of loss of lives and property.  The Chief Minister subsequently visited the site and announced that all survivors of the totally landless victims would be pro-vided with governmental support in procuring new land and shelters for them.

In the above circumstances, it is imperative that the government of Kerala take urgent steps to expedite the assessment of loss of lives and the loss of moveable and immoveable proper-ties of poor estate workers. Proper followup measures, putting in place adequate mecha-nisms to compensate and deliver relief in a convincing and transparent manner are equally important. Particularly, estate workers of this region and society at large should be taken into confidence through  concrete action. Tata and Co. should also not be allowed to escape the responsibility in their capacity as employers in providing relief to the survivors and solving the long pending demands for decent housing for workers.

Against the backdrop of the Pettimudi tragedy, some of the questions raised in 2015 by the women estate workers who led a historic and partly successful agitation of tea estate workers in the Munnar region come to the fore once again. Pombilai Orumai, the organisation  which was led by two women estate workers Ms Gomati and Ms Lisi could succeed in getting aver-age wages in tea estate enhanced from just around Rs 200/- to Rs 385/- . Many other demands such as distribution of land to the landless, adequate  housing for all estate workers and better educational facilities for children could not be pursued by the organization for many reasons . In this scenario, serious differences of opinion within the leadership and the resultant split in the organisation were a contributing factor.

In the aftermath of the Pettumudi disaster, Ms Gomati wanted to meet the Chief Minister as he arrived few days ago in Munnar to visit the scene of the disaster. She was not only denied permission to meet the CM but was also forcibly removed and apprehended by the police. In a passionate appeal to the Kerala Government and the people, Gomati described the pathetic social and economic situation, problems of landlessness, structural discrimination suffered by estate workers at the hands of not just the estate owners like the Tatas but also under the elected governments.

Another important grievance of estate workers is being denied housing after retirement un-less any of their children is enrolled as a worker. The retirement benefits and savings available for an estate worker are generally not sufficient to buy land or settle elsewhere and hence many estate workers are virtually compelled to make their children work in the estate just for the sake of shelter.

According to the officially acknowledged data both by the Tatas and the government, in the Munnar region alone. They are all estate workers from different generations whose living spaces are extremely constrained because of landlessness, lack of accommodation, and  bifurcated units of families having to live under one roof.

Pettimudi Landslide :

Far too often, natural disasters of this nature are attributed to human interference. However, this is not the case in Pettimudi and the surrounding region. Since 2018, Kerala has experienced destructive August floods and landslides for the third time in a row.
While the devastating floods of 2018 took the lives of over 486 people from almost all dis-tricts, over sixty deaths were caused by major landslides in the Western Ghats regions of Thrissur, Waynad,  and Idukki districts. Agricultural and other sources of income of people of the entire state were irrecoverably affected. They were not adequately compensated by the relief package either.

In the middle of August of 2019, floods returned to Kerala and landslide wreaked havoc in Kavalappara and Puthumala, respectively of  Malappuram and Waynad districts claiming 59 and 19  lives and entire land and properties of the affected families. One may remember that the normal pattern of southwest monsoon in Kerala is one that begins with the month of June and gains maximum intensity towards the middle of July to recede gradually in the weeks following. The state which used to get rains in a somewhat distributed manner for six months now finds the pattern severely altered for the last three consecutive years. Some of the worst tragedies have now been experienced in the earlier halves of August. These were also marked by exceptionally phenomenal and unprecedented spells of rainfall in shorter spans in the affected locations, which underlines the dire necessity of administrative prepar-edness for the serious consequences and challenges of climate change.

Against the backdrop of the calamities that occurred in 2019, the government of Kerala had appointed a committee of experts to review the situation and recommend most suitable re-medial and preparatory measures to be taken by the administration. Dr P R Arun, who is a scientist with the ground water division of Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM) and a member of the above committee, has made separate observa-tions about Kavalappara and Puthumala tragedies of 2019 and about the latest major calami-ty at  Pottumudi this year.

In the case of Kavalappara landslide in Malappuram district, Dr Arun observes that large scale human interference had obstructed the natural courses of downward flow of streams and rivulets. This, together with digging up of the top soil upto a depth of 70 cms for making thousands of large pits for planting rubber in a nearby area could indeed have contributed to the tragedy. These local interference factors in combination with phenomenally heavy rains in the locality became the ultimate cause of the major landslide that literally washed off a community claiming 59 lives. At the same time, Dr Arun observes that the causative factors of  Puthumala landslide were different. He believes that multiple cloudbursts and unusually heavy rains in the interior of forests had generated a huge volume of water that temporarily gathered causing water levels to rise as high as the crowns of many big standing trees. As the downpours continued, pressure of flowing water atop as well as within the dam-like struc-ture brought about its destruction. This resulted in enormous volumes of earth sliding down-wards along with gushing waters, wreaking havoc in the human habitat.

Coming to the 2020 August tragedy in Pettimudi, Dr Arun observes that the landslide is likely to have occurred independently of local human interference. Huge clusters of rain clouds seem to have formed deep inside the forests, as a result of which rainfall became exceptional-ly concentrated and heavy over a tiny portion of forests. Consequently, a major chunk of the hill itself slipped downwards destroying everything on the surface. Dr Arun suggests that this may be a phenomenon causing surfacial shifts, and when combined with human inter-ference, capable of bringing on similar disasters.. The land area of Kuttanad in Alleppy district is shown to have surfaced from the Arabian Sea as part of such phenomenon believed to have occurred between 5000 to 6000 years ago.

As long as one listens to the explanations mentioned above, there is much reason to believe that these tragic landslides could be repeated in the near future as well. Therefore, it is evi-dent that meticulous preparedness and planning at the administrative and governmental levels alone could restrict the human costs of climate change to a minimal level.

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