By Vikram Muthanna
While everyone was busy mourning Vajpayee’s death, tragedy struck Kodagu as rains and landslides swallowed everything — humans, livestock, coffee estates, vehicles and homes. On the evening of August 18, I got a call from Kushalnagar where my uncle informed me that he had taken in three families as floods made their homes uninhabitable. He also informed me that there were some camps in Suntikoppa which needed some sanitary napkins and innerwears urgently and if I could arrange for it. I loaded my Innova and left for Kodagu. I went to the district every other day after that. Here is a report of what I saw.
Triumph of Human Spirit
As I landed in Suntikoppa, I drove into the first relief camp set up at St. Mary’s School. It had sheltered 300 homeless people. There I was expecting to meet a government official but instead I met one Shubash, who is an auditor by profession. Shubash said that he and a few other locals started the relief camp as they noticed people on the streets of Suntikoppa with nowhere to go after they had fled from their homes. I also saw a few Tibetans helping out. I was informed that Tibetans were the first to respond, rushing to the camp with mats and blankets.
After leaving the relief items at St. Mary’s School, we walked over to the next camp located right in front of the school. It was on the first floor of a building that belonged to Ram Mandir Trust. Here I met another man, Shantharam Kamath, a local businessman who was distributing flash-lights to volunteers who were preparing to stay overnight to receive any people who had to be housed.
This centre too had about 300 people and a good number of them were immigrant workers from Assam and West Bengal. Here also I met numerous volunteers who were local students and businessmen. But there was no sign of any government official.
Then it was time to go see the kitchen which fed nearly a thousand people for four days before the kitchens were split for logistical reasons. The kitchen was housed in a Madrasa, which was also giving shelter to the displaced. The kitchen was big with the cooks who were relentlessly chopping, mixing and cooking. They were feeding people with a sense of service that was overwhelming.
I met Hamid Moulvi, the local priest who was managing this relief camp. He jokingly pointed towards Shubash and complained, “Shubash is supposed to help us with our accounting work. Instead, he is busy helping the victims. But thank God for such people.”
We then walked back to St. Mary’s School to meet a man named Latif. Shubash informed me that Latif had walked up a hill over a few kilometres and rescued a family.
Unfortunately, when we reached the school, he had left on another rescue mission. All I saw was one of the videos of him rescuing people from a swamp of mud up a hill.
From Suntikoppa, I drove further up to a town called Madapura where a school had been turned into a relief camp which was being run by an efficient planter named Madhu Bopanna.
Madhu informed me that after the landslides around the area, numerous people had walked to the main road and there were no government officials to help. So he and a few locals broke open the school doors and converted it into a relief camp. They could not afford to wait for government permission.
When I asked if any government help had arrived, Madhu said one official was present there just asking them how many people were in the camp, write it down and then just “hang around.”
I learnt that Madhu Bopanna had rented a generator, bought 6 barrels of diesel and brought LPG cylinders to cook and heat water for victims to bathe. He had paid for it from his own pocket !
Two days ago, this camp was shut as the victims were moved to other camps in Madikeri.
Swachh Bharat Brothers!
While I was talking to people who have survived, one boy got me a cup of tea. After handing over the cup, he pointed towards the dustbin at the end of the corridor and informed me that I should throw the tea cup in that after drinking.
I then noticed that place was clean. I asked Madhu how come there was no litter at his camp. He informed me that the boy who had served me tea, Dhillon, and his brother Deepak were from a labour line close by and had been coming everyday to the camp to help out and were always cleaning the area and reprimanding people who littered.
So impressed was he with their work-ethic and civic sense, Madhu Bopanna has adopted them and will pay for their education.
Madhu Bopanna also informed me that they did get steel tumblers and plates as they did not have enough water to wash. So they use disposable paper plates and bottle-water. But before I could ask, he added “We have an NGO from Bengaluru who has agreed to come to our relief camp to pick up waste.”
Escaped only with text books
I was also introduced to a father and son who had just escaped a landslide and had to pick up their basic belongings from the house that disappeared forever. The boy had brought just one bag of things — his 10th standard text books!
At Madapura camp I met Kaveri, an estate worker, who lives in a colony close by. She had been cooking from 6 am till 11 pm everyday for the last six days. Along with her was the local school Head Mistress who had turned into a ‘menu-master.’ Based on the expiry date of groceries, she would set the menu for the day. The day I visited, she realised that there was too much bread so they had made a bread-and-sweet milk dessert !
Kaveri also informs me that there is another problem — too many types of rice. Two types of rice cannot be cooked together as each has its own water-to-rice ratio and cooking time. So sometimes they have to cook multiple batches which means more gas and firewood is wasted. This was the same complaint even in Suntikoppa Camp and the cook there was hoping that the DC would send message to all organisations to send one type of rice.
When Relief materials became Grief materials
Yes, everyone must help in times of disaster, but do it the right way and for the right reason. I say this because as I was standing with a volunteer, a small truck arrived with 500 kgs of atta (wheat flour)! Did the company that sent this atta think relief camps have the time, the utensils and the manpower to knead dough, roast it on pans for 1,000 people? This atta only took up precious godown space which could instead store vegetables and medicines.
I also noticed that numerous organisations were sending vehicles loaded with items that was not required or would expire soon. They would also only send the driver and cleaner with an address slip. I read one. It said “Relief camp, Suntikoppa”. There are three camps in Suntikoppa, which one were they planning to send it to? What is the name of the contact person who will take the delivery? Nothing was there.
An other problem was that relief trucks would land up at odd hours and expect the volunteers to turn into porters, taking away their time to help flood victims or their rest time.
What was also happening is that sometimes drivers, unable to find addresses, would simply drop off relief materials on road and causing not only traffic jams but also relief materials going to people who did not need them.
In some cases, a few political workers stood in strategic junctions and when drivers of these relief trucks stopped to ask directions, they would direct them to their godowns or straight away unload it to be distributed to their constituencies.
Crass publicity: More disappointing was that many of these trucks had big flex posters with the name of the organisation that was sending relief material. It was such a crass way of getting publicity. The cost of making the banners would have probably bought more relief material. Just blindly collecting items from public, loading it onto a truck, putting one’s banner on it and sending it off is not service, it is not delivering relief material it’s delivering grief.
Robbery and Guns
Now, reports of robbery and loot are coming in and they are true. At one of the landslide site where we had gone, I saw a jeep coming down the treacherous path and inside were two older gentlemen and the older man in the passenger seat was holding some guns!
They stopped by us and I asked what they were doing with the guns. One of the men turned out to be ex-ZP President Ravi Kushalappa, who had rescued over 80 people from landslides. He said that when the landslide happened they just ran out of the house and did not collect anything. But when some went back to their houses to collect things, their houses had been ransacked. So now most Kodavas, who have guns at home, are rushing back to collect their guns lest some looters get their hands on the weapons and misuse them.
Kushalappa said that people who have abandoned their homes leaving behind their weapons must immediately go back and collect them if they can and if they cannot they must inform the Police Station or the officials about the weapons.
The local administration is now getting their act together but initially they were a mess. When there is a disaster such as this in remote locations, a communication centre must be set up with a government official who can address the media.
In most countries, when there is a disaster, there is a daily media-briefing so everyone is on the same page. They have press meets where the official media co-ordinator updates the media about the rescue missions carried out for the day or any other instruction for the public. But that did not happen in Kodagu. The media did not know from whom to get information on a daily basis and so rumours took over.
Surprisingly, some senior officials in our city, instead of creating an official line of communication about Kodagu disaster, started communicating on a WhatsApp group created by a local NGO! How can the media take a WhatsApp group created by a member of an NGO as the official statement of the government? Also, how can a senior official communicate in a non-official WhatsApp group during a crisis like this?
That said, the Kodagu DC has been efficient to the extent she can in a district where road access is cut off, terrain is harsh and where communication lines have disappeared. May be the Kodagu District Administration would have been better prepared if they had read their own report titled “Kodagu Disaster plan 2017-18” uploaded on July 26th of this year, just last month (See below).
Did a good Disaster Management Manual go unnoticed?
As I was looking at how the Kodagu District Administration was handling their communication, I wondered if there was any “Disaster Management Manual” and visited the Karnataka State Disaster Management Authority website. It was amazing.
The website had a list of all the camps and it even had a search feature where you could find your relatives who are housed in the relief camps. Sadly, the website was not updated. What was really impressive though is a report titled “Kodagu Disaster Management Plan 2017-2018” and it was filed on July 26, 2018.
The 102-page report is fantastic in its detail and approach to disaster management. It is available at www.kodagu.nic.in.
This report states that if there is any seismic activity, the people in seismic zone must be evacuated from there. And interestingly on the 9th of July 2018, just a month ago there were tremors.
The Kodagu District Administration says that it did inform the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre (KSNMDC) and it was apparently concluded that it was no threat. Guess the administration took the word of KSNMDC and thought it was not a problem. Of course, the administration is clear that the landslides is due to heavy rainfall and not the light earthquake. Let it be.
But while many say Kodagu has not had death due to landslides, the report states that 6 people died because of landslides in 2006 and one in 2011. Interestingly, the report lists out the places that are vulnerable — Madikeri and Somwarpet. It also says when the landslides will occur — in the month of July and August ! This has come true, just one month after this report was filed !
If one goes through the report, all you can say is that it is unfortunate that such a good disaster management manual could not be efficiently put into practice. May be the tragedy struck too soon and next time Kodagu District Administration will be better prepared.
Now, NGRI (National Geophysical Research Institute) has set up a seismic monitoring centre in Navodaya Vidyalaya to closely monitor seismic activity in and around Kodagu. It’s a start.
Interestingly, Mysuru has no disaster management plan. May be praying to ‘Goddess Chamundeshwari’ is the plan to keep us safe for now!
West Bengal problem, vote bank politics and the real victims
Most of the people housed in relief camps are from either Assam or West Bengal. They are immigrant workers who visit Kodagu for work during a particular season and then return to their homes when done. Sadly, there is an attempt being made to use this disaster to keep these immigrants permanently in Kodagu to build a vote bank for a particular political party.
It seems like “Operation West Bengal” is at play in Kodagu. If this attempt to keep these workers here in Kodagu succeeds, then the demography and inherent culture of this hilly district is bound to change forever.
Now, there is no work in the estates for a while so may be the government can buy these immigrant workers train tickets so they can go back home. Also these temporary immigrant workers came with nothing and so have not lost anything. But the locals have lost their homes and land.
The perception hurting people of Kodagu
Meanwhile, there is a perception that most planters in Kodagu are big estate owners and rich. That is not true at all. There are many people in Kodagu who are very small planters with 3 to 5 acres of land. And many of them are from the area where the landslides have happened and have lost their estates. These are the real people who need help to rebuild their lives.
I suspect this perception that all coffee planters in Kodagu are well off and the fact that Kodagu is not a vote bank may be discouraging the government from wholeheartedly helping the people of Kodagu. I suspect this because of what I heard.
Day before yesterday while I was driving towards a relief camp, I met Mysuru-Kodagu MP Pratap Simha. I stood there talking to him when some officials, who were doing their rounds to assess the crop loss, stopped by to offer their salutes.
The MP asked them how many acres of estate were lost, the official said 2,500 acres and added “but sir, the Minister says it’s too much, reduce it.” I was shocked. The Kodagu MP replied, “Is the Minister giving it from his pocket? Give the number as you have recorded we’ll see what happens.” Let’s hope the MP can take on the Minister.
Politicians and officers do work
Contrary to popular perception, the politicians and officers are indeed working in Kodagu. May be the way they are working is not efficient. Yes, initially the Kodagu DC and officers got it all wrong but in the last few days the government’s presence can be felt and it is a positive presence.
In my few days in Kodagu, I witnessed a few politicians who visited the camps. All of them came with a camera crew. Prajwal Revanna came and left with no significant contribution. Then came C.T. Ravi of BJP, he walked around but didn’t ask a single question nor offer any tangible help. He moved with the cameras. I did not see any presence of Congress leaders.
I also met MP Pratap Simha who had lunch at the relief camp I was also visiting. Though he is a ‘compulsive social media photo uploader’, he did not have any TV crew around him. In fact, I heard a relief worker telling him that he was the only politician who had visited them without a TV camera crew. I also saw Madikeri MLA Appachu Ranjan and Minister S.R. Mahesh busy co-ordinating road clearance and rescue operations.
I left Kodagu this morning and after visiting numerous relief camps and landslide sites, I had witnessed the good, bad and the ugly — the good of the common people, the bad of the people who loot even at a time like this and the ugliness of creeping politicisation of the disaster.
Every time I walked out of a relief camp, most of them run by common people who came together to help, made me proud that even if our government cannot come to our rescue immediately, people will.
I realised that there are enough people, even in this remote hilly district, who will save each other, feed each other and give all a chance to live and survive with dignity in spite of attempts of politicians to divide them.