Cuddalore: Broken branches of their cashew tree saved the lives of K Balakrishnan and his wife Kalyani when the monster flood engulfed their village in Tamil
Nadu's Cuddalore district.
Shivers went down the spines of the landless Dalit couple on November 9, when water gushed into their thatched hut at Periyakattupalayam, rising menacingly by the minute.
"The speed and volume of water flow was threatening and it soon began filling the hut. When we tried to get out, we saw the entire neighbourhood was rapidly getting flooded," said Balakrishnan, recounting the horror.
He said the only option for them was to climb the loft. "The loft became very shaky. Hence, I and my wife climbed a litter higher and clung on to the central supporting bamboo of the hut and placed our legs over another bamboo," he told PTI.
"Soon, the front legs (bamboos) of the hut caved and we began seriously doubting our chances of survival. Luckily, when the hut began shaking vigorously, some bamboo poles in got stuck in the fallen branches of our broken cashew tree," he said, lending a prop to the hut and preventing it from falling and being swept away by the violent current.
As the water level kept increasing, the terrified couple removed patches of the thatched roof and, craning their necks out, waited for help. "In that position we kept crying for help for seven hours," he recalled.
The couple was rescued after Balakrishnan's nephew and another relative spotted them. "The broken branches of our cashew tree made all the difference between life and death.
Without them, we would have been dead," he said. D Samydurai, another resident of the village, said the next day people came to know that ten people had been swept away by the violent currents. Bodies were found stuck in branches of trees and floating on turgid waters.
A small-time sound service entrepreneur, Samydurai lost Rs 45,000 worth of equipment including speakers and amplifiers.
Samydurai said water from the overflowing mines of the Neyveli Lignite Corporation made things worse.
Today, the Dalit colony of Periakattupalayam has been reduced to a ghost town with most residents moving to a relief camp nearby. While most huts have been washed away, tiled and partly concrete tenements are badly damaged.
Samydurai alleged bias in awarding compensation to those whose houses were destroyed.
"A landlord gets the same compensation for the loss of a dwelling unit just like a landless labourer," he said.
Still saddled with completing housing schemes initiated for those hit by calamities like cyclone Thane in Cuddalore District, the Tamil Nadu government is exploring the possibility of roping in NGOs to supplement its efforts to construct safe houses for the flood victims.
As many as 50,000 dwellings were either damaged fully or partially in Cuddalore district and the government has provided a compensation of Rs 30 crore.
Residents of low-lying areas along the banks of River Gedilam like S Senthil and B Arivalagan of Purushottaman Nagar said safe housing alone could be the answer to the problems they face during such natural calamities. Their Below Poverty Line (BPL) families are dependent on the state for housing.
In several other areas including Kurijipadi, Visur and Periyakattupalayam the victims, many of whom are still in relief camps, have sought government's intervention for constructing houses for them.
S Rajavelu of Visur said villagers have demanded an alternative dwelling site and safe houses. Tamil Nadu Rural Development Secretary Gagandeep Singh Bedi said the demand was under consideration.
"For inmates of relief camp in Periyakattupalayam, houses will be built and an area has been earmarked," he said.
A senior district official said a meeting was held with NGOs to explore whether they could help in the massive rehabilitation efforts launched by the government.
"About 10-12 NGOs have shown interest in construction of pucca houses for the poorest of poor in Cuddalore District," he said, adding talks were in the preliminary stages.
"The government's contribution and that of the NGOs was deliberated upon for construction of permanent houses. They have said that they will come back to us," he said.
On December 14, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to sanction a special scheme for constructing 50,000 houses for urban poor in Tamil Nadu at a cost of Rs 5,000 crore.
Meanwhile, over 100 Dalits of Periyakattupalayam who lost their dwellings, continue to live in a temporary shelter.
Amid a group of women talking listlessly as children frolicked around, sat a student Jaya, engrossed in her chemistry text book in a tin-roofed room allotted to her family.
"I feel happy studying," said Jaya, a student of Jawahar Science College in Neyveli.
The camp has water and power supply, LED lamps, table fans, a common kitchen and toilets. Divided into 48 rooms, 113 people are living here.
Some inmates like Kavitha and Veeramuthu spoke about lack of kerosene to light up stoves. They complained about non-supply of essential commodities by the government.
"When we go to pick up twigs to light the stoves, people here object. Volunteers visiting us provide support, they get us essential supplies like rice, dal and vegetables," they said.
Bedi said land has been earmarked by the Cuddalore District Collector for them and soon they would be getting safe houses.
"I have visited this camp at least 20 times to ensure that the inmates do not have problems. Their grievances are being addressed," he said.