‘Bodies appeared like they were still asleep’: Eyewitnesses recount Kerala landslide

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It was as if they were sleeping, eyewitnesses recalled. Some of the victims of a devastating landslide in Kerala last week died in their sleep, so when their bodies were recovered, it looked like they were still sleeping. Others had just celebrated a birthday. Forty-three dead bodies have been retrieved so far, while many others are still missing, after a massive landslide in Kerala. The state, which had been ravaged by consecutive floods in 2018 and 2019, woke up to yet another monsoon-related disaster on Friday morning.

Pettimudi, a quiet village on the hilltop of Munnar Panchayat in Idukki district was shaken awake in the middle of the night due to the landslide and it would be hours before anyone in the outside world would even come to know of it. The people who lost their lives and who are missing were workers of tea estates. Many were natives of Tamil Nadu who had migrated to Idukki and had been working in tea estates for generations, from the time of the British rule. The generations that followed, have opted to work in the estates, living in layams (housing quarters).

At the time of the landslide, the layams were full of people. The children of some of the families study in Tamil Nadu or in Kerala’s towns like Pala, but were all at home due to the pandemic-induced lockdown.

Other than them, there were relatives who came for a visit from Tamil Nadu. There were 21 members at the house of former panchayat member Anand Siva at that time, including relatives who came to celebrate the birthday of a child in the family. It was dead bodies from this family that were retrieved first.

“The guests who came had brought cake,” Prasad, a journalist based out of Munnar tells TNM.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company (P) Limited, that owns the tea estates, have said that there were around 80 people. This is the official figure, while the exact number of people who were in the layams at the time of the accident is not known yet.

“The people were all mostly at their houses. Tea picking had stopped a few days ago due to the heavy rains. In Munnar, lockdown is stern as COVID-19 cases were reported in recent days, so everyone was staying at home. While most of the people in Pettimudi are native of Tamil Nadu, Malayali locals who are employees in the tea estates and those who run business in the nearby areas, were also staying there,” Prasad added.

Pettimudi is connected to Tamil Nadu through Marayur and Udumalpet. It’s around 80 kilometers to Tamil Nadu through both routes. And the proximity might have made Pettimudi an easier place for the people of Tamil Nadu to relocate. Pettimudi is situated 21 km from Munnar and the people are disconnected because of the geographical features of the area. They commute to Munnar via jeep and the entire route crosses the Eravikulam National Park.

These geographical features also resulted in the outside world learning about the tragedy only around five hours after it took place. The damaged roads and the collapsing of the arterial Periyavare bridge stood in the way of rescue workers, in reaching the spot. Electricity and communication facilities were cut off for four days prior to the landslide. 

“The people of Pettimudi use satellite phones. The phones wouldn’t have been working as there was no power. Even for those who survived the tragedy, they couldn’t inform the outside world. A family of three escaped from the landslide as their son was back from work late in the night and they were awake. Others were sleeping and the dead bodies were retrieved in the position of sleeping. The surviving family escaped through the roof of the house and found shelter in a nearby temple,” Idukki District Panchayat President Kochu Thresia Paul tells TNM.

In another concern, Pettimudi was not included in the disaster-prone area, as it was a region that was safe in the 2018 and 2019 floods.

“Pettimudi is part of Eravikulam National Park and the landslide originated from a hill in the area. It has always been one of the regions that was safe from natural disasters. The height from where the landslide occurred is yet to be assessed. The revenue department officials on Saturday used drones to assess the damage, but it didn’t work because of the mist,” Shaiju KS, a local journalist who visited Pettimudi on Saturday told TNM.

Kochu Thresia Prasad also echoes Prasad’s opinion, that the cause of the disaster in Pettimudi should be studied.

Meanwhile, the tragedy continues to play out. The post-mortem of the deceased is being done at a shed, two to three kilometers away from the spot, on tables that were set up. The dead bodies were being cremated in a plot inside the tea estate as the cemetery for the tea workers is full.